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December 8, 2023

Wine Tasting from Plaza to Parking Lot

Healdsburg Crush Oct. 15, Wine & Food Experience next May

Even as the city prepares for Sunday’s Healdsburg Crush—a Plaza event to “taste limited production Pinot Noir and Sparkling Wines from over 60 of the top California wine producers”—the city council on Oct. 2 agreed to allow the much larger Healdsburg Food & Wine Affair to continue for three more years at the West Plaza Parking Lot.

Healdsburg Crush, formerly known as Pinot on the River, is produced by—and benefits—Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma-Marin, whose local Healdsburg club is in need of significant remodeling. The event takes place in the Plaza from noon to 4pm on Sunday, Oct. 15, with a $125 ticket price.

While there are several VIP events, the centerpiece of the Crush is the Sunday open-air wine tasting at the Plaza, one of a relatively few large events in the Plaza this year along with February’s Lunar New Year, April’s Earth Day Climate Fest, a Juneteenth Celebration and December’s Merry Healdsburg event.

Contrast that to the Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience, which began in 2022 and which is scheduled for a third year on May 17-19, 2024. More than 270 wineries and a handful of distilleries are expected to participate, along with multiple food vendors who will prepare tastes and dishes for the Grand Tasting to be held on Saturday, May 18—not in the Plaza, but at the large city parking lot on the west side of Foss Creek where the Saturday Farmers’ Market takes place.

Both wine tastings pay special-event fees to the city, though the Healdsburg Crush fees are significantly lower since it is a local nonprofit organization. The HW&FE is a non-resident commercial event; it paid approximately $5,500 in fees for this year’s event, plus a refundable security deposit of $5,000.

“As of now, the Boys & Girls Club has paid roughly $860 in fees for this year’s Healdsburg Crush event, in addition to a refundable security deposit of $1,250,” said Matt Milde, the city’s event coordinator.

DRONE VIEW Flying over the Healdsburg Crush event in the Plaza during 2022, with the gazebo roof in the foreground. (Photo by Food Network)

Promotion for Profit

The HW&FE is not driven by a nonprofit, as are nearly all of the other downtown events, but by SD Media Productions, a privately held event producer led by Steve Dveris. Over the past 30 years he has created a half-dozen high-ticket-price promotional food-and-wine events, from Aspen to Austin and from Pebble Beach, California, to South Beach, Florida.

Dveris was at the Oct. 2 city council meeting to make the case for a three-year contract with the city to continue the HW&FE at the same location, asking for the multi-year contract to line up long-term sponsorship partners and establish continuity and reliability in the major-event sphere.

While it wasn’t an easy or quick process, by the end of the meeting SD Media had gained the council’s backing for a three-year contract—though it had to commit to higher fees than it had asked for and was put on the defensive for its claim that the event “celebrates the makers behind the magic” while largely ignoring the farmworker community that drives the industry.

Most, though not all, of the criticism came from in-room public comment, when six residents argued that the event was a private event held on public property, priced to exclude Healdsburg residents. Tickets to the Grand Tasting were $250 in 2023. They said the event had an outsized impact on the town on the day of the Grand Tasting but brought little benefit to local businesses, gave lip service to farmworker charity, and had a too-cozy relationship with the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce.

LOCALS Participants in the 2022 Healdsburg Crush enjoy the wine and conversation in the Healdsburg Plaza.

Only one resident, Jim Heid of CraftWork, voiced his support of the event. Calling it “a lovely event” at which he saw many locals, Heid said, “It was a celebration of Healdsburg, and we need to celebrate Healdsburg.” CraftWork partnered with the HW&FE and served as the staff’s base during their time in town.

Tyra Benoit, on the other hand, called the event “a block party of epic proportion” that would better be held at a private location like Bacchus Landing or Montage; Valerie White said that the people who were “the backbone of wine industry were completely excluded from the celebration”; and Merrilyn Joyce called it “a near-perfect symbol of Healdsburg’s growing reputation as a playground for the rich.”

Benoit also called out the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District, a Chamber of Commerce initiative, for cutting funding for the local community-serving nonprofit Corazon Healdsburg from $15,000 to $7,500, while giving a hefty $24,000 grant to the HW&FE.

Council Debate

Councilmember Chris Herrod was sharply critical of the event for not reflecting what he called “Healdsburg values” and skeptical of the organization’s claims of benefiting the community. “It’s sending a message of us-and-them,” he said. “Philanthropy seems to be sort of a sidecar here.” He advocated for a one-year contract, instead of the three years on the table.

TASTING An employee of Kanzler Family Vineyards shares tastes of their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at the 2022 Healdsburg Crush.

Councilmember Ron Edwards noted that of three organizations that the HW&FE promised to support with donations from the event on May 15-21 of this year, only two did receive grants, while the third organization, listed as “El Corazon,” does not exist—and Corazon Healdsburg received no support from the event.

The benefit to Healdsburg came down to the rental fee charged for the parking lot, which was proposed to roll in at $6,000 the first year, $8,000 the second and $10,000 the third. How those numbers were arrived at initially was unclear, but City Manager Jeff Kay and Councilmember David Hagele came up with a formula that charged each lost parking space in the community lot for the four days of the event—including setup and take-down—at the same rate the city charges restaurants for parklets. Parklets are parking spaces converted to retail in the wake of the pandemic.

Extrapolating from the city’s fee of $1.50 per square foot of parking per month, Kay came up with a figure of between $2,000 and $5,000 a day for lost parking.

After more than an hour of the meeting’s comments, discussion, haggling and negotiation, the fee was settled at $10,000 a year, with that charge going to support Healdsburg infrastructure improvements—specifically to the parking lot itself where the event would take place.

While Herrod held out for the one-year contract, the other four council members agreed to the three-year contract, recognizing that with the construction of the Foley Community Pavilion and even the possible SMART station, the long-range suitability of the West Plaza Parking Lot for events was uncertain.

Information and tickets for Sunday’s Healdsburg Crush and the Sonoma-Marin Boys & Girls Club events are available at bgcsonoma-marin.org/healdsburgcrush. Information on the Healdsburg Wine and Food Experience is at healdsburgwineandfood.com.


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