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Farmers Market Secrets Revealed

Chefs dish on their pro tips – and how to pair wine with your finds

Not only are farmers markets the best place to buy the freshest in-season produce, they’re also a great way to support local growers and other vendors in your area. Bonus: They’re popping up in towns both big and small across the country.

No matter where you live, there’s bound to be a market brimming with fruit and vegetables near you from late spring through fall.

I spoke with professional chefs to get insider tips to help you make the most of your shopping experience. Check out these eight tips before you head to the market.


  1. Arrive prepared. Some items are nonnegotiable, like a reusable bag for your purchases. Bring plenty of small bills, because many stalls don’t accept cards and will appreciate not having to break a bunch of $20s and $50s. Grab comfortable shoes, sunscreen or a hat, and a reusable water bottle – especially if you’re making a day of it. Consider a small cooler or rolling cart to get your purchases home in the best possible condition.
  2. Rise and shine. If you’re the early bird to the market, your proverbial worm is the best selection. You get the first pick of everything! The market will be less crowded, too, so you won’t have to jostle other shoppers for that pristine heirloom tomato. I’ve also found that getting there early means you can take a leisurely lap to scout, say, the best-looking strawberries or the sprightliest greens before deciding what to buy.
  3. Strike up a convo. Make friends with the farmers. Even if you’re a newbie, don’t be shy about asking questions! Typically, the person behind the table had a hand in growing or producing it. That means they have virtually unlimited knowledge about what they’re selling. Plus, they can almost always give you useful preparation tips. Did you make something delicious with their produce last week? Tell them about it!

    Another pro-level added benefit of getting to know the farmers: “Once you establish a relationship, they may even hold your favorites or set aside special produce for you,” says Executive Chef Carl Shelton of J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, California.
  4. Let the ingredients be your guide. Instead of always coming armed with a specific shopping list, be spontaneous. “Meander up and down the aisles, see what looks great and get inspired on the spot,” says chef Jeffrey Russell, Executive Chef at Louis M. Martini Winery in St. Helena, California. If a grass-fed steak, brilliant red bell peppers or fresh herbs catch your eye, grab them and get playful in the kitchen.
    Chef Carl Shelton of J Vineyards & Winery
    Chef Jeffrey Russell of Louis M. Martini Winery
  5. Keep wine in mind. Just as you can let the produce dictate what you cook, you can use your favorite wine as a starting point for your day of shopping. Shelton suggests letting the seasons be your guide. A good rule of thumb is to move from lighter wines in the springtime to more full-bodied, fruit-forward wines in the fall and winter.

    “In spring when you have rhubarb and strawberries, Brut Rosé is a great choice,” Shelton says. “Summer melons and cucumbers pair well with a California Pinot Gris, while you might move into lighter Chardonnays and fuller-bodied Chardonnays as the fall starts up. Then you start getting into Pinot Noirs and heavier reds.”
  6. Make a day of it. Russell noted that one of his favorites, the St. Helena Farmers Market in Napa Valley, is at the forefront of a trend to feature vendors beyond produce, meat and cheese. Many farmers markets have evolved into social gathering places where you can enjoy prepared foods, have a picnic, sample new treats, grab a coffee, and more. I like to get a group of friends together to enjoy a leisurely lunch after shopping. If the market and laws in your area allow, you can even bring a bottle of wine to pour with your meal.

  7. Learn what’s special in your region—and beyond. By shopping at your local farmers market, you’ll discover what grows in your area that perhaps you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Part of the fun can also include exploring areas beyond your own. I always make the local farmers market a must-see on my vacations. Shelton notes, “You may see something you’ve never seen before. And a carrot grown in California may taste completely different from a carrot in Ohio, because of the soil.” And as Russell points out, even if you’re not cooking dinner in your destination of choice, you can grab snackable items like apples and stone fruits to carry along during sightseeing and activities.
    “A carrot grown in California may taste completely different from a carrot in Ohio, because of the soil.” – Chef Carl Shelton
  8. Seek Insta-spiration. Keep up with your favorite farms and markets near and far by following them on Instagram. You might learn about special events/tastings/demos, as well as exciting new items the farms are carrying. And they definitely won’t mind if you share the love! Tag them while you’re shopping at the market or after you’ve cooked a meal using their offerings.

Looking for additional “Insta-spiration” on a range of wine culture topics? Follow us on Instagram @winedialogues. You can also find us on Facebook, or sign up for our email newsletter to get helpful topics like this one delivered directly into your inbox.