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Oregon Wine Experience a statewide showcase

JACKSONVILLE — The region’s premier wine festival has sprouted wings to reach new heights.

Paired with the Asante Foundation for the past five years, the Oregon Wine Experience has soared beyond its humble roots, drawing renowned judges, writers and tourists to what has turned into a weeklong celebration, capped by the Grand Tasting.

A preview party for the Aug. 20-26 Oregon Wine Experience was held Tuesday night at Bigham Knoll.

The event, first called World of Wine, was a labor of love founded by Joe Ginet, Cal Schmidt and Lee Mankin 15 years ago. While the name gave it an intriguing global title, the competition and draw was merely regional.

The melding of a rising viticulture industry and Asante’s marketing strength have turned Oregon Wine Experience into a stellar event, drawing 3,600 people and producing more than $1.2 million in 2017 for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Observing destination wine and culinary events around the country, Asante Foundation Executive Director Floyd Harmon saw the possibilities.

“We could see the event as a significant fundraising component with ties to a broader group outside the area,” Harmon said.

The idea was to tap into travelers already visiting Crater Lake, the Rogue River and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Combine those elements with a series of wine and culinary events, and you will attract people not just from the area, but the region, the country and all around the world.”

Last year, the Oregon Wine Experience opened its competition for all Oregon vintages. As a result, more than 100 wineries entered 353 wines featuring 47 varietals. Harmon suggested the wider lens will help people see the state’s wine quality reach beyond Dundee winery Domaine Serene’s 2012 pinot noir, which earned accolades in Paris.

“We want people to celebrate the breadth and depth of Oregon wine,” he said.

Harmon didn’t anticipate topping the million-dollar mark for another two or three years.

“We always looked at it as a 10-year development to get to the basic levels,” he said.

In throwing the doors open to the Willamette Valley and wineries east of the Cascades, Oregon Wine Experience became the only statewide competition in Oregon.

“We were excited to see the state was anxious to have a statewide competition,” said Bruce Nicholson, who oversees the competition. “It was a little slow at the beginning. The convincing factor for a lot of people that got in early was the level of the judges. We had four masters of wine, two wine writers, and an extremely high proficiency of wine professionals on the judging panels.”

As wine associations discussed the invitation, more and more Northern Oregon wineries stepped up, accounting for 40 percent of the entries.

“We’re still heavily weighted on the southern side, because it has traditionally been a southern competition,” Nicholson said. “Ultimately, we’re probably going to look at two-thirds to one-third from the south.”

He said the number of entries could double this year, following a pattern of managed growth. That means adding to the judging panels.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the judges, obviously,” Nicholson said. “We want to have quality results for the competition.”

Nicholson visits other major competitions to see what might fit into the Oregon Wine Experience format.

“Ultimately, I’d like to combine some practices and maybe get the best of everything,” he said.

Any tweaks this year would be small, Nicholson said, such as making the competition more judge-friendly and providing more time for the judges to evaluate wines.

Submissions opened April 2 and remain open until June 15, with wine delivery due by the end of June. OWE is one of the few competitions that allows for cancellations and substitutions.

“If a winery decides an entry they put in a couple of weeks ago is not exactly what they wanted to do, and maybe something is turning out to be better in the bottle, there is no problem with that, they can just substitute,” Nicholson said.

The Bigham Knoll site in Jacksonville has been pressed to its limits in recent years, necessitating organizers to scatter some elements to other venues. Nonetheless, Harmon anticipates the historical community to be the center of the Oregon Wine Experience for years to come.

“We’ll be open to what’s best for the event as we go forward,” he said.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Cal Schmidt, one of the founders of the Oregon Wine Experience, checks his wine library at Schmidt Family Vineyards back when the event was known as the Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival.