Sonoma Wine Country Weekend Shines, Sets Records 4 min read

There is no luggage rack on a hearse. - Henry Trione


After months of eagerly anticipation, one of my favorite annual events, Sonoma Wine Country Weekend (SWCW), finally arrived. The benefit raises money for local children’s charities. Sonoma County spans 16 appellations and 40 school districts, with many children’s charities in need of help. Last year, the event raised $3.3 million and hope ran high that this year will eclipse the last.


The event began on a bright, windy, Friday evening as guests gathered for an evening of food, wine and fun at Francis Ford Coppola Winery‘s Geyserville location. Sonoma Starlight is a kick-off event that features several food stations scattered throughout, along wine tables, arranged by varietal. Featured chefs were John Toulze and Sondra Bernstein of The Girl & The Fig in Sonoma, both known for their farm-to-table prowess. Guests danced late into the evening to the 80s hits, performed by the band Notorious.


Saturday continued with the marquee Taste of Sonoma event, held at the celebrated MacMurray Ranch. The wine tents were arranged by appellation, a terrific feature that affords guests the opportunity to taste wines in a contextual setting so as to learn what works well for their own palates. Many wine stations featured a recommended bite of food, prepared by a local chef. The dominant vintages poured were 2012 and 2013, along with a smattering of 2014s. ’12 and ’13 are outrageously good vintages in California.  Many vintners and viticulturalists joked that, if you didn’t make good wine in these two vintages, you should get out of the business. I agree with this sentiment. Perfect weather patterns facilitated even ripening, which in turn produced spectacular fruit. The only challenge was to stay out of nature’s way. The wines were uniformly excellent; all that is left is for the consumer is to decide which stylistic preferences please them most. Saturday also featured culinary and wine seminars that offered insight and great take-home tips.


The weekend culminated with the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction at Chateau St. Jean Winery. This year the co-chairs were Joe Anderson/Mary Dewane of Benovia, Jean-Charles Boisset of JCB and restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark. They and the Sonoma Vintners team worked tirelessly all year on what turned out to be an “affaire de coeur,” full of tender, heartfelt moments and an outpouring of goodwill.


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The event started by officially retiring paddle #1, belonging to an avid philanthropist who supported SWCW for years. His widow gave a touching tribute to this local legend. Later on, his paddle went up one final time, raised by his wife for Fund the Future.


Many guests came from all corners of the US to celebrate Sonoma and contribute to its well-being. They were greeted by the auction chairs with heartfelt “No matter where your home is, when you are here, Sonoma is your home!”


Bidding during the auction was energetic. Tom Klein, of Rodney Strong Vineyards, grabbed a microphone and pronounced, “Make me pay!” He offered to match every donation for up to $100K. His money was spent in minutes, with paddles going up in the air with lightening speed. One lot was doubled, raising $320K. Many others received additional last minute perks to entice the attendees to bid higher. It was a beautifully orchestrated affair, complete with astounding library wines poured out of large formats. In addition, glorious food fare was prepared by culinary notables such as Douglas Keane (Cyrus), Andrew Cain (Sante Restaurant), and Robert “Buttercup” Nieto (Jackson Family Wines). Keane’s fried chicken rivaled Thomas Keller’s. Kosta Browne‘s 2007 Koplen, poured from 3L, gave me goosebumps.


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Douglas Keane’s savory fried chicken.


The ultimate experience, however, didn’t come from a luxurious plate of food or an impressive sip of wine. It came from watching people feel genuinely moved. There were many tears in the room when the children, who benefited from the programs, came to the stage and shared their gratitude. It became quickly apparent, as the auction gained momentum, that this will become a very special moment in Sonoma charitable history. In addition to offering their wine, many vintners pledged large cash gifts, including Bill Price of Three Sticks, who offered $150K.


Robert and Kim Kiyosaki bid on several lots, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.

Robert and Kim Kiyosaki bid on several lots, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.


In the end, the auction raised $4.5 Million, shattering previous records. This year’s emphasis was on children’s literacy charities, with Fund the Future program collecting $1.9M. The sight of a community coming together to help their kids was awe-inspiring. These folks are the definition of self-reliance. Rather than reaching for a government grant, they reached deep into their hearts and open their checkbooks to show the world how it’s done.


A community that cares for their children is a community that knows where the real treasures lie. It’s never about what you keep, and always about what you give away.


Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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