A 100 Point Party Reveals Cultural Differences

You’ve got to give it to the Wine Spectator. These folks know how to throw a party.

Last night I went as Jeff Mayo’s date to the now annual Wine Spectator Party at the Hotel Healdsburg. Marvin Shanken and crew used to only throw a Napa "big bottle" party in conjunction with the auction. A few years ago they started holding a Sonoma version of the event.

I’ve been to the Napa party also, but it has been a few years. What was interesting was listening to one of the writers for the Spectator explain to me the difference between the Napa and the Sonoma events:

"Here in Sonoma there will will be a slow and steady in guests arriving. Then there will be a 45 minute crescendo when it’s hopping. Then, it will die down and the folks will go home to sleep. But in Napa, it reaches that crescendo and they just keep on going partying hard."

His description of the pace of the Sonoma party was dead on. After the peak of the party (which seemed to coincide with the passing of cigars and the band moving into a rendition of Sweet Home Alabama) the attendees started slow drift out, no doubt getting home to sleep because we all know that over here in Sonoma the vintners actually work for a living…….woops. That slipped out.

Nevertheless the food was spectacular (that ham that Charlie Palmer cooked up was outrageous!) and the many folks who contributed magnums to the party brought their best stuff, so there was ample opportunity to taste stuff I’d only read or heard about before. The Sonoma wine community came out in full force for Mr. Shanken’s party. And this was another of the very cool things. I got to meet a number of vintners and wine types who I knew of and whose wines I’ve drunk but never met face to face.

But this morning I keep thinking about the distinction the Wine Spectator writer made for me about the difference between the Sonoma and Napa parties. It is a truth that there is a real difference between the Napa culture/experience and the Sonoma culture/experience. It’s hard to sum up with a simple line. But a few things occur to me about the reality and perception between Napa and Sonoma:

Upper Class vs. Working Class
Developed vs. Developing
Cultured vs. Multicultural
World Class vs. Class

I’m hoping I can get my own invite to the Wine Spectator party next year or at least be Mayo’s date again. It wasn’t so bad. I didn’t have to dance with him.

3 Responses

  1. Greg Walter - June 6, 2007

    First, a minor correction. The Sonoma version of the Wine Spectator Magnum Party actually had its first incarnation at the old Piatti restaurant (Now El Dorado Kitchen) in the town of Sonoma. It was discontinued after a couple of years and then resurrected up in Healdsburg at least a decade later.
    I agree with you completely that there is a definite difference between the wine cultures in Sonoma County and Napa Valley; it seems that sometimes in Napa it’s about “the building” — the big showcase winery — whereas in Sonoma it’s about the wine (lots more artisanal, small production, no frills wineries). Sort of a gross generalization, but I think it fits with your list of attributes.

  2. Tish - June 9, 2007

    So, if Wine Spectator’s Sonoma party is 100 points, does that make the WS Napa party 110? The points of distinction are very interesting, not so much because they are new, but because you’ve found a new way of framing the Napa vs. Sonoma character. Given the traditional glitz vs. down-to-earth dichotomy, it’s no real surprise that Napa parties harder and longer. What is even more fascinating to me is that the Spectator has achieved status as the host-with-the-most while inducing their GUESTS to provide all of the wine at these fetes totally gratis. Now that’s a coup, yes?

  3. tom - June 9, 2007

    “What is even more fascinating to me is that the Spectator has achieved status as the host-with-the-most while inducing their GUESTS to provide all of the wine at these fetes totally gratis. Now that’s a coup, yes?”
    For a man who has been accused of everything, the one thing Marvin Shanken can never be accused of is stupidity.
    The wine aspect of these parties is one of the best. The folks who bring wine tend to bring out really good stuff, or at least rare stuff. It can’t be easy to compete with this bounty, but the actual party as well as the food are clearly in contention with the wine for “best reason to attend”. It’s also pretty cool that a huge swath of the wine community also turns out.

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