Revamped Harvest Fair focuses on county's food, wine bounty

In several ways, this weekend's Sonoma County Harvest Fair, a fall tradition for the past 38 years, is a different event this year.

“This event is much more focused on the Sonoma County food and wine experience,” Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi said.

There will be more wine and food tasting at the event than ever, and the wildly popular Grape Stomp competition will return.

But visitors to the Harvest Fair, running Friday through Sunday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, will notice several changes:

- The high-profile Friday night “Grand Tasting” for wine and food will now run all three days.

“We've taken what had been the professional wine tastings on Saturday and Sunday, that had some cheese and crackers and stuff for you to enjoy, and made them much more of an overall taste experience, with food, wine, beer and cider,” Tesconi said.

- Admission to the tasting pavilion costs $50 for unlimited tastings. Each ticket is good for any one of the three days. In the past, patrons paid $15 for a wine glass and four tasting tickets, then $2.50 for each additional tasting.

- Admission at the gate will be free. This will include access to the Grape Stomp event, chef demonstrations, workshops and cooking competition. In previous years, admission at the gate cost $10 or $5 for kids.

Visitors who don't choose to visit the tasting pavilion can bring a picnic, buy food from outdoor vendors, or shop for Sonoma County-made wine, bee`r, foods, arts and crafts at the fair's three-day Wine Country Marketplace.

- There's a new emphasis on local beer and cider, as well as wine. “As much as we celebrate our Sonoma County wines, we have amazing Sonoma County beer. It's capturing a California and national market,” Tesconi said.

- And there's the new “World Wrapped” competition. Three finalists are each given La Tortilla wraps and a box of locally grown groceries, and then are challenged to create an original wrap in an hour.

Gone are the produce and animal exhibits, amateur hobbyist competitions and children's activities, to the dismay of some locals with fond memories of the Harvest Fair as it was back in the 1970s. “I cherish the fact that so many people had such an interest in the old Harvest Fair format,” Tesconi said. “I was here then. I was in junior high school and FFA (Future Farmers of America), and we helped sell pumpkins and apples. It was less of a wine event then.”

Sonoma County has changed, and the fair management had to face financial realities, she said. “We were experiencing a drop in attendance, especially when we looked at the huge drop in the number of kids that were attending, and therefore, in the number of families that were coming,” Tesconi said.

“In our heyday, it was about 30,000. Last year, it was more like 18,000 to 20,000,” she explained.

While general attendance slipped, interest in the wine and food sides of the Harvest Fair remained high. “We were seeing a high percentage of people who were buying admission into the fair also buying into the tasting experience, which indicated to us that it was becoming more of an adult event,” Tesconi said.

While Sonoma County has emerged as Wine Country in recent decades, the region's agricultural history still will be honored at the Sonoma County Fair every summer.

“With the shift in dates for the county fair, the Harvest Fair and county fair ended up pretty close together now. In the old days, that wasn't the case. The county fair was pretty much in July,” Tesconi recalled. “Now, with the county fair ending in mid-August, we were able to move a lot of competitive exhibits from the Harvest Fair back into the county fair.”

You can reach PD Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat .com. See his ARTS blog at arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.