Earlier this month, members of the Paso Robles wine community gathered for Wine & Feast Fire Relief at Oyster Ridge, a stunning, well-appointed event venue hidden deep inside the canyons of Santa Margarita. Oyster Ridge isn’t easy to find; one circuitous road after another eventually leads to a dirt driveway, which then meanders through the Ancient Peaks Vineyard estate until, finally, seemingly out of nowhere, an elegant, picturesque barn appears. It’s not surprising that Oyster Ridge is a coveted venue for weddings and the like. It’s not cheap either, but the entire venue, including a gracious, low-key staff of volunteers, was donated for Wine & Feast Fire Relief by owners Doug Filipponi, Rob Rossi and Karl Wittsrom.
Oftentimes I have to scratch my head when I leave a fundraiser because I know a bit about how they come together, having sat on event-planning committees for many years. Typically, after backing the event costs out of ticket prices (the catering, food, event and service staff, photography, etc.) and observing the true proceeds that eventually reach the non-profit, I can’t help but wonder why people don’t just cut a check directly to the non-profits in need, rather than throw these very expensive events.
Such was not the case this time around, and how life-affirming that was. Every rental (the linens, flatware, china, glassware), all the table settings (the flowers and candles), all of the food (a full raw bar, generous tins full of caviar and fresh oysters galore, roasted whole pigs, seasonal veggies, and an extravagant charcuteries-and-cheese table), the beverages (the best in sparkling wines, Pét-Nats, and champagnes, domestic and imported wines, and a high number of hard-to-find Napa Valley wines…a lovely display of solidarity), the event photography you see accompanying this article – all of these were donated. The participating chefs and their staffs donated 100% of their time and food. This resulted in 100 % of ticket sales going directly to the Napa Valley Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund, the Community Foundation of Sonoma County’s Resilience Fund, and Community Foundation of Mendocino County. In a matter of a just a couple of hours, this cozy barn full of farmers, winemakers and Paso residents raised $20,000 for their neighbors up north.
Although wine events can often end up being quite garrulous and even a bit messy towards the end – lots of drinking, voices getting louder and louder as the hours go by – there was a respectful undercurrent of empathy that ran throughout the course of the evening. At my table, winemakers could not help but worry about their neighboring communities of Ventura County, Montecito and Santa Barbara, currently under siege by the horrific Thomas fire. “I feel so spoiled sitting here,” said winemaker Tyler Russell (Nelle and Cordant Wines). “I’m already thinking about how I can help those poor people suffering through the Thomas fire.”
It was Russell who initially came up with an idea for Wine & Feast Fire Relief. “The idea came to me while driving on the 101, picking up fruit early in the morning,” he tells me. “It occurred to me how what was happening up North could totally be happening here. This was just as the fires were raging up there. There is dry brush all over the place here. Putting myself in their shoes really made me think that we need to show them that we care, and that we want their region to bounce back. Then as things got so horrific in the more urban areas, it became so much bigger than just doing something for our industry brothers and sisters. We wanted to help their broader communities.”
Russell next reached out to his friend, Lannon Rust (Rust Wine Co.) to help turn his idea into a reality. “I can’t imagine being forced to evacuate my house only to return to ashes,” says Rust. “What really hit home for me was thinking of the families forced to occupy small hotel rooms or couch-surf because their homes burnt down. The Central Coast is my home, and it’s very similar to Northern California: both rely heavily on tourism and the wine industry. I know what it would mean to my community if we, too, were faced with the same turmoil. We wanted to help all the communities affected – Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa – not just one.”
Both Russell and Rust immediately brought Mike Dawson (Solterra Strategies) on board to help with event logistics. “We set out to create essentially what we in the wine industry do so well – feasting and drinking through amazing wines – only this time, we would actually shower beforehand, and monetize it and invite non-industry folks. We knew, among all our wine, food and event industry friends, that we could get everything donated – the food, the venue, the wine etc. – and host this event with 100 percent of the money raised going to charity. This truly was a community effort, one community banding together to help another community.”
While participating chefs Mateo Rogers and Brittney Yracheta of Heirloom Catering, Spencer Johnston and Chris Batlle of The Monger & The Chef, and Dakota Weiss of Sweetfin’ Poke and Estrella in West Hollywood, dazzled guests with ember-roasted winter squash, fuyu persimmons with sweet potato yoghurt and pumpkin greens, Argentinian whole roasted pig (slow roasted on-site for 14 hours) and cheesy whipped parsnips, to name just a few of the many and generous courses, guests moved easily from one table to the next, sharing prized wines with friends and strangers alike. My glass alone saw a Bond Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a Duckhorn Merlot, a few Saxum wines, a sampling from Levo Wines, a few Santa Barbara County wines (like Scar of the Sea and Storm)…all shared with me without my ever having to get up out of my seat.
Paso resident, Sabreena Niazi, 26 years old, joined our table later into the evening and told me, “Our world is full of issues that feel so out of our control, and lately, with the fires, we humans seem so helpless. But being a part of a fundraising event like this is a huge reminder that what we do on a local scale will always make a difference. These disasters urge us to join together in the simplest acts of love, support, and connection.” I added her age above solely to underscore how touched I was by so many of the younger guests. They demonstrated such an awareness of the importance of human communion throughout the course of the evening. It galvanized my already hopeful orientation towards this younger generation, which seems so resourceful and hungry for real human connection.
Event emcee, Adam Montiel, radio host of CorkDorks, summed up the evening nicely when he said, “There’s something so special about the wine industry camaraderie here. Every vineyard manager, every winemaker, every business person here, knows that the devastation felt up north could have been us, and their hearts do what they tend to do up here in hard times: engage, and bond together. We’re very lucky to live in an area that values the spirit of community as much as the spirit of creativity.”
To learn more about how you can help fire relief victims in Northern California, please visit https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief.
To donate to the victims of the Thomas Fire, currently devastating parts of the South Central Coast, please visit https://vccf.org/donate/make-a-donation/.
*All photos provided by Cameron Ingalls.