October 12, 2013

Crowds head to Riverbank for wine festival

Riverbank rolls out the welcome mat for 50,000 to wine, dine and shop this weekend at its 37th annual wine and cheese festival.

Santa Fe Street is the place to wine, dine and shop today as the Riverbank Wine & Cheese Festival winds up its 37th year.

“I come every year,” said Susie Barnwell, strolling among the booths with sister Linda Walker on Saturday. “We like the shopping ...” said Barnwell. “... and the food,” finished Walker, adding she loves the Greek gyros.

“I’m into corn dogs and fries – the basics!” Barnwell said with a laugh.

Friends Angie Presfield and Teri Alexander said they sometimes sample the wine, but both said they really have one thing in mind: “The shopping!”

“It’s just a lot of fun, said festival regular Donna Cuellar of Oakdale, walking booth to booth with her husband and grandson.

It was a first visit for Kathy Evans of Oakdale, who sat people-watching on a bench in the sun with her Riverbank friend Lupe Marin. Marin said she and her now-late husband used to come every year. “There are lots of good memories,” she said, of sitting and eating and listening to the bands.

They came early, before the afternoon crowds. “It gets really bumper to bumper,” Marin said.

The large numbers, however, are generally well-behaved, said interim Riverbank Police Chief Erin Kiely. “We work a lot of large venues. This is a pretty tame event,” he said.

Kiely has 20 officers on duty to handle the crowds, but added that parking issues tend to be the worst of it. Residents along the festival stretch of Santa Fe get courtesy alley passes for the weekend.

Despite the event’s marketing as a wine tasting, there are few drunken drivers, he said.

“There’s the occasional public intoxication, but most of the time it’s a local alcoholic. They just crash the party,” Kiely said.

Rotary organizers said the annual street fair draws roughly 50,000 people over its two-day run. But only about 1,000 of those folks will taste their way through the wine and cheese offerings at the community center, said Riverbank Mayor Richard O'Brien as he manned the door.

Inside, relaxed patrons sampled cheese cubes and hors d’oeuvres, imprinted souvenir wine glasses in hand.

“I love the wines,” said first-timer Martha Garcia of Modesto, adding she’d never tried several brands before. “And I really like that they have these young volunteers serving us food,” she said.

Among those youngsters was Ashley Genasci, who said she goes to Riverbank High and needs community service hours. Genasci was having a good time, nevertheless, handing out crackers with cream cheese and fig jam.

The nibbles were very good, commented Bud Pruden, at the event with his wife, Jeannine, for a third year. “We love it. We come down from Lake Comanche for this,” he said. Having a dozen or so vintners in one place makes it worth it, he noted. “If we find something we like, we buy it,” Pruden said.

Festival organizer Carla Strong said Rotary donates much of the proceeds to local nonprofits, about $10,000 to $15,000 each year. The event also brings business to local stores, restaurants and hotels.

For her, however, the festival does not really end at 5 tonight. Planning for the 38th annual Riverbank Wine & Cheese Festival starts tomorrow.

“It’s a 12-month process,” Strong said.

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