I know! I still can’t believe it either.
But before I get ahead of myself, let me back up a bit, in the event that you have no idea what I am talking about. In October, I mentioned in a post that I had been chosen to be a finalist in the Sterling Vineyards Ultimate Host Contest. This meant that I, along with the three other finalists, was flown to New York last week to compete in what turned out to be an extremely challenging final challenge.
Challenging, but super fun. I love a good challenge.
We were given the task of creating the “Ultimate” party from a blank 12X12 space at a New York venue. The theme was up to us. We were provided a budget, and we were also allowed to prepare things in advance (which I either shipped to New York from Las Vegas or I carried with me in my three VERY large suitcases.) Then, from 1-5pm on the day of the party, we had to set up our space. From 6-9pm, guests and judges mingled throughout the spaces while enjoying hors d’oeuvres and Sterling wines.
The winning space, judged by creativity, originality, adherence to theme, and technical merit, would receive a nice cash prize, a trip to Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga, and the opportunity to serve as Sterling’s Ultimate Host in their social media channel.
Not too shabby, eh?
So here’s how everything went down:
Here I am with my fellow finalists, Josh, Nikki, and Lorin, all of whom created impressive and unique spaces. It was interesting to see how four people could tackle the same challenge in such different ways. Nikki’s space had a chic, minimalist feel to it, and she had the coolest custom-made table that was held up by wine bottles. Lorin’s “Sterling Star” party reminded me of something that you would see for The Oscars or New Year’s Eve — lot’s of black and gold with beautifully displayed food. Very, very elegant. Josh created a “Winter Solstice” party that was so breathtaking, even Martha would have been impressed. It was again, very elegant. I know that the judges had an incredibly tough time deciding, and that all of the guests were very well fed!
My party was not elegant. But that’s OK. I wasn’t going for elegant.
This is me in the event space that I created. After much brainstorming, I decided that my theme would be “Apres-Ski at Mount Sterling.” No, there’s not really a Mount Sterling — at least not that I know of — but I thought that I could incorporate the Sterling brand by creating a fictional ski lodge, complete with a working fireplace, vintage ski equipment (gotta love eBay!), and lots of birch decor.
Whimsical. Rustic. Fun. That’s what I was going for.
Of course, after I decided on my theme, the number one-most important-crucial next item on my agenda was………what should I wear?
Hey, I’m a girl. What did you expect?
I found this fun ski-ish sweater on-line, which, by the way, I will be wearing again and again, because now it is my lucky sweater. Then I found this cute little ski hat (on sale!) with the snazzy shades knitted right into the design. Obviously I couldn’t pass that up. Black sparkly skirt and boots — check! Outfit accomplished — onward with the planning!
I love writing poems. That said, my brand of poetry is much more Dr. Seuss than Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It always rhymes, and it doesn’t require much introspection or interpretation. I thought that it would be unique to write a poem introducing my guests to the party, kind of setting the scene for them before they entered. I mounted the poem on foam board and placed in on an easel, which I set outside.
For wall decor, I found these really great removable decals on Etsy (by the way, I am now addicted to Etsy. Visit with caution — you’ve been warned.) I couldn’t believe that I actually found the one with the ski-lift!
I was initially under the impression that our space would have three solid walls with which we could work, but when I arrived that morning, it was two curtains and one wall. Knot in stomach, beads of sweat starting to form on forehead. So, I had to regroup and incorporate portions of the wall decals into one scene as opposed to two separate scenes, like I had planned. I’m not gonna lie — these were a pain in the butt to apply, especially using a ladder 8-feet in the air when you are afraid of heights. But I was motivated, and I loved how they looked in the end.
One thing that I wanted for my space was to have some sort of activity in which guests could participate while they were there. I found this goofy snow bunny cardboard photo opp. on-line at a party store called Stumps, and I was able to customize the writing. Here I am with my good friend Erik, giving it a trial run.
Here’s another shot of the whole thing, partially blocked by my Sterling-themed Christmas tree.
One thing that distinguishes Sterling Vineyards from all of the other Napa Valley vineyards is that they have an aerial tram to bring visitors up to the wine tastings. I found a toy tram on-line, which I placed at the top of the tree instead of your typical star or angel.
Here’s a shot of the entire tree. The letters below spell out “CHEERS”, and I sprayed them with fake snow. How cool is that snow ski wine bottle holder? Yep, Etsy!
I custom made most of the ornaments on the tree to stick with the theme. There were reindeer made from Sterling wine corks, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and sparkly red pom-poms (you can kind of see one at the bottom of the picture above), and hand-painted wooden sleds that read “Sterling Vineyards Ultimate Host.” At World Market, I found inexpensive little sweaters, skis, and hats.
Now, onto the important stuff — FOOD!
I had two separate areas for goodies. There was a dessert table, which I appear to be enthusiastically giving a tour of below. I’m sure that those people are thinking “That’s great, Julie. Can you please move so that we can get our cookie on?”
Notice the hat rack with scarves in the corner. That was my mom’s idea. Nice touch, mom!
