Survival tips and scenes from Raley’s Grape Escape
It was a scorching Sacramento summer day this past Saturday but that didn’t stop more than 2,000 hungry and thirsty locals from packing into Cesar Chavez Park for the 10th annual Raley’s Grape Escape.
With only three hours to sample bites and pours from 60 restaurants and 40 wineries while a live Chef’s Challenge takes place in the center of it all, careful planning is needed to maximize your (and your mouth’s) time.
If you’re like me, you’re already looking forward to next year’s event.
With three years under my belt, here are some tips I’ve gathered to turn you into an efficient Grape Escaper:
1. Get your tickets early
The early bird not only gets the worm, it gets the cheapest tickets to Grape Escape, too! At $10 cheaper than the door price, purchasing tickets at a Raley’s or Bel Air location is the way to go. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for daily deal sites. This year, savvy buyers scored a sold-out LivingSocial deal and picked up two tickets for the price of one.
2. Map your course
After being handed your wine glass and plate, don’t forget to grab a map. As the plaza fills up, it’s nearly impossible to visit every table, so you’ll (sadly) be forced to pick and choose. Scan the list and circle your favorites, along with a few you’ve never heard of but have been meaning to give a try.
Since most people head to the right or left upon entering, lines grow quickly on either side. Be sneaky and head straight on through, starting at 9th Street before the crowds catch up.
3. Don’t be fooled by “concrete row”!
Don’t let the barren aesthetics fool you. Not only is it more time-efficient to start on 9th Street, some of the event’s best “gems” can be found on this concrete strip.
This year’s highlights (and largest portions) included sweet potato tater tots dished out by Krush Burger’s food truck, a pulled pork sandwich line served by Ludy’s Main Street BBQ and Ruhstaller pouring their suds to wash it all down.
4. Don’t neglect the “little guys”
Sure, it’s safe and delicious to sample the (frequently) tried and true like Chipotle’s juicy carnitas tacos or the guaranteed-to-please line of Barefoot wines and Geikekkan Sake.
However, with limited time and stomach space, take the opportunity to step outside your comfort zone and explore the up-and-coming local restaurants and wineries you don’t know much about.
Take, for instance, Moniz Family Wines. Without a physical tasting room, proprietor Rod Moniz relies on events like Grape Escape to get the word out about his wines. This is the case for many wineries dotting the often-neglected El Dorado and Amador wine regions, like Ironstone Vineyards (which doubles as an outdoor amphitheater), Madroña Vineyards and Jodar Vineyards and Winery.
5. Use the lines to your advantage
After the first hour of the event, lines start to snake a bit our of control. This year the lines seemed to be longer than usual, especially at booths serving generous portions. Can you say full beers from Pyramid? Yum.
Most people fill up their glass or plate and nosh while standing and planning out their next stop. Instead of wasting valuable sipping time, make your plan of attack while in line, fill up and quickly hop to the next line while you savor the bounty you’ve collected. It makes the waiting much more tolerable.
6. Don’t forget the suds!
While the emphasis is on wine, it seems like each year more breweries are added to the lineup. Beer junkies got their fix with local favorites River City Brewing Company and Pyramid Alehouse. Even big brewhouses like Sierra Nevada and Shock Top (pouring a seasonal raspberry brew) got in on the action.
7. Pace yourself
Even the most experienced wino can get a bit tipsy on a hot day, and mixing whites, reds and and ambers can make anyone queasy. Event organizers purposely place food vendors throughout the wineries, so put this strategic planning to use.
Don’t forget to make a pit stop at the Dasani table, which generously donates free water bottles throughout the event every year.
Likewise, don’t let your stomach get carried away. It would be a shame to miss out on Thai Basil’s fried rice or Michaelangelo’s marinara meatballs because your eyes were bigger than your stomach early on.
8. Bring empty pockets (or at least a recyclable shopping bag)
No food and wine show would be complete without the swag. Since your hands will be busy pouring wine and shoving food into your mouth, you’ll need a place to store the booths’ giveaways.
Bring your own foldable grocery bag or pick one up along the way. You’ll be glad you did as you collect the latest edition of Sacramento Magazine, various alcohol-opening devices and, most importantly, business cards from your favorite samplings.
By hour three and winery 20, things tend to get a bit foggy, and saving a souvenir will clear things up a bit weeks later when you’re trying to recall which winery had that delicious sauvignon blanc or petit syrah you’d like to purchase.
9. Bring a full wallet
While your best bet is to catch a ride or use your legs so you don’t have to deal with parking at all, sometimes bringing your own ride is the only option. Parking is tricky since most on-street parking around the plaza is metered and limited to only one or two hours. The cheapest option is to find a garage that charges a flat rate (around $5 is a steal). Keep in mind that most of these garages take cash only and you have to pay to enter.
If you aren’t lucky enough to find a designated driver, you’ll want to bring cash for a cab. While most companies accept plastic nowadays, cabs may be backed up when the event ends and you might be subject to slim pickings. In a clever marketing tactic, Yellow Cab (an event sponsor) made sure that this year’s event-goers knew exactly who to call by plastering their phone number on the sampling plates.
10. Don’t forget your fruits and veggies!
One of the best-kept secrets is knowing how to score free produce from the Raley’s display, the epicenter of the event. Each year as the event winds down, staff deconstruct the beautiful fruit displays and Grape Escapers walk away armed with pineapples, melons and canteloupes. Aren’t you glad you brought that grocery bag now?
While you’re waiting, you can be sure that Raley’s will be pouring something delicious. This year’s featured drink was their refreshing “Speedy Sangria” (blood orange soda, fruity red wine and citrus slices with ice).
While most of the event’s treats are (thankfully) of the carb variety, greens got their 15 minutes this year, too. Midtown eatery Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar served up a custom creation of arugula salad, cherries in port wine, red onions, Point Reyes blue cheese and aged balasamic vinaigrette, and the Institute of Technology served up plates of thinly sliced cucumbers glazed in vinaigrette.
Eating healthy can be delicious too!
11. Weatherproof yourself
June weather in Sactown can be unpredictable. Last year’s event went on despite a storm, and this year’s was held in the middle of a heatwave. Be sure to dress appropriately since the event is held completely outdoors.
Vendors pour and serve under tents, but you will spend most of the event in direct sunlight. Sunscreen is a must and sunglasses and a hat are always a good idea.
While many female attendees choose to don their best summer dresses, don’t forget that winds can cause embarassing Marilyn Monro-esque complications (especially when your hands are full).
Also keep in mind that chairs are far and few between. The majority of the event will be spent on your feet unless you’re lucky enough to steal a makeshift “seat” on the edge of a flower planter somewhere. Dress your feet accordingly and wear flats or sturdy wedges.
12. Don’t forget to keep it classy
Sacramento has a budding community of sophisticated foodies and winos, and Grape Escape is a gathering place for many of them. There are many photographers circulating throughout the event, snapping candid shots for print and online publications.
While attendees are encouraged to consume large amounts of “adult beverages,” don’t forget to keep it classy! When you see the many Grape Escape photo albums splashed across social media sites, you’ll be glad you did.
To see a complete list of participating wineries and restaurants, visit the Grape Escape website.
To stay in the loop on next year’s event, "like" Raley’s Grape Escape on Facebook.
Photo credit: Tia Gemmell, Riverview Media Photography
See more photos at www.phototia.com