Sonoma Wine Country Weekend seeks to top last year’s success

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Meet Jean Arnold Sessions

Jean Arnold Sessions served as president of Hanzell Vineyards for a decade and she’s founder of the Jean Arnold Group, a wine industry consulting firm, and creator of Women in the Business of Wine, a web-based mentoring resource for women in the wine industry. She served on the board of directors for the Sonoma County Vintners from 2003 to 2009, was named interim director in February 2016 and executive director in June.

“This is an exciting time to be the voice of the Sonoma County’s vintners,” she says. “We have a new web site and we are working hard on improving our communication to all audiences, whether that means winemakers, growers, tourists or local government.” In the year ahead, Sessions will be trying to increase the visibility of the other AVAs in the county, beyond those based in Sonoma Valley.

She also knows that she plays a key role in helping wineries to manage and plan around rapid growth, particularly when it comes to expansions, events and traffic. “We need to balance economic growth with keeping our rural lifestyle and honoring our roots,” she said. “We are providing ways for our members to share best practices and helping them improve communication with local governments and the public.”

Thanks to the tremendous success of Wine Country Weekend, Sessions is also quickly getting up to speed on the ins and outs of large-scale strategic charitable giving.

Facing both the pressure of topping last year’s haul of $5.5 million and the looming due date for her second child, Sonoma Wine County Weekend co-producer Maureen Cottingham is surprisingly cheerful and calm.

Cottingham, director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, and newly appointed Sonoma County Vintners executive director Jean Arnold Sessions, weaved their way through eye-level boxes and wine cases crowding Cottingham’s small office on Broadway this week to provide a peek into what the 6,000 plus Wine Country Weekend expected partygoers can look forward to.

The weekend kicked off last night with its “Big Bottle Barn Party” at Atwood Ranch, and continues tonight with the “Sonoma Starlight” party at Francis Ford Coppola Winery; on Saturday with “Taste of Sonoma” at MacMurray Ranch; and the finale is Sunday’s “Harvest Wine Auction” at Chateau St. Jean. All events, including the $500 tickets to the auction, were sold out as of press time.

Over the course of the long weekend, more than 200 of Sonoma’s top winemakers and growers, along with 85 of the area’s best chefs, participate – staffing staff booths, offering demonstrations and providing tastings.

Guests this year will notice more chefs, the addition of sponsor Sunset magazine’s Airstream lounge, a musical performance at the auction and a special tribute to the final year of the Magnum Force dancers who have for many years performed in support of a large bottle auction lot.

Further changes will follow in 2017 when almost every party site is moved. “We represent all of the growers and wineries across the county and going forward the locations will change annually to showcase different areas,” said Sessions.

Each year the auction theme is chosen based on suggestions from members, with an emphasis on ideas that can be colorful, with good music and flavorful food,” explained Cottingham. This year it’s “From Sonoma to Marrakesh.”

Sunday’s auction will contain 38 live items and two buy-in “party boards,” according to Cottingham. “Thanks in part to our honorary chairs, Dan Kosta and Mark and Terri Stark, we have some incredible items this year including over-the-top winemaker-led trips to Scotland, New Zealand and Morocco.”

Putting on an event of this magnitude requires three year-round full-time staffers and more than 400 volunteers.

According to Sessions and Cottingham, the weekend is now hands-down the county’s largest charity event, with the proceeds providing a big boost to local charities across three categories: education, environment and health and welfare.

Last year alone, the weekend’s four events resulted in WCW grants in excess of $3.4 million. “We have a real economic impact on the county,” said Sessions. “And our growers and winemakers take that privilege and responsibility very seriously.”

Thanks in part to the more that 4,000 bottles of wine expected to be consumed this weekend, Cottingham has her fingers crossed to match or exceed last year’s number. “We use other auctions held right before us as a gauge, and both Napa and Naples were down slightly this year. But our members are determined to buck the trend,” she said.

Wine Spectator says that Sonoma’s auction is now the third biggest, after Napa ($16 million) and Naples ($12 million). As recently as 2008, Sonoma brought in around $650,000, but in recent years the tally has jumped dramatically.

Meet Jean Arnold Sessions

Jean Arnold Sessions served as president of Hanzell Vineyards for a decade and she’s founder of the Jean Arnold Group, a wine industry consulting firm, and creator of Women in the Business of Wine, a web-based mentoring resource for women in the wine industry. She served on the board of directors for the Sonoma County Vintners from 2003 to 2009, was named interim director in February 2016 and executive director in June.

“This is an exciting time to be the voice of the Sonoma County’s vintners,” she says. “We have a new web site and we are working hard on improving our communication to all audiences, whether that means winemakers, growers, tourists or local government.” In the year ahead, Sessions will be trying to increase the visibility of the other AVAs in the county, beyond those based in Sonoma Valley.

She also knows that she plays a key role in helping wineries to manage and plan around rapid growth, particularly when it comes to expansions, events and traffic. “We need to balance economic growth with keeping our rural lifestyle and honoring our roots,” she said. “We are providing ways for our members to share best practices and helping them improve communication with local governments and the public.”

Thanks to the tremendous success of Wine Country Weekend, Sessions is also quickly getting up to speed on the ins and outs of large-scale strategic charitable giving.

Wine Country Weekend is now the largest grant giver in Sonoma County outside of private funders. “And with more profit comes more responsibility,” said Cottingham. To that end, in 2015, the WCW staff enlisted the Sonoma County Community Foundation to oversee grant giving.

Wine Country Weekend also set aside funds for an independent company to evaluate the programs it funds. “Our boards and our members want assurances that the grants made possible by the event are truly moving the needle and making an impact,” said Cottingham.

For the past three years, WCW has directed all of the proceeds from its Fund-A-Need paddle raising at the Sunday auction – $4 million to date – to a Fund the Future program targeting literacy in Sonoma County. The boards of the two vintners groups recently voted to extend this initiative another three years.

“We are really serious about doing whatever it takes to get more children in the area reading at grade level,” said Cottingham. Among the Valley programs to receive funds include the Summer Reading & Writing Academy, the Grade Level Proficiency Project, Schools of Hope and Project Learn at the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley.

In addition, more than $1.5 million in WCW community grants – ranging from $2,000 to $50,000 – were awarded to 81 charitable groups located across Sonoma County in the months following last year’s event.

“It’s a fun party for sure,” said Cottingham, “but the takeaway I hear from our members is how moved they are by the impact that they can have collectively investing back into the future of their communities thanks to this event.”

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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