When I received the invitation I was eager to attend this event at Ponte Winery. I had visited the winery several times, enjoying their quality wines and excellent meals at the Smokehouse Restaurant (a Sunday brunch favorite). I have observed full parking lots on many occasions and had heard that the Grape Stomp always sells out quickly.
As temperatures soared into triple digits I was grateful that this event was scheduled to begin at 4pm. The sun was unrelenting as I made my way to the lush Ponte gardens and discovered that we would actually be dining inside the newly completed and air conditioned Vineyard Pavilion. A welcome relief from the Temecula Valley heat, the setting delivered a first class venue.
Wine bars were set in both the Pavilion and gardens, surrounded by tables of hors d’oeuvres. Several buffet areas and carving stations dotted the patio green. From a capacity crowd of 300, it appeared that most were in line to participate as a stomping team. I sipped a nice cold glass of Ponte’s Pinot Grigio and surveyed the outdoor competition area designed for about 20 teams of two per heat.
Each team consisted of a crusher and a collector. Crushers did just that, hopping into half barrels of grapes and stomping away. Collectors were multi-tasking on the outside of the barrel, funneling the juice into empty wine bottles while armed with small dowels to facilitate a steady flow. The first bottle filled was guaranteed a spot in the final heats where an ultimate winning team would receive a case of Ponte wine. “Worth playing for?” – As Jeff Probst on Survivor says. Evidently.
Although my first indication that this was no run-of-the-mill grape stomp was the beautifully appointed pavilion and delectable Heart of the Harvest Buffet, my second came when I observed a couple at an adjoining table. There they sat as if atop a cake – a beautiful bride and groom fully dressed for their nuptials. It turns out that the couple had been married at Ponte two weeks earlier and returned with their entire wedding party to stomp into wedded bliss. And yes, the bride was a crusher in her gorgeous wedding dress. This I had to see.
We were greeted by winery owner, Claudio Ponte, who had some suggestions for competitors. “Success comes from proper use of the dowel to keep the juice flowing and consumption of wine – not too much before you compete” he admonished. The crusher just needs to keep crushing but the collector has to clear the way to collect and fill that bottle first. Most important tip? – Have fun.
Children competed in their own grape stomp and enjoyed tractor rides through the vineyard. They also were pleased to receive giant Halloween-colored lollipops and see fruit and vegetables actually growing in the gardens and vineyards. An artist was drawing cartoon caricatures on the patio and the antics of the stomping teams were fun to watch,
Grape stomping battles began quickly. Glasses were filled. Hors d’oeuvres, including oysters on the half-shell and sweet & sour pork shanks, were devoured as soon as the diligent wait staff appeared with more. Inside the Pavilion, guests were enjoying a musical combination of the live relaxing sounds of vocalist/pianist/guitarist, Brian Stodart and DJ/percussionist Mike Gross. They were joined by upbeat dance instructor, Samantha Potter as the dance floor, crowded with stompers, transformed into line dancers. What a fun way to keep up the party atmosphere!
The scrumptious Heart of the Harvest Buffet was revealed. Ponte has long been recognized as a proponent of “green” living, promoting local and sustainable growers. farmers and ranchers. The Smokehouse restaurant features seasonal and regional ingredients and partners with local Slow Food events. The winery even serves as a weekly pick-up location for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes.
Naturally, Executive Chef, Greg Stillman, capitalized on the bounty of local fresh ingredients in preparing such buffet items as baby spinach salad, roasted Temecula grown potatoes, carved California lamb and stuffed loin of pork. He regularly thinks of new ways to use fresh, local ingredients.
I also had a moment to chat with winemaker, Mark Schabel who was on hand after enjoying his successful first Ponte harvest. Respectfully referred to as the “wine whisperer”, Mark promises to continue to create wines that are enjoyable and fun to drink. His parting advice was to enjoy Ponte wines with good company and heed Claudio’s motto, “If you like it, then it’s good wine.”
As the sun set over the vineyards, I strolled once again through the gardens, marveling at how diverse and wonderful the Temecula Valley really is. I will visit again on a weekday to experience the personal attention and ultimate “Day in the Country” experience for which Ponte Winery is known. I encourage you to do the same.
Ponte Family Estate – 35053 Rancho California Road, Temecula – (951) 694-8855