Lafayette Art and Wine Festival – A Fine Pairing

When Scott Hampton was president of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce many years ago, he set about to create a city-wide event which would engender a sense of community. As a proper Chamber leader, he sought a way to draw people to the downtown area in order to showcase the many businesses in Lafayette. He envisioned a festival – something similar to the Concours d’Elegance, once held annually at Acalanes High School. In 1995, his vision took life in the form of the first Lafayette Art & Wine Festival. The 3,000 people who gathered at Lafayette’s Plaza Park for wine, good food and a little music made the event a rousing success. Hampton surely could not have predicted that his little festival would morph into an annual marquee event, putting Lafayette on the festival-scene map. 16 years after its introduction, the Lafayette Art & Wine Festival has become one of the premier festivals of its kind in Northern California, and Hampton couldn’t be more pleased.

Nearly 100,000 people now attend the festival, held the third weekend of September in downtown Lafayette on closed blocks of Mt. Diablo Boulevard and Lafayette Circle. It is the largest event in Lamorinda (a term referring to the cities of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda) and one of the five biggest outdoor festivals in Contra Costa County. Hampton, owner of Lafayette’s Clocks, Etc. on Moraga Boulevard, has been on the Festival committee since day one, and he marvels at the transformation he’s seen in the last 16 years. “Everything has changed, except for the amazing weather!” says Hampton. “We’ve gone from one music stage in the beginning to four music stages. We have over 200 artists, lots of food choices, about 20 beer and wine booths, including craft beers and fine wines in the Premium Wine Pavilion, local artists, hundreds of volunteers and a large committee. We’ve had some extremely hot years, and also the occasional raindrop, but it has always been a beautiful weekend; and we’ve ordered great weather for this year!”

Jay Lifson, executive director of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and the event’s sponsor, also remembers the first festival. “It was pretty low key and included a petting zoo,” laughs Lifson. “Within three years it grew and caused us to move it to Mt. Diablo Boulevard. Now we’ve got hundreds of arts and crafts vendors, a wide variety of food options, and specific entertainment just for kids at the KidsZone, where the young ones will find games, arts and crafts projects, music and magic. It’s the same fun we’ve always had, just a little more to recycle.”

The Lafayette downtown area, with its beautiful shade trees, unique architectural blends and easy street layout make a perfect venue for the festival. The vibe is ‘urban meets hometown quaint’. The musical offerings are eclectic, as is the art. Art collectors will find a little bit of everything: watercolors, oil painting, prints, ceramics, photography, blown glass, pottery, wire sculpture, wood working and jewelry. “It has really turned into an end-of-summer party for Lamorinda, as well as a festival,” says Lifson. “It has a small town feel and allows new visitors to Lafayette to meet our merchants along Mt. Diablo Boulevard and Lafayette Circle. We are really lucky having a great partner in BART that stops at the front steps of our event and has additional parking for our guests. We typically have over 40 non-profits participating, getting their message to a lot of people. And, it’s a chance for residents to talk with city council members, the city manager, local police and firefighters.”

As a former employee of Diablo Publications, Orinda resident Susan Stafford worked the Diablo booth at the festival for several years and found the experience to be fun and energizing. “Meeting festival patrons and shooting the breeze creates a sense of community,” says Stafford, who delights in the small-town feel. “I like mingling with Lamorindans, tasting different ethnic foods, dog watching and seeing all the babies in strollers and kids riding on their dads’ shoulders. I like the old-fashioned nature of these festivals – looking at and buying hand-made crafts and watching kids gorge on corn dogs and sticky pink cotton candy. I thoroughly enjoy the mood.”

Chelley Dallara of Eckerstrom Productions is in charge of booking the 200 participating vendors. She has an extensive mailing list from which vendors are obtained, and she regularly sources new vendors from events and happenings around the state as well as from advertising in trade journals and word of mouth. “There are always many new vendors, as well as many of our old favorites,” says Dallara. “There is also a local artist alley featuring Lamorinda artists.”

