First off, let me say the Kendall Jackson Estate grounds are gorgeous. The tasting room is easily one of the most beautiful buildings I have visited- and the gardens surrounding the vineyards are exquisite. I need to head back when the space isn't set up for a huge event, because I could wander the gardens with a picnic basket and a glass of wine all day- especially the culinary gardens. But more on that in a minute.
As we walked in through the VIP entrance (an experience you can get by buying a VIP ticket or joining the Kendall Jackson wine club), we strolled through the tasting room and shop- which was beautifully overflowing with gluten free cookies made from flour of grapes leftover from the winemaking process, clothes, accessories, cookbooks and books on cheese pairings- many from faces you'll recognize from Top Chef- as well as tons of wine, of course.
The event was completely sold out with over 2,800 in attendance- but it never felt crowded. The event was buzzing to live music from the Carlos Hererra Band, there were fun tents and lounges (including an awesome enormous bottle of Avant wine you could spin for a prize), stations serving wine slushies, tons of delicious food and of course- plenty of delicious wine.
Watching @topchefkevin and chef Justin Wangler compete in the #kjtomfest chef challenge! 3 chefs from @topchef vs #kendalljackson chefs - paired with amazing wines. #scdtravel #sweetcsdoessonoma #sonomacounty #tomatofestival #foodie #foodblogger #foodgasm #topchef
Once inside, we hung out and watched the Chef Challenge for a while. We are huge Top Chef fans in our house, so we were thrilled to see some of our favorites- Chef Kevin Gillespie, Chef Sang Yoon, Chef Douglas Keane, and Kendall Jackson's executive Chef Justin Wangler. There was a ton of good-spirited smack talk, but all of the chefs were great to watch and had so much fun together. After the first two rounds, the eliminated chefs helped the others out. The first round saw Kevin Gillespie take Justin Wangler, and Sang Yoon topped Douglas Keane in the second round. Sang Yoon won overall in the third round- which was so much fun to watch! The setup was awesome- we were seated very close to the chefs and judges, and they had fun emcees for the whole affair. The tables also had great mirrors overhead, so you could see all of the action! It was great to watch such fabulous chefs doing what they love- and having a whole lot of fun with it. They were generous about throwing out as many tips as possible (while still preparing a dish in 20 minutes- quick fire style) and I feel like I learned a lot from watching how they old knives, prepare meat and vegetables, and move in a kitchen. It was also awesome to see just how cool the pantry areas are in chef challenges (who else watches these shows on tv and just wants to roam around the pantry? I definitely wanted to here!). This was at the end of the challenge, but shows you how many beautiful fresh foods the chefs had to chose from in addition to the secret ingredients for each challenge.
Fave of the day: @douglaskeane and Healdsburg Bar and Grill's chicken wing + Bloody Mary. #kjtomfest #kendalljackson @kjwines #scdtravel #sweetcsdoessonoma #winevacay #foodie #foodporn
After checking out the Chef Challenge, it was all about the food (and wine) for us. We headed around to as many vendors as we could to sample fine cheeses, artisan coffee, and tons of dishes competing for the best heirloom tomato based dish of the night. Some of our favorites were an incredibly perfect fried chicken wing from Healdsburg Bar and Grill which was paired with a (non alcoholic) bloody mary, fresh oysters in the Avant lounge, all of the cheeses from Beehive Cheese, Taverna Sophia's whipped feta with tomato over a fresh pita, and Costeaux Bakery's amazing cornbread topped with cheese and tomatoes that they made in a huge pan (pictured below).
The winners of the culinary booth competition were: the Hilton Sonoma County for their lobster and smoked mozzarella arancini with heirloom tomatoes for the people's choice award (a close second for me), the Applewood Inn & Restaurant - Rabbit sausage corn dog with Heirloom Tomato ketchup for the critic's choice, and Pelaton Catering won the best decorated booth.
The mushrooms from Mycopia were incredible in a delightful take on a caprese, only with mushrooms instead of cheese. They paired it perfectly with heirlooms and got our chips for the best dish- it tasted JUST like a caprese salad- without any cheese, and the texture of a perfectly cooked pasta. It was a delicious treat- I may have had seconds (and thirds).
While in the All Access (VIP) tent, we sampled wines from the Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve selection, noshed on some of the most delicious sushi I have ever had, ate basil ice cream with a tomato jelly, and got to sample some young wine fresh from the barrel.
Sushi and Pinot. It's a thing. #kjtomfest #foodie #winevacay #winegram #sushigram @kjwines View on Instagram
This is one experience I think every wine and spirit fan needs to try at least once- as I fully believe tasting a young wine help to give you an idea the flavors imparted by the aging process. While on our honeymoon in Scotland my husband and I got to drink some Lagavulin scotch off the line- and I can confidently say that young wine is much more palatable than young scotch. But it was incredibly interesting to try both and see what the drinks begin as. I'm not sure if this is an experience that is readily available at Kendall Jackson, but I think it's a really interesting way to get to know and wine and am so glad we got to try it!
After eating a ton of food, and filling out glasses numerous times, we headed to the culinary garden for a tour with Kendall Jackson's gardener Tucker. First off- if you're into learning about delicious plants you can grow- you need to follow Tucker on Instagram. He has amazing photos that will get you excited about growing the best fresh food you can find- he really showcases simple, fresh food in all its glory.
#tomatofest View on Instagram
Our little tour with him around his beautiful gardens was easily my favorite part of the whole day. He is so passionate about finding and cultivating the bast flavors possible, and creating experiences for guests around fresh, real food that they will want to take home and use in their own gardens. We're moving to my inlaws farm sometime in the next year, and I am not kidding when I say I asked him every question I could think of- including the best seed resources for heirloom varietals- and may have tried to beg him to come help us set up a new garden. It was impossible to not be excited about growing beautiful, unique flavors at home after talking to Tucker- he had us ready to head home and start working on the garden for next year!
One of our favorite experiences was trying the ice lettuce (or ice plant as I've found it online). Ice Lettuce is a type of lettuce that grows in Africa and pulls salt through the ground to form a crystalline like texture on the thick, rubbery leaves. It has a slightly salty flavor and was insanely delicious. When in the sunlight, it looks like the plant is coated in tiny diamonds!
We also loved trying Oyster Lettuce, which tasted exactly like a raw oyster. It was incredibly interesting, and I can see why it is now a hot commodity!
Tucker wasn't just passionate about these unique and rare plants- he shared tons of tips with us for plants you'll find in most backyard gardens, like squash, herbs and even berries.
Towards the back of the gardens, there is a quiet and lovely picnic area, and a little spot they call the sensory gardens based around the flavors you'll find in different Kendall Jackson wines- so you can smell and taste each flavor that makes up your wine individually from plants like lemon verbena, strawberries, and more. I'd love to head back in the height of summer when everything is in full bloom and try out different wines in the sensory garden. It would be an amazing way to really learn about all the subtleties and flavors in each varietal.
The Tomato Festival was an amazing experience- and one I hope I can visit again someday! Kendall Jackson made this large event effortless, and even made things like buying wine easy and quick while visiting. They truly gathered some of the best flavors in Northern California and showcased the beauty of heirloom tomatoes!
If you'd like to see where we stayed while in the area, please check out this write up of an adorable (and affordable) B&B right up the street, the Matanzas Creek Winery we visited while in town, as well as a quick tour of the sleek and gorgeous La Crema tasting room in Healdsburg.