On the Town: Passport to Dry Creek 2010

Lounging on the patio/porch at Truett Hurst Winery

Saigon “Sub” (9-spice pork, carrots, daikon, sweet chili mayo, Asian BBQ drizzle) from Chefs Mitzewich & Manfredi at Frick Winery

It was my first time attending this annual event, Passport to Dry Creek (April 24-25), where locals come out en masse for themed parties, music, wine and food at each participating winery, closed to event attendees (here’s details about the event: $70 one day/$120 for two).

In a brief summary of the weekend, it’s not so much about the wine. Yes, I sipped some good wines, though I prefer to go straight for pours from the bottle/finished product rather than some of the barrel samples available. Whether it was wine, themes, crowds or friendliness of staff, some wineries fared way better than others, but the ones that worked, felt like sheer vacation. And unlike other event weekends I’ve been to in Sonoma County (Russian River barrel-tasting weekends, for one), crowds were well regulated and, for the most part, minus awful drunken party groups that show up at some of those ‘all-you-can-taste’ weekends.

Food was served at every winery (snack/appetizer-sized), in as wide array as some sad-looking fried chicken to a gourmet spread. I’ve long enjoyed Mauritson’s cool wine cave and solid wines, but for this event, none other than chef Charlie Palmer prepared the bites: tender Zinfandel-braised Short Rib Sliders, Panko/Sesame-Crusted Wild Shrimp and Buttered Chocolate Caramel Tartlets.

Bella’s safari tents

Another highlight was Truett Hurst, where Santa Rosa’s Zazu restaurant prepared simple but satisfying food: Pulled Pork Sliders (you can see sliders were a common theme) which stood out because of a tart cherry mostarda on top of the pork, and an ideal, warm-day-offering of Zinfandel/Blackberry Sorbet. The real pleasure was lingering on the sunny patio in lounge chairs and couches, as a country-tinged band played everything from Johnny Cash to Van Morrison. Renaissance Man and I wandered across farm fields to say hello to goats obliviously chewing grass, then to the riverside where we sat in Adirondack chairs sipping wine, as cotton-like fluffs lazily floated through the air. See? Vacation.

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Delectable Rueben Nachos at Frick Winery

By far, the food pinnacle, which I’d recommend as a must any year you hit Passport, was at Frick Winery, whose wines were a pleasure (I particularly took to the Viognier, Syrah and Cotes-du-Dry Red Rhone Blend). Dynamic husband/wife chef duo, John Mitzewich and Michele Manfredi (of Food Wishes), have been serving their appetizers at Frick for years (and they’re former colleagues of mine from my California Culinary Academy days). Five gourmet eats, all creative and delicious (each year they carry one recipe on, but otherwise create new ones). If I had to choose favorites, it was Calabrian Crostini covered in Boccalone’s fab Nduja contrasted with candied fennel roo on toast, and especially Rueben Nachos, rye corn chips smothered in pastrami, cave-aged gruyere, savoy cabbage and Russian dressing. Addictive. I could have eaten a whole spread.

The magic inside Bella’s safari-themed caves

Elsewhere, Alderbrook Winery’s giant, roasted pig on a spit was a fun touch. Papietro Perry and Family Wineries didn’t do much for me in the way of wine and are in a cluster of otherwise non-descript tasting rooms off a parking lot, but they were transporting with their live music: Family had the California Cowboys playing beloved country classics from Merle Haggard & the Carter Family (I couldn’t stop singing along), while Papietro had a rousing Zydeco/blues band on an open-air wood porch under ceiling fans. We started dancing, completely transported to the South (minus the humidity).

The pinnacle in atmosphere was Bella Vineyards, with African safari theme, circa 1930’s (they said they usually switch themes every two years for Passport to Dry Creek). There was a Senegalese band, idyllic as we reclined under safari-style tents. In the tasting room and enchanting caves, 1930’s jazz and big band played as we sipped wines in the cool of the lantern-lit caves. Indiana Jones goes wine tasting? At day’s end, drinking a refreshing, stainless steel-fermented Grenache/Syrah Rose ($22 a bottle) in Adirondack chairs on the lawn while hawks circle above, was a piece of heaven.

Charlie Palmer’s decadent Buttered Chocolate Caramel Tartlets at Mauritson

Hand-shucked Hog Island Oysters at Dutcher Crossing after-party