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Dispatch: Sonoma's Wine Country Weekend

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I'm not precisely sure when the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend festival went from fun to fantastic, but it may have been the moment when Congressman Mike Thompson started swatting at flying beach balls, deftly protecting nearby guests (not to mention a Kunde Family Estate Barbera).

On the first weekend in September, the winemakers of Sonoma County, CA, cheerfully raised their glasses, despite this year's challenging grape-growing season. The pre-harvest celebration was underway and sunny weather boosted everyone's spirits.

The annual festival rolls out a series of food-and-wine events as a major fundraiser for local charities. It's also a perfect opportunity to gauge the cultural differences between Sonoma and neighboring Napa.

As Christopher Silva, president of St. Francis Winery and Vineyards and this year's Honorary Chair, put it, "Sonoma has farmers who make wine, versus winemakers who farm."

This down-to-earth attitude infuses the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. Winemakers' dinners mix sophisticated cooking and wacky Hawaiian shirts, for example. Tasting rooms play Cream, not classical music.

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The two keystone events are the Taste of Sonoma -- an afternoon of tastings, sommelier talks, and winemaker panels -- and the rowdy Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction.

Taste of Sonoma is a rare chance to visit MacMurray Ranch, a stunning Russian River property that's only open to the public for special events. Bought by the actor Fred "Double Indemnity" MacMurray, it's now run by his gregarious daughter Kate, who looks like (pre-needle) Nicole Kidman's big sister. Two hundred local vintners, food purveyors, and chefs offered tastings and demonstrations of everything from olive oil ice cream to sought-after Chardonnays.

The next day's wine auction at Cline Cellars, dubbed "Endless Sonoma," had a retro surf theme. (Hence the flying beach balls.) Tireless auctioneer Fritz Hatton stalked the stage, calling out numbers in rapid fire and teasing the crowd into raising the stakes. Vintner teams reeled through a series of skits, including the infamous "Benziger Boys" dancing in Daisy Duke drag. The tent roared with laughter, clinking glasses, and shouts as the paddles and prices shot up.

But the crowd really went wild when a bidding war started over "Magnum Force," the auction's top lot of 58 magnums of outstanding Sonoma wine. In a matter of minutes, the bids soared to $58,000, the highest in the auction's history. In the adrenaline rush, my fingers itched to raise a paddle, any paddle....

As this year's party proved, the events can sell out, so if you have your eye on the next festival be sure to scout tickets several weeks in advance. And don't forget to pack a lurid Hawaiian shirt.

Guest blogger Jennifer Paull is a Brooklyn-based travel, food, and fashion writer.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Paull

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