What’s the best wine to pair with a corn dog on a stick? Winetasters at next year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair (in year 2020) might explore that answer when the wine showcase event moves from October to be part of the larger Sonoma County Fair in August. Fair board directors recently voted to merge the two events to overlapping dates after this year’s fairs complete their normal runs this August and the first weekend in October, 2019.
The board vote follows recent years of conversation over the economic viability of two separate events as well as the timing of the harvest fair during the busiest days of picking grapes and the idea of boosting attendance at the county fair by adding the Harvest Fair’s premium wine judging and tasting to the existing lineup of horse racing, carnival midway and livestock exhibits.
“We know change is hard,” said Harvest Fair board president Jake Martini, of Taft Street Winery. “We think we can better celebrate more things that are Sonoma County with a bigger showcase and attendance.”
Martini also mentioned that there are many other newer wine-only or judging events on the annual calendar than when the first Harvest Fair was held in 1974.
The 83rd annual Sonoma County Fair is running this week through Aug. 11 and the 45th Harvest Fair will take place Oct. 4 and 5, reduced from a previous three-day format. The two combined fairs will run in early August 2020. While public attendance has drooped at recent harvest fairs, local winery participation remains at all-time highs with over 1,100 wines entered in last year’s professional wine judging. Some recent harvest fairs failed to cover all event expenses, a key factor for the change.
Both this year’s and the 2020 Harvest Fair will retain the standalone awards night event, held in recent years at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Having the wine judging and other agriculture industry awards in October led to running jokes about winegrowers changing from their tuxedos into farmer duds to start picking more grapes early the next morning after the late night ceremony.
While the fair directors and winery participants can change the fair dates, they still can’t change the weather. August can be very hot and how many winetasters might show up in the heat of summer instead of a cooler October will be tested next year. The 2020 Harvest Fair will be held in the Saralee and Richard Kunde Barn at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, with a separate admission and winetasting charge.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Percy Brandon, a Harvest Fair director and general manager of Vintner’s Inn of Santa Rosa. “Repeating the two events every year is too much work. I think this will add pop to the summer fair and we will see more wineries and winegrowers participation. It will be during the sparkling grape harvest, so we can celebrate with champagne.”
Brandon said the change of dates has been an “on again, off again, board conversation for several years. We know there will be people who like the old traditions but lots has changed with our industry in recent times.”
County ag commissioner Tony Linegar serves on the fair boards and he admits to being an “outspoken” skeptic while agreeing changes were needed.
“These events have to pay for themselves but I worry about the new timing and the summer heat during a winetasting event. We might have to find out which pinots go best with corn dogs,” he said.
While the double-billed fairs may lose some of their individual identity, Linegar said he favors putting more agriculture around the annual professional wine judging. “In years past, the Harvest Fair used to have sheepdog trials, best zucchini contests and dairy displays. I’ve advocated to bring those back.”
Martini, 36, said he grew up attending the county fair and has now worked nine harvests at his family’s Taft Street Winery. “Just as I’ve seen Sonoma County change in those years, I think we’ve seen how our fairs have also changed.”
For now, the 2019 winegrape harvest will begin at the end of August. The late summer and early fall weather will dictate the pace and duration of the remaining crop harvest, with everyone knowing the 2019 Harvest Fair Awards Night is Sunday, Sept. 29. That’s when a thousand alarm clocks get set extra early.