Bacchus by CaravaggioNo, I don’t mean “Bacchus Ruled” in some sort of metaphorical “wine is important” sort of way. I mean there was a time when Bacchus actually cavorted around Sonoma. With nymphs, assorted goatherds, and Greek choruses. Seriously, true story. They were here. Well, at least their earthly representatives were. When I explain, you’ll start to wonder, as I do, if Sonoma might not have been significantly more fun back in the 1890s. But I’m hoping the upcoming Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival (sometimes called the Sonoma Vintage Festival) will bring back those nymph-cavorting days.

Let me back up and cite my source, the inestimable Gerald Hill, the go-to man around these parts for Sonoma history. Such a wealth of local lore is Mr. Hill, that on slow news days, The Sonoma Index-Tribune (of which I’ve long declared myself an unabashed fan) often spices up the front page with one of Gerald Hill’s retellings of a bloody, scandalous or amazing event from Sonoma’s past. And since we don’t generally have much murder and mayhem in Sonoma these days, it’s great that we have a wealth of such “archives” to draw on.

So last spring, Mr. Hill gave us the real story behind the Vintage Festival, which likes to bill itself as The Second Oldest Festival in California. Or the oldest agricultural festival, depending on whether you want to credit the Rose Parade in Pasadena as being “agricultural”.

grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

Think this is the face of rural America? You haven’t been to Sonoma. Our farmers are FUN!

Well, in his article, Mr. Hill, quibbles as to whether the Festival can lay claim to being that old since there was a regrettable hiatus of nearly 50 years between the first three Festivals and when the event was revived as a yearly event. I hesitate to argue with the accomplished Mr. Hill. He’s got it all over me in Sonoma credibility: fourth generation Californian, 35 years in Sonoma, lawyer, award winning university professor of American government and politics, co-author of 30 books, including guides to six western wine regions. But I would suggest that any festival that was as eccentric, wild and unique as the Vintage Festival can afford to take a few odd decades off and still boast of being the granddaddy of them all.

As you’ll read in Mr. Hill’s article, the whole idea was the brainstorm of some of Sonoma’s original and (still) eccentric winemaking clans: the Gundlachs, the Bundschus and the Dresels back in 1897. Having rebounded from the devastation of the phylloxera scourge to enjoy their best harvest in decades, the winemakers decided to throw a party, invite everyone in the Valley and exercise their theatrical ambitions. Luckily a Bundschu girl was married to a popular dramatist who wrote songs, skits and faux Greek dramas starring many Gundlachs and Bundschus as goatherds, grape crushers and a Greek chorus. (The daughter of the publishers of The Index-Tribune featured as a nymph.) A San Francisco Opera star was imported to appear as Bacchus. Media as far away as San Francisco covered the event and people made their way by ferry, surrey and wagon to enjoy the spectacle.

Lucille Ball stomping grapes

One of the highlights of the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival? The Grape Stomp. Channel your inner Lucille Ball!

Sadly winemaking and a couple of world wars got in the way of continuing the revels until 1947 when it was revived. But the founding families, who now run the Gundlach-Bundschu winery are still up to their wild theatrics. (Remind me to tell you later about the time Jim Bundschu and his crew hijacked a tour bus of European travel writers headed to a Napa wine-tasting with Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson, and spirited them back to Gun Bun, which is in “the right valley”.) The Gundlach-Bundschu group hasn’t been slouches regarding recent Vintage Festivals. One year, they organized a “marching vineyard” with many noted Sonoma citizens dressed as grapes.

I hear these days, the Festival is back in full swing and will take over the Plaza for three days in late September. I’m told this year’s Festival will showcase the history of Sonoma’s vintages with a dramatic recreation of the raising of the Bear Flag on Sonoma Plaza — which I’m hoping will be true to historical fact with drunken miners and all. Also slated, a costumed reenactment of the Vallejo wedding, where Baron Haraszthy, the founder of the first premium winery in California had the great good sense to get his two sons married off to two of the daughters of General Vallejo, the man who ran everything around here back in the days of Mexican rule. (There’s a business strategy they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School.)

Then there is the ever popular Grape Stomp, where you can channel your inner Lucille Ball. I’m angling with one of the organizers to get me an interview with past winners. In the interest of public service, to which this blog is dedicated, I’m going to gather the training and competition tricks and techniques that will give you the edge.

Stay tuned for more about the Vintage Festival. This is the premier event in Sonoma and I’m all over it. So mark September 24th, 25th and 26th on your calendars. If you are coming to Sonoma, this is the weekend to do it.

And I’m hoping we’ll see a few goatherds, nymphs and old Bacchus himself flitting in and out among the food and wine-tasting booths.

Note: Painting at top of post: Bacchus by Caravaggio, 1595. Below: American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930.

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