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Wine Country's Top Food & Wine Festivals This Fall

chef Kelly McCown sturgeon Galdones Photography

Chef Kelly McCown of Goose & Gander seasons his spit roasted sturgeon at Heritage Fire 2013 / Galdones Photography

One of the covetable challenges of living in or near Wine Country is the abundance of first-class food and wine festivals occurring nearly every weekend—plus many weekdays—throughout the year.

With so many temptations, how’s a party-goer to plan? That's why we put together this handy list of our top choices for events happening through the end of 2014. These six fests were chosen for the most delicious eats and drinks, most winsome entertainment, and best bang for your buck. 

West of West, Sebastopol (August 1-3)

The Saturday Grand Tasting is small, with 40 wineries pouring in a cozy tent at the Barlow, and just a few tables offering charcuterie and cheeses. But that’s one of the reasons it’s so stellar – the intimate setting means the winemakers themselves share the stories of their work. Many are boutique, small production stars who rarely offer their acclaimed cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah outside their West Sonoma County neighborhoods. Claypool Cellars, for example, or CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs, Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, or MacPhail Family Wines. New this year is a gala dinner hosted by the James Beard Award winning/nominee chefs from Statebird Provisions, Rich Table, and Bar Tartine.

Heritage Fire by Cochon 555, St. Helena (August 3)

A major part of the thrill of the boisterous fiesta at Charles Krug Winery is the meats, cooked over roaring open flame by 40+ notable chefs and butchers who show a crazy flair for theatrics (and tattoos). Last year, a brave chef roasted an entire sturgeon over a spit, while another focused on black breed chickens. This year, the 3,000 pounds of heritage proteins are slated to include goat, beef with oysters, rabbit, guinea hen, another sturgeon and more, plus wildcards like “toast and cheese on fire.” Add in lots of free-flowing wine and beer, live music, and dishes created by top restaurants like RN74, Torc, and Zazu – what’s not to get fired up about?

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, Sonoma County (August 29-31)

Sonoma County’s top wine and food artists gather for three action packed days of winery lunches and dinners, vineyard barbecues, an opening night “Starlight” supper club party at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, and the finale Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction. Some 2,500 guests snatch up every last ticket for Taste of Sonoma, a walk-around eating and drinking extravaganza of more than 200 artisan wineries, growers, chefs and food purveyors at MacMurray Ranch in Healdsburg, while the auction sells every last seat each year, too, for wine-fueled, often-a-bit-crazy bidding on things like very valuable wine collections.

Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival, Santa Rosa (September 27)

Have you tried Olga's Round Yellow Chicken, or the Pink Ping Pong? It’s impossible to not love the sometimes wacky names for heirloom tomatoes. But even better is eating them, with 175+ tomatoes offered for tasting, and also showcased in unique recipes. Comfortable shoes are recommended for the stroll-around party on the Kendall-Jackson winery lawns, and loose clothing, to better consume the works from 50+ notable chefs as they woo “best of event” votes for nibbles like tomato cotton candy, tomato macaroons, tomato sushi, and tomato snow cones.

Hopland Passport, Hopland (October 18-19)

First of all, where is Hopland? It’s a tiny, 756-person populated area in Mendocino, on the west bank of the Russian River about half an hour north of Cloverdale. It’s also home to plenty of excellent boutique wineries, most of which we’ve never heard of. Over a festive weekend, 17 destinations open their doors for sampling gorgeous Gewurztraminer from McFadden, Grenache from Campovida, and 100-year-old vine Zinfandel from Seebass. The cozy scale means no battling crowds, and extra-good food pairings like mouthwatering grilled steak and wild rice from McFadden Farm.

Flavor! Napa Valley, Napa (November 19-23)

This ambitious festival took Wine Country by storm when it debuted four years ago, and it just keeps getting more impressive, attracting big name local talent like Michael Chiarello, Larry Forgione, Christopher Kostow, Masaharu Morimoto, Charlie Palmer and more. Winemakers are top names, as well, in personal attendance at dinners, fun seminars, and cooking/sipping demonstrations. A real highlight is the workshop series called “Terroir to Table: Farm, Cellar & Kitchen Experiences,” for hands-on joy like cheese making with Wine Country fromage guru Sheana Davis.