SONOMA, Calif. — Charles Saunders fretted over the fact that the capers weren't local.
The four-day event was the ninth Sonoma County Wine Auction and Showcase, and, as with the previous events, it had its share of wine-related activities.
But at the gala evening dinner, after the auction, the real purpose of this epicurean festival could be seen. Saunders, new chef at the elegant Sonoma Mission Inn, agonized because his first course of roasted red and yellow peppers with olive oil and Sonoma dried Jack cheese would have capers on the plate.
He could find no Sonoma capers.
"That's the only thing on the menu tonight that's not from Sonoma," said Forest Tancer, wine maker for Iron Horse Vineyards and one of the coordinators of this event. Tancer said Saunders wanted to advertise that everything he served came from within the county.
Pride in Food
But the success of the event was clear. Not only were the auction and its related events sold out well before Thursday night's inaugural barbecue at Chalk Hill Vineyards, but the theme, Bounty of the County, fully expressed the area's pride in food.
"This is an agricultural area, and unless we promote and defend that, we'll see it disappear," said Patrick Campbell, owner and wine maker of Laurel Glen Vineyards. "We produce wonderful foods, and unless we support all (local producers), people will start building houses."
The auction, coming two months after the Napa Valley's own auction, prompted many attendees to try to compare the two. Comparison, though, is difficult other than to note that Napa's event, also 9 years old, offers much more formality and elegance in dining.
Linda Johnson, indefatigable coordinator of the event and executive director of the Sonoma County Wineries Assn., pointed up the major difference.
"We don't have the older wines that Napa does," she said, noting that Sonoma is an older wine-growing region, but for most of its past, wineries sold what they made, rarely holding back "wine libraries" they could later use for promotion. "Our auction is based on the future, like our barrel lots."
Moreover, Sonoma stages a casual festival that seemingly has less structure than Napa's but certainly more of a party-like feel. Doing things here seems easier than at Napa's event, where buses take participants to parking-cramped locations.
At Friday night's 1987 barrel tasting, auction and dinner at Iron Horse, for example, parking was available for all guests, who could take a trolley up the hill to the event, or attendees could walk through gardens planted by Iron Horse owners Barry and Audrey Sterling.
At the top was a single dinner table. It was 512 feet long, and after more than 500 persons dined, the winery set out to determine if the Guinness Book of World Records would add an entry to its next edition: longest dinner table.
Sonoma's local foods were displayed handsomely at the barrel auction, where an enormous array of produce, seemingly fresh, sat in wicker baskets. There were peppers and tiny potatoes, zucchini and vine-ripened tomatoes and edible flowers. The fruits and vegetables had been blanched and were edible.
At the Iron Horse dinner that followed, six cuisine artists, including famed local chefs John Ash and Michael Hirschberg, prepared a four-course meal featuring local produce.
The next day, food was everywhere at the Sonoma Mission Inn, where owner Peter Henry erected a temporary kitchen on the front lawn so lunch and dinner could be prepared without affecting his breakfast buffet, which featured Mexican specialties and fresh fruit.
The lunch was a buffet, too, featuring smoked duck, loin of pork, local greens (including tiny yellow tomatoes), Laura Chenel's goat cheeses, and Sonoma lamb.
Formality wasn't an issue. As auctioneer Fritz Hatton of Christie, Manson & Woods auction house regaled the crowd under a pink tent at the Inn, bidders could wend their way through the eating line to fill their plates with oodles of goodies and then continue to bid between bites.
Breaking the auction up into two portions, the barrels sold on Friday and the bottles on Saturday, made the second half less lengthy, and bidders said they liked the idea.
For the record, the largest price paid for a barrel of wine (which will make about 40 cases of wine) was the $8,700 paid by Mark Miller, chef at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., for the barrel of 1987 Iron Horse Pinot Noir. That works out to more than $215 per case, more than $18 a bottle.
Largest bidder for the combined auction was James Cimino of Sun Valley, Ida., who paid $14,010 for various lots of wine, most of them barrels.
Total proceeds from the event--$295,200--exceeded last year's total of $240,000. Napa raised more than $465,000 at its auction this year, but auctioned more than 350 lots of wine. Sonoma kept the number of lots down (174) and made them of better quality than in past years.