Saturday June 14, 2008, Cesar Chavez Park in downtown Sacramento hosted its 6th annual Grape Escape wine and food celebration. It being my first full weekend in SacTown, I bought tickets with my wife to attend (and even had some friends that recently moved to the Bay Area come over). The Grape Escape site pitches the event as “an opportunity to sample from the region’s best wineries and restaurants for one incredible price!”
I love these types of events and think they’re great festivals to bring niches of the community together to learn about and support local businesses. This type of event (specifically the theme) is part of the reason I enjoy Northern California, and partly why I wanted to return!
Tickets were about $40/each if you bought them before arriving. This is probably my only gripe. I would hope events like this in a downtown park would be free, or closer to that, hopefully as a way for the city to invest in its people, which would in turn invest in the local farmers, restaurants, and businesses. While free may not be realistic, I do find $40 to be a bit on the high side. As to be expected though, once we passed through the gates of the park, nothing had an additional cost (except for bottled water <sigh>).
When you enter, you are given a few of the usual guide flyers, but you also receive a nice wine glass with the Grape Escape logo, as well as a nifty mini-tray/plate that has a groove to hold your wine glass. Whoever engineered this is genious! As you see to the right (my lovely wife Stephany), this allowed us to enjoy picking at foods with one hand while still maintaining our plate+glass together with the other hand. I don’t mean to over-state the simplicity here, but for an event where you’re primarily on-foot, this really helped! Once we received the glass+tray, we were welcomed by an array of stands that openly marked Cesar Chavez Park, plenty of wine and food was on the menu as we set out to claim our $40 worth admittance fee.
Among California wine’s strengths, diversity in growing regions and varietals stands high on the list. This combined with a new age of winemakers that is not afraid to experiment in both the vineyard and in the winery creates wines that vary in price, quality, and, of course, taste. I think Grape Escape did a fair job here, especially displaying the tremendous values of some of the more local wineries closer to Sacramento. While we did have to filter through a few “duds” (in our opinion), for the price-range presented at the stands (I think mostly sub $20), we found great bottles among more nontraditional varietals like Mourvedre, Barbera, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. A lot of these grapes are usually blended into Merlot, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon to help blend some of their traits into the wine, but lately, some winemakers have begun harvesting these with lower yields with an aim at concentrating them as the main varietal in a wine. Since these are lower in demand, there are some great opportunities to buy high quality wine at lower prices. At Grape Escape, we witnessed this trend with the Cabernet Sauvignons being more mediocre than its less popular counter parts.
Food here wasn’t bad at all either – plenty of options to replace a meal including different meats, sides, and dessert options. Among my favorite were prepared meatballs and the steak-burger. Additionally, in case if you were wined-out, local brew-houses offered pours of their various beverages to help quench your thirst.
Add the different ambient live performances and the chef’s competition under a tent (with some free tastes if you were lucky), this event really represented Northern California well. If you compare the price of a meal with various wine and beer choices, the $40 does not seem so bad, though I do think that the city/region could invest in its people just a little more to make it cheaper for us and bring even more people to the local businesses. It would not be an automatic decision for me to attend the next Grape Escape if the price stayed the same.
I am eager to attend more of these events to learn more about food and wine, especially from those that are passionate and artistic with food and wine. Taste 3 is another event that describes itself as a “Food Wine Art Conference” – in Napa at the Culinary Institute of America, July 17-19. This conference appears to be something way over my head, but an event I’d love to attend, simply to hear about the great trends in restaurant, urban farming, winemaking, etc… art and research! I heard of this event from this Vinography post; while I cannot attend due to the close-to-$2,000 price for this multi-day event, this is part of the greatness of Northern California, and something in which I hope to eventually participate (or maybe something smaller scale). Any other great local events you recommend?