By Lucky Kalanges
One of the most exciting changes coming to the Alameda County Fair this year is the relocation of the Brew, Cocktail and Wine Fests from the infield tents to the bustling Stella Artois Grandstand during the busiest Saturdays of the Pleasanton horse racing meeting. If you attended any of the three Fests last year and are planning to do so again, you can count on your experience being elevated on several fronts:
- You will be immersed in the racing and betting action with an abundance of ways to wager. If you like to bet on horses while sipping craft brews, freshly mixed cocktails or an award-winning assortment of local wines, it will be much easier for you to do so with numerous live tellers and self-service betting machines within short walking distance.
- While having your own exclusive area to sip, savor and wager, you can also step out and be part of the crowd, cheering on your favorite horses and jockeys as they thunder down the stretch to put more money your wallet. Don’t forget your phone because selfies by the rail and winner’s circle are encouraged.
- Ample restrooms built for 1970s crowds. While we’re not talking lap of luxury here, if you have any kind of porta-potty-phobia, you’ll appreciate improved ventilation, flushing toilets, running sinks with plenty of soap and paper towels in the Grandstand.
Tickets for the Brew Fest (June 15), Cocktail Fest (June 22) and Wine Fest (June 29) may be purchased up to one day in advance of each event on the Alameda County Fair website for $40 each, which includes Fair admission. Admission to all three Fests can be purchased up to June 14 for just $90 – a $30 savings – and includes Fair admission for all three days. Season pass holders can purchase admission to each Tasting Fest for $25 per person. All guests must be 21 or older to attend the Beer, Cocktail and Wine Fests.
Now that we’ve got the logistics out of the way, let’s dive into some of the libations.
The Brew Fest kicks off the trio on Saturday, June 15, from 2 – 5pm and features samplings from more than a dozen west coast breweries from California, Oregon and Washington. Among those that caught my eye were Deschutes (Bend, OR) and Elysian (Capitol Hill, WA). I discovered Deschutes after picking up a six pack of Mirror Pond at my local supermarket. It’s a copper-hued pale ale that kind of splits the difference between the robust spiciness of an IPA and the drinkability of a lager or pilsner. The latter, but certainly not lesser, Elysian has taken west coast pubs by storm with its high ABV IPA, Spacedust, which has the ability to raise your spirits within a single pint.
For the locals, I count it a good sign while Googling “Altamont” that the first word to populate behind it is “Brewery.” For hop-fanatics, the Livermore based, Altamont Beer Works doesn’t disappoint, boasting a pair of 9.0% ABV Double IPAs in Hella Hoppy and Juice Above the Clouds. For fans of Ron Burgundy and the Anchorman franchise like me, a tip of the Rich Mahogany Red Ale is a must.
The murders-row Beer Fest lineup is rounded out by Drakes, Epidemic, Firestone Walker, Golden Road, Lost Coast, Seismic, Sierra Nevada, Speakeasy, and 10 Barrel, among others, which makes your chances of finding a beer you like better than cashing a $2 show bet on a 1-to-5 favorite.
The middle jewel of the Triple Crown of booze and by far the most spontaneous of the trio, Cocktail Fest, brings together local bartenders to create their own signature concoctions from a list of chosen spirits. Instead of sipping a completely finished product, like an IPA or Chardonnay, you’ll get a local bartender’s specific take on a staple drink like a margarita or Manhattan, or a custom cocktail they created themselves. Prior to pouring, each bartender will combine a spirit with his or her chosen mixers to create a unique, refreshing concoction aimed at putting your mind on a trajectory toward cloud nine.
Last year’s Fest included brands such as Bulleit and Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Don Julio Reposado and Maestro Dobel Diamante Tequila, Kettle One and Hangar One Vodka, Slane Irish Whiskey, Jack Daniels Rye Whiskey, and Bambu Rum. This year’s lineup is expected to combine some new brands along with some from last year’s menu. Check the Testing Festivals page as we get closer to the event to get the official list of spirits.
Cocktail Fest-goers seeking their own creative outlet – and cash money! – can participate in the annual Hat Contest, which will award $100, $75 and $50 betting vouchers to the trio who design the best horse racing-themed hats. Even if you’re hat doesn’t win, there will be plenty of liquid consolation at your disposal.
The Cocktail Fest takes place in the Grandstand from 2 – 5pm on Saturday, June 22.
Last, but an undisputed first in total exhibitors, the Wine Fest offers by far the widest variety of choices for wine enthusiasts. If you can’t find a wine that suits your taste among the sixty – yes, that’s right 6-0 – vintners then you might as well grab a Capri Sun for the ride home.
While I don’t have the expertise or word budget to go deep into the multitude of wine-makers who’ll be pouring at Wine Fest, both the history and recent history of Livermore Valley winegrowers are well-represented. Tracing its origin back to 1883, Wente Vineyards is known for producing the country’s first labelled chardonnay in 1936. The variety is also a forte of the Wood Family Vineyard, which has picked up 16 awards just this year, including a Double Gold for its 2017 Chardonnay and a Best of Class for its 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon.
To dig a little deeper into the Wine Fest, I hit up Bay Area expert Dan Fischer to get his take on some of the vintners on the list that he’s visited. Those looking for a refreshing wine on a hot summer’s day, should check out Peju, a family-owned vineyard from Rutherford (Napa Valley), which will be pouring its Sauvignon Blanc at this year’s Wine Fest. “Their Sauvignon Blanc is one of the better ones produced in the Napa Valley and is a great value,” Dan said. “It’s a clean/fresh wine made in stainless steel, perfect for summer and pairs well with charcuterie and goat cheese.”
Dan also recommended a pair of Oakland-based wineries, Brooklyn West and Dashe. The latter is a family-owned operation that partners with small growers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties to craft premium wine. Dan suggests trying Dashe’s “fuller bodied single-vineyard Zinfandels (Todd Brothers Ranch won a SF Chronicle Medal), a lighter Zinfandel, Les Enfant Terribles from Mendocino, and a sparkling wine made from 100% Chenin Blanc.”
Brooklyn West is a unique operation housed in the oldest warehouse in the Jack London District of Oakland (circa 1914). They don’t own any vineyards, but partner with growers throughout California to make small production wines that reflect the regions where they are grown.
Dan recommends their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Reserve – as well as “dessert style” offerings such as their Port Style wine called “Encore” and a late harvest sweet wine called “Ice.”
Attendees who might be there for the horses as much as the wine can only hope Stoney Ridge pours some of its 2013 Trifecta, a blend of 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Petit Sirah and 30% Sirah. That adds up to a 100% chance of making your head lighter than your wallet, no matter how you fare at the betting windows. Stony Ridge shares its Tesla Road winery in Livermore with Crooked Vine, which piled up the hardware for multiple varietals in 2017 and is no stranger to the fair circuit. It collected eight ribbons alone up the road at the California State Fair in Sacramento and earned a Best of Class for its 2014 Petit Sirah at the San Francisco Chronicle competition.
These are just a sample of the many vintners that will be taking part in the Wine Fest on Saturday, June 29, from 2 – 5pm in the Grandstand. Check out the Tasting Fests page for a full listing of all wineries and to purchase tickets to all three Tasting Fests.
We hope to “spy” you in the Grandstand with a drink in your hand this summer.