Lafayette expects big crowds again at Art & Wine Festival
By Lou Fancher
Someone buried a gigantic magnet under Mt. Diablo Boulevard.
What else could explain the powerful force that annually draws more than 50,000 people to downtown Lafayette during the third weekend in September — some from as far away as Portland, Oregon?
There’s no mystery if you ask Karen Rose, former Lafayette Chamber of Commerce 23-year employee. Rose moved to Portland to be near her daughter, but returns each year for the Lafayette Art & Wine Festival.
“I LOVE this festival,” she writes in an email. “I’ve been with it since the beginning — 1996 —and it just keeps getting better and better.”
The 2016 festival celebrates the event’s 21st year and features art, crafts, nonprofits and vendor booths, foods from local restaurants and purveyors, two Kids Zones, Bay Area winemakers and microbrewers, and performances by musical theater groups, musicians and bands.
The two-day, no admission festival runs Sept. 17-18. Some Kid Zone activities and all alcoholic beverage tickets require a fee.
Rose remembers when the festival was paired in October with the annual Reservoir Run. Rain was a worry, and the festival then held on Lafayette Plaza and First Street drew about 5,000 people.
Rose says that jumping to September and to Mt. Diablo Boulevard, expanding the KidZone, adding two additional music stages and a Premium Wine Area led to attendance that has grown tenfold.
The event in 2015 gave back an estimated $35,000 to Lafayette Partners in Education and other local nonprofits, according to Chamber of Commerce executive director Jay Lifson, who intends to continue leading the 400 volunteers who put on the festival.
“I plan to be around for a while,” he says. “It really is a beloved event and I’d like to see it continue to thrive. And of course, it means so much to our merchants downtown and the community.”
Michael Heller owns BMW Concord. His company has been a major sponsor for years, says Lifson. Additionally, Heller is on Lifson’s “Iron Man” team, and volunteers more than 60 hours over the festival weekend.
“Where did the Iron Man name come from?” Heller asks. “That was Jay’s take on what it takes from the men and women who make it happen. We set up booths, (throw away) garbage, pick up wine, get the infrastructure up, keep it going, clean up after.”
Heller, 66, grew up in Mill Valley, working in the restaurant business.
“It’s a people business, that’s what it’s all about.”
Moving to Lafayette in 1985, he appreciated the good schools that “don’t happen by accident” and valued the city’s “give back culture,” especially as it was modeled by the chamber. Unafraid of growth and change, he marvels at the city’s thriving energy.
Rose agrees, saying the festival is a mirror that reflects the city’s welcoming demeanor and unique, three-part collaboration between the business community, residents, and public works and police departments.
“It would be hard to put this festival on if any one entity did not cooperate,” says Rose. “Our police department give us their finest officers and many of them volunteer their services to help out with security, traffic enforcement, and safety.”
Lifson says that a new Gold Mining Game, 90-foot slide and Hamster Ball Pools will attract younger generations, in addition to long-time visitors. Adults can enjoy wine poured by representatives from Lamorinda Wine Growers Association, featuring four local wineries: Captain Vineyards, Los Arabis, Deer Hill and Vincenza. Wine Thieves will host pours from roughly one dozen premium Northern California wineries.
Throughout the weekend, there’s continuous live music. In addition to established festival favorites like Santana cover band ZEBOP!, 80s hits band The Spazmatics, and jazz-lover’s Bob Athayde and Friends, The Ripplers make their debut.
“We are so stoked to play this festival,” says guitarist Tom Duffy.
The Pleasant Hill-based band launched in 2010 with a set list that covers The Beatles, Johnny Cash, The Temptations, Green Day and more.
Most recently appearing at Orinda’s The 4th Bore, Lafayette’s Metro and The Round Up and Vinnie’s in Concord, the seven-member band is a blend of pros like drummer Johnny “Animal” Miller, who played with Zakira Hooker, John Lee Hooker’s daughter, and amateurs like Duffy, a Campolindo High School English teacher and ’86 alumni.
Duffy bought his first guitar in 2006 and plays in the classroom, all the while picking up tips from students. Look for his Cherry Sunburst-colored Gibson Les Paul electric guitar and The Ripplers at noon Saturday on the Premium Wine Stage.