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Healdsburg
June 20, 2024

The Table Is Set for Wine & Food ‘Experience’

Healdsburg on the menu for 3rd annual culinary festival

This weekend the streets, restaurants and wineries of Healdsburg will buzz with the excitement of the third annual Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience, a four-day workout for the palate that draws upon local produce and product to offer a well-rounded “experience” for its participants.

Experience?

“What we’re trying to create are experiences for people that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” said Steven Dveris, the founder of the event and CEO of SD Media Productions. A longtime ad executive for Food & Wine magazine, Dveris knows well the secrets of a successful winery, and believes it often comes down to the experience people have when they visit.

Women with wine
WINE CLUB Celebrants enjoy a glass of Balverne sauvignon blanc at the 2023 Healdsburg Food & Wine ‘Grand Tasting at Vintners Plaza,’ a.k.a. the West Plaza Parking Lot.

“Once you have the experience of seeing the grounds and the grapes and the way that the winemakers do the work, and then you see the beautiful tasting room that they created, and then you sip their wine with the guy who created it, that experience—it will change you forever,” Dveris said.

The idea that a series of activities in a given destination can create positive memories for participants has even come to be known as “experience tourism” in the travel industry, and this coming weekend Healdsburg is Ground Zero.

“I just thought it was the cutest, most beautiful, charming town,” he said, remembering his first visit, which happened when he was scouting out the area as the new ad rep for Food & Wine magazine. “I almost bought a house there, but I ended up in Marin County,” he said, adding that he needed to be closer to his offices in San Francisco. 

Dveris found a kindred spirit in Karissa Kruse, CEO of Sonoma County Winegrowers, who was also working toward a celebration of local wines and foods. Together, they hatched the first Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience in 2022.

“We couldn’t be more excited to invite culinary experts and wine enthusiasts to Sonoma County to experience the best of what we offer locally alongside a global fabric of incredible wines and food,” Kruse said this week.

Why Healdsburg?

Chef with sliders
SAMPLES Foods from participating chefs elevate almost every event at the Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience. Chef Viet Pham, seen here in 2022, returns this year to share his favorite recipes. (Galdones Photography)

“I’ve worked for Food & Wine for 25 years, as I mentioned, so everyone calls me and asks me, ‘Where should I go in Wine Country?’ And they’re usually thinking Napa,” Dveris said. 

“We wanted to put Healdsburg and Sonoma County on the radar—we have world-class wines, too, and world-class chefs! We wanted to put Healdsburg on par with the great wine regions of the world.”

He plans to deliver that message to the guests at the four-day event’s welcome celebration this afternoon at Montage Healdsburg, where the VIPs (holders of the priciest tickets, sponsors and other favored guests) are likely to be enthusiastically receptive to the idea.

Like all events in the upcoming festival, Sonoma County’s wines are paired with curated bites by celebrity chefs—in this case, from Iron Chef America-winner Viet Pham and local star Domenica Catelli of Geyserville’s Catelli’s.

Other smaller-scale events are pinot noir and Champagne seminars, cooking demonstrations, a barbecue and vineyard tour, a garden-to-table lunch at Kendall Jackson estates, a Saturday morning “Insider’s perspective” on wine trends for industry professionals, and the ever-ebullient Jean-Charles Boisset showing off his latest batch of designer tequila at Lo & Behold.

Not to be overshadowed, Guy Fieri caps Saturday’s Maui at the Matheson dinner with a fund-raising Magnum for Maui party until midnight, putting the cap on the busiest day of the Experience—one which might require a bit of a sleep-in the next morning.

Grand Tasting

The pattern of pairing celebrities in both food and wine persists throughout the long weekend, sometimes in small-group gatherings but often in larger celebrations. The most notable is Saturday’s Grand Tasting, at what’s called the “Vintners Plaza,” from noon to 5pm. It’s a refined name for the tented-over West Plaza parking lot behind Hotel Healdsburg, where more than 150 artisans and makers will show off and share samples of their wines and beers, cheeses and crostini.

Dveris looks forward to the time, possibly in 2025 but more likely 2026, when the Grand Tasting can be held at the Foley Family Pavilion, now under construction—but for the time being the location is set.

Dustin Valette, Matt Horn and Steve Dveris
MAKERS OF THE MAGIC From left, chef Dustin Valette of the Matheson, pitmaster Matt Horn of Horn Barbecue and Steve Dveris of SD Media at the first Healdsburg Food & Wine Experience in 2022. (Photo by Marc Fiorito / Gamma Nine Photography)

“The parking lot is, first of all, not in great shape,” he said. “It takes us a lot of work just to get it cleaned up, to put tents down. It’s uneven. It’s not well maintained at all. And, you know, people use it to park, so it’s not the most convenient for anyone.”

In fact as part of their agreement with the city, SD Media is required to offer free transportation to and from their events to ease parking demand and cut down on traffic.

Over 2,000 people are expected to attend this event alone, making it one of the biggest afternoons on Healdsburg’s social calendar, perhaps exceeding last month’s Climate Fest though falling short of the following week’s city-wide Twilight Parade on May 23.

Costs of Success

The impact of the Grant Tasting has always drawn criticism from locals, and extensive discussion by the Planning Commission and City Council has taken place, especially last October when Dveris sought a three-year contract with the city.

The price tag has often been criticized—the Grand Tasting itself is a relative bargain at $250, though the less-pricey events on the menu sold out quickly. And while the costs may be expensive (the comprehensive Platinum Weekender Package is priced at $4,500), the benefits to the Healdsburg economy are inarguable.

“I think that we are one of the few events that literally fills hotel rooms in the city,” Dveris said. “Nearly 40% of our audience was from out of state last year and the year before. And this year we are buying out two of their hotels completely as part of our event.”

Harmon Guest House and H2 are fully booked with event participants, and there are no rooms left at Hotel Healdsburg and Montage Healdsburg. “So our event is bringing in massive tourism revenue to the city,” Dveris added.

On the one hand, that success turned into a $30,000 grant from the Chamber of Commerce from the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District, because of the Experience’s success at putting “heads in beds.” On the other hand, the Tourism Occupancy Tax (TOT) that every hotel guest pays has become a crucial source of revenue for the city’s budget, to the tune of about $1.4 million per year.

Dancers at Rodney Strong
DANCE MUSIC Attendees enjoy the Friday night concert at Rodney Strong Vineyards, this year to feature Mississippi blues artist Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram. ( Marc Fiorito / Gamma Nine Photography)

“Our event is bringing in massive tourism revenue to the city,” Dveris said proudly—all the while acknowledging that it’s not yet turning a profit. “Everyone told me it takes three to five years for these events to really kick in, where they start going into the black, and we started ours right after Covid.

“So supply chain economics and inflation and labor costs have soared,” he added. “It’s a very, very expensive venture to put this event on.”

SD Media and the City of Healdsburg have reached an agreement for another two years of the Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience, through 2026. Clearly, it’s a big commitment for both sides—and ultimately a branding opportunity that only a handful of places in the country could take advantage of.

2 COMMENTS

  1. As usual, the farmworkers are completely ignored by the founders and participants of the food and wine experience. What a travesty! The Tribune should dig into this and find the reason behind the snub.

    The farmworkers will be having their own event in the plaza that day by organizing for disaster pay and dignified wages. If you’d like to lend your support to the them, head down to the Plaza after attending the “grand” tasting.

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