While savoring the 20th annual A Taste of Ashland this weekend, patrons may notice a few changes.

While savoring the 20th annual A Taste of Ashland this weekend, patrons may notice a few changes.

Themed "Taste with a Conscience," the event will showcase food, wine and art of Southern Oregon and also feature ways to support student artists, donate to the food bank and reduce waste.

"We're trying a few different things, just to kind of give it a little more consciousness," event coordinator Jeff Jones said.

The event kicks off with a gala Friday night and runs Saturday and Sunday afternoons, featuring 17 galleries paired with 17 regional restaurants and 17 wineries, breweries and distilleries. A shuttle will transport tasters from downtown galleries to venues in the railroad district.

New this year, a raffle will offer seven packages made up of gift certificates from local restaurants and venues and wine from the region's vineyards. Raffle tickets cost $5 each or $10 for three, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, Jones said.

Part of the funds raised from the Quick Draw event will benefit the Ashland High School art department in the form of equipment or a student scholarship, Jones said. At the Friday gala, 18 artists will have an hour to each create a work of art, and the pieces will be placed at the participating galleries for a weekend-long silent auction.

Jeff Shepherd's painting will be an exception, auctioned off at the end of the gala so it doesn't melt.

The chocolatier from Lillie Belle Farms paints with chocolate, using a white chocolate canvas, a dark chocolate frame and colored cocoa butter. The paintings are completely edible and about 4-by-6 inches, making them "the world's most expensive chocolate bar," Shepherd said.

Painting with chocolate isn't much different than more standard mediums, Shepherd said. He can still layer and blend colors, but the cocoa butter has to be kept warm to prevent it from drying.

"You'll see me painting with a heat gun in my hand," Shepherd said.

Previously, the paintings from the Quick Draw were sold in a live auction at the gala, but organizers hope to raise more money by stretching out the auction, Jones said.

"By moving it to the galleries, all 900 or 1,000 people who go through the galleries over the weekend will have a chance to bid," he said.

To round out the "Taste with a Conscience" theme, the event is aiming to be as waste-free as possible, Jones said.

Participating restaurants are encouraged to prepare finger food to lessen the need for utensils and plates, and the tableware provided will be paper instead of plastic, Jones said. Organizers are also encouraging galleries to supply pitchers of water instead of bottled water, and ticketing will be paperless, he said.

Additionally, about one-third of the wine glasses (used as tickets for the event) are leftover from past A Taste of Ashland events, Jones said. Tasters who don't wish to keep their wine glasses are encouraged to leave them at the last gallery visited for use next year, he added.

The reduced-waste effort was inspired in part by the event coinciding with Rogue Valley Earth Day on Saturday.

"It would be silly to have this whole Earth Day celebration going down at ScienceWorks and we're making more plastic than anyone could recycle on the other side of town," Jones said. "We're hoping that will set a trend for upcoming years."

The event kicks off at 7 p.m. Friday with the "Eat Dessert First" Taste Gala featuring the Quick Draw, Ashland's Flat 5 String Band, desserts, coffee, tea and wines from regional restaurants and wineries and a no-host bar.

"It's kind of like a mini Taste," Jones said.

Admission is $10 to attend only the gala, or free with a ticket for the weekend taste.

Taste of Ashland tickets are $55 for the whole weekend, $40 for Saturday only and $30 for Sunday only and can be purchased online at www.atasteofashland.com or by phone at 292-2302. Tickets are also available at the plaza kiosk, open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, where tasters can pick up their wine glasses before visiting galleries. For more information, visit www.atasteofashland.com.

Reach Kira Rubenthaler at 482-3456 ext. 225 or krubenthaler@dailytidings.com.