Appetite for Travel: Winesong!

In scenic northern California, Winesong! hits the right note


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Photograph Courtesy of Winesong!

Ah, now here’s a Christmas gift of wine, food, and travel that will warm the recipient’s heart with anticipation until summer.

It’s a sweet, low-key weekend in one of the most scenic places in this country: The annual wine auction benefiting the hospital and the ambulance service in Mendocino, Calif., population 824.

It’s a village stuck way up on the rocky northern Pacific coast in a distant but growing wine area of the state, and it makes a unique gift for the person who has done almost everything else.

Yes, it’s the same Mendocino that doubled on television a decade ago as Cabot Cove, a fictional New England fishing port and home of writer-sleuth Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury), where at least one murder was solved each week for 12 seasons of Murder, She Wrote.

Little has changed. Fans of the show will recognize it all. Winesong! as the event is called, is one of those wine auctions that hasn’t lost its way and become insanely overpriced; tickets are $225 per person for the two days.

“Plugging into the natural beauty of the coast, Winesong! has always been casual and informal, an escape from presssure and business,” says Norm Roby, the author and wine writer who chairs the event. “It is more of a warm and fuzzy wine and food getaway event that happens to be a fundraiser. What is unusual is not only that so many people return each year, but that they invite their friends and the whole Winesong! weekend has become sort of an annual family reunion.”

Narsai David, the former San Francisco restaurant owner and television chef, serves as the event’s master of ceremonies.

Here’s the Winesong! weekend: You land in San Francisco, rent a car, and head north across the Golden Gate Bridge. At any number of points along the freeway, you may want to get off and head to the coast road, a route that winds slowly and majestically along the dramatic coastline, high along the cliffs, and in and out of hairpin turns, as ocean waves crash below. It’s worth the slower ride.

This year, we arrived in Mendocino in time for the evening kickoff event, a pinot noir-barrel sample tasting of mostly Mendocino wineries at a gorgeous little resort called Heritage House. It sits on a cliff looking out to the sea. We wandered from food tables to wine tables, tasting and munching and meeting people as the sun set and music played, before finally calling it a day at around 9 p.m.

We checked into our B&B, the McCallum House, which is actually a collection of several grand old 1800s Victorians scattered around the middle of the tiny village. There are many choices, including Blair House, which doubled as Jessica Fletcher’s home in the TV series. We were put in a modern hotel-like extension on the hill on the edge of town surrounded by tall pines, where we had a huge, airy room with a vaulted ceiling and views toward the village. Rooms run $200 to $400 a night, which is pretty average in town. For breakfast in the morning, McCallum House has one of the best in town, and it’s included in the room cost.

At 10 the next morning, the really magical part of this event begins. The auction is held several miles north of town at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which sits on the cliffs above the ocean, on 47 acres of trees, shrubs, various rhododendron varieties, and a dazzling array of flowers and shrubs.

Participants check in and are handed a plate and a glass, which fits cleverly into a slot on the plate. Starting along a winding path, you admire the beauty of the flowers and plants. Soon, you hear a chamber group playing Vivaldi in the distance. As you round the corner, you find a food-and-wine station with two or three area restaurants and several wineries offering bites and pouring samples. You linger, chat, and set off again along the next path, meandering until a jazz combo playing in a stand of trees signals another food-and-wine station. And so it goes, nine stops on different routes in all. This year, 50 restaurants, more than 100 wineries, and 10 musical groups (including the cutely named Safe Sax) participated on auction day. To top it off, Maserati sent over some cars to ogle.

Finally, in mid-afternoon everyone seems to end up in the huge, gorgeous dahlia-filled garden, which has been set up as a big food-and-wine finale. After that, it’s ambling over to the tent to buy wine at auction.

The tent, set with tables of 10 for yet more food, is where the auction and the serious business of parting with money begins at 2 p.m. I found the best values to be lots in the silent auction. There was one vertical lot of a dozen 1973 to 1993 Fetzer Vineyards mixed wines, from when that winery was still family owned. (I lost it by just $20 at the close, when it went for the bargain price of $400.)

In the live auction, most of the lots went for $2,000 to  $4,000, many well worth it, some overpriced and overbid because of name glamour, and many sleepers that were bargains even at those prices.

It’s a great weekend. If you buy tickets in time for the holidays, Winesong! says it will ship you a Mendocino gift box to give the recipient with the tickets.

Event coordinator Carol Joyce: 707-961-4994. Information: winesong.org.

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