NAPA, Calif. – Once you had to be a winery or vineyard worker to get invited to a harvest dinner, the ample feasts celebrating hours of backbreaking toil. These days you just need a ticket.
"People really want to have a special experience," says Chris Hall, proprietor of Long Meadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead, which is making its first foray into the pay-per-plate harvest dinner arena this fall with an event to raise money for charity. "Plus, it's a good time."
The old-fashioned tradition of private dinners for winery staff and picking crews hasn't gone anywhere. Even wineries that are putting on ticketed affairs still have those.
What's changed is an increase in events that are open to the public and/or wine club members for a fee. Now you can join in the fun of celebrating a wine country harvest — without having to actually do any harvesting.
Events range from several casual afternoon get-togethers and grape stomps to elegant affairs like a luncheon at sparkling wine house Domaine Carneros to a blowout black-tie ball at the V. Sattui winery.
And the phenomenon doesn't stop in wine country.
Harvest events were scheduled across the country, from a dinner celebrating local, sustainable food at Boxx Berry Farm in Ferndale, Wash., to a 2010 Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner, also celebrating local eats, in Stratham, N.H.
But the theme is the same, providing a front-row seat to the bounty of harvest.
"People love it. This is something they plan their whole trip to California around," says Claudette Shatto, vice president of marketing at V. Sattui in St. Helena.
Last year more than 400 people attended the V. Sattui Harvest Ball, and more are expected this year, which marks the 125th anniversary of the winery.
The evening, which costs $200 per person, begins with a Champagne reception and moves on to a six-course meal prepared by Michelin-starred chef Stefano Masanti of Madesimo, Italy. For after-dinner there's dancing to a popular San Francisco Bay area band. (A cooking class and other activities have been added on for those who want to make a weekend of it.)
Not the tuxedo type?
Boots and blue jeans are de rigueur at the Clif Family Winery & Farm's harvest dinner, which raises money for the Community Alliance for Family Farms.
The event, in its second year this fall, celebrates the produce harvest at Clif as well as the grape harvest and showcases agriculture with things like blind tomato tastings.
"We do farm tours. We take people around to see the chickens and the turkeys, the fruit orchard and the bees," says Linzi Gay, general manager of the winery, which was founded by Gary Erickson, creator of the Clif energy bar.
Cost to the general public is $75, kids are free, and the cuisine is salads, wood-fired pizza and homemade ice cream featuring wine flavors.
The Long Meadow party also is a benefit, in this case for the group Slow Food Napa Valley. It features a whole hog roast and a discussion and book signing with "Good Meat" author Deborah Krasner. Tickets are $35, on the low-end for these kind of events. The plan is to celebrate the sustainable farming practiced at the ranch and give visitors an idea of what goes on year-round, says Hall.
Long Meadow has had several harvest parties in the past, but this is the first time they've tried this approach. He's noticed more wineries putting on ticketed events for the general public, something he views as a natural outgrowth of a general push to forge stronger connections with consumers in the current wintry economic climate.
"This is definitely a fun way for people to interact with the vintners," he says.