Below is a better picture of the dessert table that I put together for the party. Believe it or not, almost everything on the table was homemade by me, and I transported it all from Las Vegas. Even the super-delicate sugar cookies, which I carried on board with me in a large rolling bag. Yes, I became one with the bubble wrap and tissue paper. Amazingly, there were very few casualties along the way. Need some cookie packaging tips? I’m your girl.
The only thing that I didn’t make myself were the miniature doughnuts, which I purchased from The Donut Pub in Chelsea (and the very un-New York City price of only $5 a dozen.) I wanted to have snowy-looking powdered doughnuts as part of my display, but they needed to be as fresh as possible. Plus, I know better than to compete with an established New York doughnut maker (they didn’t disappoint.)
I wanted there to be a wide range of options for the dessert bar, so I essentially turned into a one-woman baking machine for the 48 hours prior to my red-eye departure from Las Vegas. In addition to the doughnuts, I had those savory Blue Cheese, Thyme, and Walnut Cookies from a recent blog post, Maple Rosemary Mixed Nuts, Double Chocolate Cabernet Cookies, made with Sterling Cabernet, White Chocolate “Birch Bark” with pretzels, peanuts, and cranberries, Macadamia-Coconut Snowballs, hand-decorated sugar cookies (these alone took me the better part of a day to make!), and Sparkly White Wine Cookies, made with Sterling Chardonnay. I think that’s it.
NOTE: I usually don’t like to do a blog post without a recipe, but this one is already too long, so I have posted the recipe for the Sparkly White Wine Cookies in the following post. Enjoy!
The savory cookies were a huge hit, as were the sugar cookies, pictured below:
I tried to maintain a winter or a wine theme with the cookie shapes, so I made snow globes, ice skates, sweaters, mittens, snowmen, snowflakes, wine glasses, and Sterling wine bottles. Yes, my back was killing me after I finished decorating.
The wine bottle shapes started to disappear quickly, so I made sure to hide a few for when the judges came around. I didn’t want there to be any cookie tug-of-wars! That would be very un-hostess-like.
The second area for noshing was an interactive make-your-own-s’mores bar, which these lovely guests are enjoying in the photo.
I kicked the idea up a notch by adding homemade chocolate and peppermint marshmallows along with the usual vanilla variety. In addition to chocolate bars, I offered white chocolate, Andes candies, and mini Reese’s Cups for sandwiching, and there were graham crackers, gingersnaps, and pizzelles for the cookie options.
I don’t have a great photo of the bar itself, but you can kind of see it in the corner below, next to that directional sign that I made in my garage. I learned a very good lesson about spray paint and ventilation that afternoon.
First of all, she is absolutely stunning in person. Just gorgeous. And I loved her dress–photos don’t do it justice.
I had the opportunity to take her around my space and explain everything that I did, while various camera people and guests followed. That whole portion is sort of a blur to me, but I do recall that she asked quite a few questions, and she was much less intimidating than I thought she would be, based on her Top Chef judge persona.
Padma tried the savory blue cheese cookie and really like it. I beamed.
Here I am showing her the vintage posters that I found for my wall. I received multiple questions about these from guests. “Where did you find these???” Honestly? Sports Poster Warehouse. $25. Surprisingly authentic looking. Who knew?
Here’s Padma enjoying one of my peppermint marshmallows, afterwards telling me “And I don’t even usually like marshmallow.”
I didn’t think that I was going to win. Of course, in these situations, I never ever think that I was going to win. I’m always full of self doubt. As Padma started her speech, preparing to announce the winner, I slowly shrunk back into the crowd, working my way behind the large pillar.
Then, she called my name (which kind of came out in slow motion to me.) Since I wasn’t planning on winning, I was of course holding my big, bulky camera. So I handed that to my friend, Brett, and made my way on stage. It’s a miracle that I didn’t trip. I always trip. And look at the heels on those boots. Like I said, a miracle.
After I hugged Padma, I was handed the microphone for a speech. I wasn’t prepared for this at all, so I have no idea what I said. I did remember to thank Sterling Wines though — phew!
This is my wonderful Ultimate Helper, Christian. We were each provided with a helper by Taylor PR, who organized and ran this entire event. I don’t know what I would have done without him — those decals on the wall would have most certainly not happened. And lucky Christian also got to experience Type-A stressed-out Julie as we got down to the wire. I think that’s why my husband doesn’t go to these types of things with me anymore. He’s met that version of Julie many times, so he knows better.
Representing Sterling Vineyards as a judge was their brand manager, Keith Scott. I think that he liked the little wine bottle cookies. I should probably bring some more when I take the trip to their winery
They also presented me with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers and one of those really cool big checks, which yes, I took home with me on the plane.
So that was my exciting week. I am still floating away on cloud 9, and I can’t wait to take my trip to Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga. Thank you again to all of my friends who came to the event to support me and cheer me on.
And thank you to Sterling Vineyards!! I look forward to serving as your Ultimate Host!!
Don’t forget to look at the next post for that Sparkly White Wine Cookie from my dessert bar