Since 2013, in what has become one of the Napa Valley’s most coveted events, 800 ticketholders gathered to sip and commune while they dined at a 1,000-foot-long table in the center of Calistoga’s Main Street on Sunday, Sept. 8.
Multicourse dinners were served from nine participating local restaurants, and a plethora of wine options included choices from 50 of the area’s top wineries.
“The event has become so popular with locals and visitors that the tickets sell out in less than an hour,” said Troy Campbell, executive director at the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce. “It’s one of the only events in the country to showcase local wine and food in such a fun and picturesque downtown setting.”
Tickets ranged in price from $125 to $175, depending on which restaurant diners chose. As an added element to this year’s festivities, non-ticketed visitors were welcomed to purchase a glass of wine as they strolled down the car-free street, visiting any of the shops or one of the nearly dozen non-participating restaurants that remained open during the evening.
The event provided those restaurants that were involved with a chance to showcase their talents.
“This has become a wonderful tradition for us,” said Sasan Nayeri, owner of Evangeline. “It’s a fun event that shows off Calistoga, but it also lets us share the bounty of the harvest season with our guests.”
Known for their colorful and creative dishes, Nayeri’s team did not disappoint with a first course of chilled corn soup served with blue crab and corn fritters, followed by a second course of a vibrant array of “compressed” melons, shaved prosciutto, an entrée of saffron lobster risotto and a rich dessert of Valrhona chocolate mousse.
Guests who chose tables hosted by other eateries were treated to their own multicourse selections, including such items as grilled venison loin and Mexican grilled corn salad from the team at Veraison; watermelon and heirloom tomato salad from Sam’s Club; savory braised lamb served with pomegranate, walnuts and Carolina gold grits from All Seasons; slow-roasted Niman Ranch prime New York strip, Dungeness crab and bordelaise sauce at Lovina; creamy seafood chowder from the Hydro Grill; smoky barbecue pork sliders from Napa Valley Crust; and roasted ribeye and potatoes galette from the Calistoga Inn.
Wine was available for an extra charge, and because of permit restrictions guests were not allowed to bring in alcoholic beverages.
The Harvest Table
The concept for what has become Calistoga’s top wine and food event was initially modeled after similar open-air banquets, such as that held in Park City, Utah. The idea was to create an environment that provided a means to showcase Calistoga’s Western-movie-setlike Main Street, while also providing a venue for local businesses to get a boost of customers who might not otherwise visit the most northwestern town of the Napa Valley. Since it began the banquet has taken place every September — except in 2015, when the Valley Fire in Lake County moved the event into downtown restaurants — and has raised thousands of dollars for the Calistoga Cares food pantry through a portion of the ticket sales.
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According to Campbell, Californians made up 82% of this year’s ticket-holders — 40% (262) from Calistoga and 33% (216) from the Bay Area — and 18% (144) came from 19 other states.
“The big caveat to these numbers is that they are based on the person who purchased the tickets and provided their ZIP code,” Campbell said. “So if they bought multiple tickets, we wouldn’t know if those are for local or out-of-state friends and family.”
Working on the future
Like with any annual event, the challenge is to keep it fresh while at the same time making it economically sustainable. Because the Chamber organizes and runs the gala, the costs and management largely fall on their shoulders. The job includes organizing multiple wineries, restaurants and the host of other associated businesses; shutting down a major thoroughfare; coordinating with police and fire departments; placating the few businesses who grumble about the inconvenience and potential impact on foot traffic; and purchasing a short-term permit to sell alcohol for the evening. It’s no wonder that some are scratching their heads about how to make the complex event maintainable for the long haul.
A Calistoga restaurateur who wished not to be named is generally very positive about the event, but he is also doing a bit of soul-searching this year.
“We want to support our community and we dearly love this event, but we also need to make sure it’s economic,” he said. “Some people complain that the tickets are too high, but I don’t think that they understand the costs involved in shutting down a town for a day for the Chamber and just how much it costs each restaurant to put this on. We pay $50 of each ticket to the Chamber and then also pay for extra staff and additional equipment rentals (extra flatware, for example). Up to this point we’ve never made money, but we’re hoping to this year — or even just break even. That way we can justify making this a long-term win-win for everyone involved.”
And many — both locals and visitors alike — hope that this event continues as a sustainable, long-term tradition.
“My wife and I traveled out from our home in Ohio just for this event,” said Mark DeSantis from Steubenville. “This is our first time and we’re not disappointed. I think this brings the community spirit right down into the heart of town. I wish we had something like this where we live.”
He paused, gesturing a wide arc around the scene with his hands as if for emphasis. Dusk had descended, and diners chatted and laughed as they ate and sipped. A toasty aroma of wood-fired s’mores drifted in on a refreshingly crisp autumnal breeze, and the setting sun made stripes of a golden-orange glow on the otherwise purple eastern mountains.
DeSantis and his wife smiled and gave each other a toast.
“We’ll be back,” he said.