“The beauty of these events is that they have a little something for everyone,” says Dallara. “And there is always something new to see. The Lafayette Art & Wine Festival has a substantial amount of fine art and I believe part of what people are drawn to is coming out, meeting the artists in person and chatting with them. There are so many unique and interesting pieces to look at. It is fun to be able to talk to the artists and ask questions to know more about the art itself – what thought process or background went into a piece of art – and obtain new levels of understanding about the items that interest us.”

Printmaker Linda Yoshizawa has been participating in the festival since 1999 and, in addition to the camaraderie of the artists and the people watching, the connection to the public is what she most appreciates. “I enjoy talking to people about the process involved in making my monotypes,” says Yoshizawa. “It gives me the opportunity to explain the difference between original prints and reproductions. When I explain what I do I can see that it enhances their appreciation of the artwork. I think that the number of people who are actually interested in fine art has gradually increased. I have had people who come by my booth and say, ‘I have seen and loved your work for years and I am finally ready to buy.’ That makes it worthwhile for me.”

“Lafayette is developing a reputation for encouraging its artists,” says silk painter Maggie Lucas-Hill, who will be exhibiting paintings and her line of table accessories at the festival. “Local artists are pleased that they are valued in the community, and that the Chamber of Commerce wants to showcase us. The festival offers an opportunity for local artists to show their work alongside other seasoned crafters from various regions and provides exposure to a large number of attendees.”

Hampton says the challenge with the festival is to keep it fresh, interesting and enjoyable year after year. Visitors this year can expect new bands in the music lineup, better parking and new Lafayette restaurants and stores in the downtown area. “We book popular, high-quality bands, the art is juried and the food selection is of quality,” says Hampton. “Some of our local restaurants and caterers participate, and we encourage the merchants along the festival route to showcase their wares. We also provide space for the local artists to display their work. With the money that we raise from the festival we donate thousands of dollars to many local non-profit organizations, such as Lafayette Partners in Education.”

Music lovers can expect another great lineup this year. On the Art Stage, at 50 Lafayette Circle, Saturday afternoon and evening headliners include the Spazmatics and Annie Sampson. Playing on the same stage Sunday will be Lafayette’s own Bob Athayde, Dave Martin’s House Party, and Leo Vigil. The Wine Stage, at 3582 Mt. Diablo Boulevard, features a Saturday lineup of Red House, Chubby’s All-Stars, Who Too and Santana Tribute Band Zebop! Sunday’s Wine Stage offerings include Rock Skool, Front Street and the Sun Kings. The third music venue, the Premium Wine Stage, will feature Ragged Glory and Dream Posse on Saturday, and on Sunday, Julia Glyde, Phladdog and ML Crisis will entertain throughout the day and evening.

Hampton’s favorite part of the festival weekend is watching the crowds and seeing people enjoying themselves. He, of course, spends the weekend working. “I start off at 5 a.m. on Saturday working with the committee and the volunteers to get everything up and running for our 10 a.m. opening. The rest of the weekend I am busy working the festival as part of the committee, and also running back and forth to my store, Clocks, Etc., and to our booth in the La Fiesta Square Shopping Center. It is a very hectic but fun weekend.”

“It is simply a festival not to be missed!” adds Lifson.

The Lafayette Art & Wine Festival is Saturday, September 17, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and Sunday, September 18, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.. Admission is free, however, you must purchase a festival glass and drink tickets if you wish to drink the beer or wine that is poured “on the street” or in the Premium Wine Pavilion. Dogs are allowed, but must be kept on a leash and in control at all times. From 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., the pavement is cooler, the temperature is lower and there is ample room for your dog. As the event progresses, it gets crowded and can become dangerous for your pet. No dogs allowed in the food court.

To get to the festival, take BART to the Lafayette Station where you’ll find continuous shuttle service to the festival. If you drive, take Highway 24 to the Central Lafayette exit and follow the festival signs. Free parking is available at the upper lot of the Lafayette BART station. Walking and biking is encouraged. For GPS purposes, enter the address 3535 Mt. Diablo Boulevard, Lafayette, CA.


Fran is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Lafayette, Alamo and Danville Today newspapers. She lives in Lafayette with her husband, Dan and two teenaged boys, Aaron and Ben.