The idea of the Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival came from a trip to Florida in the winter of 1994. Janet Ciel and Michael Ecton, craftspeople seeking a way to make money during the lean months, applied for festivals all over the state. Each was accepted into nine different events January through March. They found a place to live on the island of Key Largo and rented out their Sebastopol house.
Prior to leaving for their journey, their belongings, including craft production supplies and computers (no laptops in those days) packed into two vans, one vehicle precariously towing the other, they got a call from a Bodega Bay landowner. He wanted to know if they’d be interested in putting on a festival on his property. He had a large ranch, and knew their names from the Festival of Art & Wine in Duncans Mills, a festival they’d produced for more than ten years. They agreed, but left wondering what they would do and how to do it from Florida.
On the east coast noticed seafood festivals in various states and realized a seafood festival in Sonoma County might be a big hit. The landowner agreed.
The work began when they realized all the applications, winery solicitation and permitting paperwork would need to be done from Florida. There was no email in those days, so mail, fax and phone were the means of communication. At one point much of the mail that had been forwarded from Sebastopol got lost, including many craft applications for the new festival.
Despite the challenges they pulled it off and the first year drew huge crowds to Chanslor Ranch just north of Bodega Bay. The parking lot had only one entrance, and at 11am on opening Saturday an RV broke down at the entrance, causing a traffic jam on Highway 1 and a threat from the Highway Patrol to shut down the festival.
The problem was resolved the festival stayed open that year, and was held nine more years on the ranch. This location, though spectacular when the weather cooperated, was endlessly problematic. Fog and intense wind often made for uncomfortable conditions for visitors and vendors. The ranch rented horses, so had large mountains of horse manure in the parking lot each year; unsanitary conditions which made the health department none too happy.
At year ten Michael and Janet decided they were done unless they could find another locale. Driving down Bodega Highway one day, Michael said a piece of property they were passing would be a perfect new location just as the landowner pulled into his driveway. He was assistant chief for the volunteer fire department and after some negotiations he agreed to allow the festival to move to his ranch if it could benefit the fire department. The current beneficiary, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, was amenable, so it was a done deal.
Fifteen years later, Watts Ranch on Bodega Highway has proven to be the ideal spot for this wonderful event. It’s right on a major highway, so very visible, but not on the coast, which makes the weather substantially better. The owners are always looking to improve the site, and are easy to deal with. The village of Bodega is charming and historic, but down home and not touristy.
No longer married, Michael and Janet still work together to produce this stellar event, focusing on making it a quality festival from the food, drinks, and art to the excellent entertainment. They draw a crowd of around 10,000 yearly, from the Bay Area and beyond, some finding it for the first time, others who’ve been coming for years. This is a festival to fall in love with.