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Chocolate festival welcomes wines

The Oregon Chocolate Festival has been a staple winter attraction for Rogue Valley natives and visitors since 2005.

The brainchild of Karolina Lavagnino, Neuman Hotel Group director of sales and marketing, the festival was designed as a destination event to boost off-season sales.

“It was all about filling the Ashland Springs Hotel and generating food and beverage revenue,” Lavagnino says. “Chocolate is loved by young and old, by men and women, so I thought, let’s try that!”

The first year, the event was held in the Ashland Springs grand ballroom, featured 14 vendors and was attended by 300 to 400 people. Participation has since boomed to 50 vendors and 2,500 attendees, necessitating a move to the larger Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites.

For many years the exhibitors at the festival expo were exclusively from Oregon, but this year chocolatiers will be coming from Idaho, Utah, California and Washington. “The great thing is we never had any expectations of what it could become,” Lavagnino adds. “We were not into the foodie scene. I don’t think the word even existed back then.”

So what does all this have to do with the local wine industry? Glad you asked. This year’s event, scheduled for March 8-10, kicks off with a gala chocolate maker’s wine dinner held at the Ashland Springs Hotel Friday evening.

In 2008 a chocolate maker’s dinner was incorporated into the weekend. “Initially it was not with wine,” Lavagnino explains, “but only to show how chocolate could be incorporated into each course. Now we collaborate with local wineries to make it a very special event.”

Dana Keller, Neuman Hotel Group director of food and beverage, talks about selecting wines with Larks executive chef Franco Console and sommelier Jennifer Williamson.

“We discussed the flavors of each course — like bitter chocolate, sweet or smoky — and then Jen focused in on the varietal she thought would pair well with each course. We talked about how the grenache, for example, would go really well with that pork belly.”

The first course, a crab fritter with a bitter chocolate-ancho chili paint, is paired with RoxyAnn 2015 Chardonnay. The second course, cocoa nib cider braised pork belly tartine, is served with Upper Five 2016 Grenache. Next is a coffee-rubbed beef brisket with bittersweet chocolate coastal huckleberry demi-glace paired with Quady North 2015 Syrah 4-2,A. The dessert, a dark chocolate-Earl Grey terrine, calls for 2Hawk 2015 Ruby Port. Local wineries will be represented by the winemakers or owners, who will be on hand to describe their wines.

And that’s not all, enologically speaking. Among the many activities scheduled for Saturday and Sunday — they run the gamut from the chocolate expo to chef demos and a 10K and 5K run/walk — are wine and chocolate guided tastings led by Williamson and local wine guru Liz Wan. At these workshops, included in the event ticket price, Williamson and Wan will deconstruct the art of wine and chocolate pairing.

The number of attendees for the Chocolate Maker’s Wine Dinner is limited to 150, so don’t delay if you’re interested. For information on all weekend events and to purchase tickets, see www.oregonchocolatefestival.com.

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mjdaspitwinot@gmail.com. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.