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Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival - Bodega, California

By Janet Ciel - creator of the Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival
May 12, 2022
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Ever wonder how a festival gets started? Find out how Janet Ciel created the amazing Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival in Bodega, California.

It began as a harmless, ‘what-if’ conversation with my then-husband (fondly referred to as my ‘wasband’ these days), about putting on a festival on a ranch overlooking the ocean. We’d already been producing a very small art and wine festival in a quaint rural community on the Russian River, in Sonoma County California, and had been approached by a local landowner wanting a festival on his property.

The ranch owner had offered his land and this opportunity to us at a time in our lives when we were least prepared to accept it. Both of us were craftspeople: Michael was (is) a photographer and I made hand dyed and printed women’s clothing. We both traveled to various places in the country to do art shows, and we're in the final stages of leaving our Sebastopol home to rent a house in Key Largo, Florida for the winter months. We’d each booked nine festivals back there, as there were none during this season close to home.

We visited the ranch, we're intrigued by the possibilities, but unsure how we could put on a new festival when we’d be on the East Coast until April, but we gave him a tentative yes.

When we hit the road we looked like something out of Grapes of Wrath, Michael’s van towing mine, each loaded to near-explosion with everything we’d need for three months away from home. The endless miles between us and southern Florida opened up a world of conversations.

Bodega seafood festival
Festival creators Michael and Janet - Courtesy of Janet Ciel

“What if we did a seafood festival?” Michael was flipping through a publication called Sunshine Artists, which had hundreds of festivals, fairs, art shows listed, all in the Gulf States. I was driving, or trying to. Towing something this back-heavy meant the front of the van barely touched the ground, making steering this monstrosity akin to maneuvering a bumper car. “I mean, the ranch overlooks the ocean, and there are a ton of seafood festivals in Florida, but there’s nothing quite like this in our area.”

I had to admit, it did sound like a good idea. And so it began. Being in Florida we got to see firsthand how some of these events were set up, and found most to be carnival-like. Since our world revolved around artists, we determined this would have to be a high quality event, to draw fine art and craft-vendors and an appreciative crowd, even if it was on a dusty horse ranch.

From our little condo in Key Largo we sent solicitations out to all the artists and craftspeople we knew. We reached out to food vendors, wineries, tenting companies, graphics people, and more. By the time we returned in mid-April we found ourselves deep into full-blown festival production, and by the end of August of 1993 the first Bodega BAY Seafood, Art and Wine Festival opened its gates. We had almost eighty artists, several dozen wineries participating in a tasting, a dozen food vendors, including a couple of local seafood restaurants, and excellent entertainment.

Courtesy of Bodega Seafood, Art and Wine Festival

For ten years we held the event every August on the ranch, located just north of the village of Bodega Bay on Highway 1, a scant two hours from San Francisco and other Bay Area locales. It had horse rental facilities, a bed and breakfast, and ample space for the 7000+ attendees. At times the location was a spectacular asset, when the skies were clear and the views picture-postcard worthy, but more often than not the site was enshrouded in thick fog or had fierce winds, which destroyed artists’ tents and merchandise. Because it was a horse ranch there was a constant pile of horse manure in the parking lot, and an accompanying stench that, though some might have considered charming and rural, vendors and the health department were not so fondly inclined.

You might note the word BAY is capitalized in a previous paragraph, and wonder why. It’s because the festival is no longer located in Bodega BAY, but rather in the village of Bodega. Year eleven we were fortunate to find a beautiful ranch inland from our previous location. On Highway 12, or Bodega Highway, Watts Ranch sits across the road from the famous schoolhouse featured in the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds, in the teeny village of Bodega, one mile inland and four miles south of our previous site. With a large willow bank to the west blocking the wind, no horses or cows, and generally warmer and more pleasant conditions, the new home for the festival has continued to be the perfect spot for this wonderful event.

Yes, Michael is now my ‘wasband,’ but we still produce the festival together. This is year twenty-six for us, and you’ll find similarities to the very first years, but lots of growth as well. Besides attendance having increased over the years we now have more than a hundred fine artists and craftspeople filling the aisles, along with fifteen+ food vendors, featuring all types of food, with an emphasis on seafood. Crabcakes, oysters, calamari, fish tacos, shrimp Louie, and dozens of other dishes are available, along with lots of chicken, meat and vegetarian options and bevy of desserts.

BIG BOYS’ BBQ OYSTERS
Courtesy of Bodega Seafood, Art and Wine Festival/ Margot Duane

The Wine, Microbrew and Cider Tasting is a very popular part of the festival, featuring 50+ companies. Customers buy a commemorative glass and 6 tastes (1/3 of a glass). They can buy additional taste tickets for $3 each. They can also buy wine and beer by the bottle/6pack to take home, or beer and wine by the glass, which is available at the Beer/Wine Booth. For those who love to go wine tasting, imagine being able to taste dozens of wines and beers in one location.

Three stages of entertainment keep the energy high throughout the weekend. Two stages feature blues, jazz, Latin, Cajun Zydeco, and other excellent music, and the third stage has comedy, magic, juggling and more. We have a large dance floor at the main stage, which is generally filled with joyful dancers.

We love families and have wonderful kids’ activities, including interactive exhibits set up by our beneficiary, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, the non-profit working in conjunction with the California State Parks in the Russian River region. The festival also benefits the Bodega Volunteer Fire Department, and ours is an event that welcomes (and gives discounts to) firefighters and first responders. Our area has seen its share of fire in recent years, and we’re forever grateful to the men and women who put their safety on the line to protect ours.

We’re a scant few miles from the ocean, so the festival is a perfect add-on to a beach adventure. We’re also a ways down the coast from the Russian River, another popular day outing which works nicely paired with a few hours of eating, drinking, dancing and shopping.

So Hold Onto Your Halibut! Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival is August 27th and 28th from 10am-6pm on Saturday and 10-5 on Sunday. Watts Ranch is at 16855 Bodega Highway, in Bodega California 94922. More information can be found at www.bodegaseafoodfestival.com. Don’t miss it!

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