When the Sonoma County Harvest Fair rolls around each October, there’s plenty of well-deserved back-patting among the local wine community for the myriad double gold, gold and silver awards given out by a team of high-ranking wine judges.
But the Fair’s professional food awards? They’re typically a quieter affair, but no less impressive. This year, the contest matched more than 200 food entries from local restaurants, bakeries, olive oil and vinegar producers, candy and cheese makers. From “Quackducken”, lumberjack cake and bourbon sage tarragon barbecue sauce to Rum Pirate Stout ice cream sandwiches and exotic granolas the competition highlights many best-in-class noshes worth seeking out.
“Wine is huge,” competition organizer Anne Vercelli, “but sometimes the food gets overlooked.”
So Who Judges?
An esteemed panel of judges, who include local food heavy-weights including cheesemaker Sheana Davis, John Ash & Co.’s pastry chef Casey Stone, Bill Traverso (fomerly of Traverso’s) and John Franchetti of Rosso to name just a few, judge each item on its own merits rather than comparing it to others in the category.
Chosen “blind” (judges don’t know who has submitted the items), awarding gold, silver and bronze awards. “Double Gold” awards are given to entries receiving multiple gold awards from the judges.harvestfair.org/tastings.
In the flush of harvest season, however, there are plenty of culinary surprises among entrants both well-known (Costeaux French Bakery, Oliver’s Markets) and smaller boutique businesses that may only sell at farm markets or by special order. In the thirty-two years Vercelli has been involved with the Harvest Fair food awards, she’s seen food trends come and go, and come back again. But each year, there’s always something new.
Reading from copious notes she’s kept through more than a week of judging, she can barely contain her enthusiasm for everything from butter and cheese to small plates and towering wedding cakes. “The presentations were just spectacular. The big trend is big flavor,” said Vercelli of the many entries. Here are just a few of the most notable… Merci Beaucoup Cakes (Sonoma) won double gold and Best of Show for a spiced pumpkin cake, while Healdsburg’s Costeaux French Bakery won double gold for its Princess Cake, and cheesecake maker, Desserts by Emily (Santa Rosa) took Best of Show honors for lemon cheesecake. A gluten-free chocolate espresso torte from Village Bakery was also a double gold winner.
Among the pastry and bread winners: Costeaux French Bakery is a perennial powerhouse, taking Best of Show (French Bread) for their sour bagette, double gold for their seeded batard and gold for their much-loved Morning Bun. Other contenders included rising star, Dominique’s Sweets’ croissants, Rally Good Bread’s vegan bread rolls and Village Bakery’s seeded sourdough.
More winning sweet treats included Bear Republic Brewing Company’s Rum Pirate Stout ice cream sandwich, winning best use of local products, Sonoma Chocolateirs’ dairy free orange olive oil chocolate, Oliver’s Market’s s’mores cupcake, The Strudel Guy’s Sonoma Pear and walnut strudel, The Killer Baking Company’s cranberry pistachio biscotti and the Village Bakery’s best of show cookie, gluten-free chocolate walnut dreams. Waterhorse Ridge, from Cazadero, was a standout preserve and chutney winner, with triple berry bliss preserves, persimmon apricot chutney and “triple noir” preserve with blackberry, black mulberry and petite verdot.
Pastry chef Tracy Mattson’s orange and vanilla swirl and chocolate mint kiss cookies from Cookie…take a bite! were also double gold winners. Gluten-free cookies from Whole Vine Products (using grape seed flours) and an ale-infused milk chocolate peanut butter cup from Bert’s Desserts were also notable.
Savory appetizers that won the judges’ favor included several entries from Bay View Restaurant (Bodega Bay) including their trofie pasta all Genovese and baked Japanese eggplant. Judges were “taken aback”, according to Vercelli, at Oliver’s Sonoma Quackducken, a combination of quail, duck, chicken and turkey sausage that won Best Use of Poultry at the awards. Other top contenders: Mi Chatita Market and Tacqueria’s smoked baby back ribs and chicken tacos, Thai Time Asian Bistro’s Panang pork chops and Bangkok fish.
Looking for more winning tastes? Judges praised cardamom apricot granola from Not Yer Momma’s Granola (Santa Rosa), Philly cheesesteak ravioli from Mama Tina’s Ravioli (Windsor), orange ginger chili spices from Sonoma Spice Company (Santa Rosa), The Handmade Pantry’s peppermint mocha granola, F.A. Nino’s bourbon sage tarragon sauce (Petaluma) and Weirach Farm and Creamery’s Mi-Ewe aged sheep’s milk cheese from Penngrove. Olive oils and vinegars are worthy of special notice at the harvest awards, with especially rigorous judging (olive oils require special certification to judge), with the Olive Press (Sonoma) winning best of show for its Sevillano oil and O Olive Oils of Petaluma winning top honors for its orange blossom vinegar. Other notable winners included Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery’s Mountain Estate olive oil, Medlock Ames (Healdsburg) Seven Olive Blend, RobiSonoma RRV (Windsor) arbequina/koroneiki, Dry Creek Olive Company’s lime-manzanilla flavored olive oil and B.R. Cohn Olive Oil Company (Glen Ellen) Rasberry Champagne vinegar.
Want a taste? Winners of the professional food awards will be served at the Harvest Fair’s Tasting Pavillion throughout the three-day event October 3-5 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. A complete list of winners can be found at harvestfair.org. Tickets for the wine and food tasting events are online at harvestfair.org/tastings.