The Salinas Valley may hold claim as the "Salad Bowl of the World," but the steak, lobster and decadent dessert has always belonged to the Monterey Peninsula, which casts a large shadow when it comes to culinary reputation.
But don't sleep on Salinas. Led by a core or young leaders and professionals, the nation's 150th largest city has stepped up to the dinner plate ready to feast.
All week the city has been in the midst of a long and lavish food and wine celebration, culminating Saturday with the Salinas Valley Food and Wine Festival finalé held over six city blocks in Oldtown.
"Salinas Valley will be known for its wine, art, culture and gastronomic amazement following this legendary event," said event co-chair and Salinas city councilman Steve McShane, revealing more than a hint of bravado. "Like the Salinas Airshow and the (California) Rodeo (Salinas), it is our strong attention to be a long-lasting celebration for a city that often is headlined for negative activities."
The idea for the SVFWF came about when McShane met some friends a few years ago at another foodie acronym, PBFW (Pebble Beach Food & Wine).
"What an event they have," said McShane. "We just looked at each other and said, 'Why can't we do this in Salinas?' We are a city of 150,000, the county seat, with affluence, a large wine region surrounding us, and citizens who appreciate food, culture and art."
So in less than 100 days the Oldtown Salinas Foundation and the Monterey County Young Professionals Group organized a group of volunteers and pulled off the first SVFWF last year.
"It was an ultimate celebration, but our team grew and we started working on a bigger and better event for this year," McShane said. "And boy have we cashed in."
This year, the Oldtown footprint makes up six city blocks, with four stages, a VIP pavilion (at the National Steinbeck Center), 150 vendors, 50 wineries and 30 breweries.
It all started last Friday with its official kick-off party called Uncorked, featuring an evening of food, wine, spirts and live entertainment by the 1980s pop band Berlin. A day later, 80 lucky guests attended the Purple Crush Winemaker's Dinner held at a private estate.
The remainder of the week features an Enchanted Vines Winemakers Dinner on Friday with celebrated chef Todd Fisher preparing a five-course meal and winemaker Steve Pessagno providing the pairings. Held at the elegant Pebble Beach home of Dr. and Mrs. Bryan Mansour, the dinner costs $150 and is limited to 50 couples.
The main event happens Saturday from noon to 5p.m., "and the best part is that it's free," said McShane. Families are encouraged to attend and roam the Oldtown streets, where they will be met by an impressive collection of vendors, lectures, musical acts and cultural presentations, along with a novel vintage car, boat and motorcycle show. Two of the most popular local musical groups, the Money Band and the Chicano All-Stars, will perform, and one of the largest collections of farm machinery will be put on display.
A family fun zone will provide games and activities organized by the Police Athletic League. Foodies will gather at Salinas Valley Alley. Here they can find barbecue specialties, a produce market and a tasting pavilion, where 10 local produce companies will feature signature dishes made from locally grown products.
"We literally have something for everyone," said McShane, who wants attendees to discover "the wonder the Salinas Valley has to offer as we enjoy some of the greatest coastal wines ever produced."
Those who wish to imbibe in alcoholic beverages must pay $40 for the privilege ($50 day of the event). A wristband provides unlimited sips of wine (many local wines from the more than 40,000 acres of wine grapes grown in Monterey County) and beer (one of the most popular draws is the beer garden, where guests can choose from dozens of regional micro-breweries, led by Peter B's Brew Pub of Monterey.
Of course, there's a VIP experience, borrowed, in concept, from the decadent Pebble Beach Food & Wine. The National Steinbeck Center will be turned into an ultra tasting lounge with "cirque-like entertainment and live art," McShane said. "We will transform the exterior of the center into an experience like nothing seen before in the 831."
For $80, guests will sample food prepared by chefs throughout Monterey County, all paired with vintage and premium wines poured by the winemakers. VIP ticketholders can also sample the winning cocktails from the event's inaugural Cocktail Throwdown.
Enjoy cooking demos, exclusive pourings from Caymus, a bubble bar (with sparkling wine), a hookah lounge, a cigar bar, a whiskey bar and a tequila bar.
"The food and wine culture attracts really creative people," said McShane, "and they've come out in full force to help create this event."
Attendees are invited to park in the city's Oldtown parking garage adjacent to the Steinbeck Center. From there, they have the option to check in at one of two registration and information tents. Guests will have their identification checked and issued wristbands permitting them to sample beers and wine (a souvenir glass is also included).
McShane said that more than 100 safety professionals will be on site to help ensure a festival that is "well run, safe and enjoyable for everyone."
Mike Hale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. GO!
FOOD & WINE
·What: Second annual Salinas Valley Food and Wine Festival
·Where: six blocks of Oldtown Salinas and the National Steinbeck Center
·When: noon to 5p.m., Saturday, Oct. 20
·Tickets: free event; wine and beer tasting wrist band $40 ($50 at the gate); VIP access $80; order at www.salinasvalleyfoodandwine.com
·Information: www.salinasvalleyfoodandwine.com or 758-0725
FOOD & WINE