We all have heard the stories about good people acting badly at the Newport Seafood & Wine Festival: Thousands of drunken frat boys smash wineglasses onto the floor of a crammed circus tent whipped by storms posing as tornados. Fun! I'm up for this.
So in late February, I jumped into my vulnerable vehicle and headed out to the coast on the Corvallis-Newport Highway. Clouds were dropping water-balloonlike thuds onto my windshield, and condensation formed on my glasses. I could tell it was cold because horses were wearing warming capes and looking a bit like retired equine superheroes.
There were few cars on this rustic road, but I did pass signs advertising taxidermy shops, "donkeys for sale" and BurntWoodsStock concerts. Alone with my thoughts for hours, I wondered if my Eno Outings were leading me to hell.
But first, the reason normal people go to festivals — be it for wine, seafood, cheese or chocolate — is to have a mega-shopping experience, see what's new in the field and chat with vendors outside their geographic area. For me, it's just another hazardous day on the job.
I entered the crabfest tent to the sound of Johnny Cash growling about a "ring of fire" and a bouncer named Summer praising me for having the good sense to wear black. "I've seen people at the end of the night with their white shirts entirely stained purple from wine splashes," she revealed. She then motioned me to keep moving inside the tent in the same eerie way the Grim Reaper gestures in my nightmares.
Over four days, these tent walls would see more than 20,000 people cheered on by a booze-infused crowd swinging pretzel necklaces and dancing to the wear-a-groove-in-your-brain "Macarena," "Shout" or "Sweet Caroline." Fun! I'm sort of still up for this.
About 80 wine vendors, barricaded behind booths and stacked cases, offered $1 tastes, $5 glasses and $10-and-up bottles. Many showed up because it kick-starts their year's cash flow, puts them in front of thirsty wine drinkers and certainly beats another cold, off-season day working in the vineyard or winery.
June and Tim Navarro of Soloro Vineyard in Grants Pass had more benevolent goals. They were here to deliver a message of "soloro" ("sun gold") to the gray, rain-soaked town. "Wine brings out the sun in people," said June, as a conga line of brides and lobsters shuffled past 2009 Navarro2Vin Syrah ($28) and 2011 Solitaire Viognier ($23).
Whether speaking to stumblers or sophisticates, family-owned wine producers can sell 30 to 100 cases or more of wine here. That is if they can keep up the pace of pouring as fast as they can pop open a bottle and edit their sales pitch down to a few words.
"Big reds" and "sweet whites" were the CliffsNotes descriptions used for Passive Aggressive wines ($16 to $18) poured by festival first-timers Folin Cellars in Gold Hill.
I bypassed a fireman selling Mardi Gras beads and gaggles of gals posing for cellphone photos with costumed crab men. Holding my reporter's notebook up for protection, I walked to a crepe booth where I ran into Heather Hamlin from Ledger David Cellars in Talent. She was dressed as the Queen of Hearts. Her sister, Lena Varner, appeared as a harlequin Alice in Wonderland and Lena's husband, David Traul, was the Mad Hatter Ring Master.
During the packed times, there was barely enough elbow room to raise a glass to my lips. But this crew didn't lose its cool. They could blurt out, "We are the only producers of a Vouvray-style chenin blanc in the Rogue Valley" in the same amount of time it took to pour 2011 Chenin Blanc ($20), 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($19) and 2010 Sangiovese ($22).
Things seemed to be settling down when I heard a "pssst!" sound from Mark Wisnovsky. His Valley View Winery in Jacksonville has had a booth at the crabfest since it started in 1978. "We have a few special wines under the bar that you have to ask for," said the uncostumed vendor. I fell for his pssst! and minutes later stood with people comparing the taste of 2006 Anna Maria merlot, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo against the 2008 versions ($24 to $26).
Nearby, five-year festival veterans Christy and Steve Simmons of Misty Oaks Vineyard in Oakland recalled that, in 2011, the weather inside the tent dipped to 23 degrees. They used electric blankets, sunlamps and electric skillets to keep their cabernet franc ($28) and malbec ($30) from freezing.
Steve and Mary Gardner of Crater Lake Cellars in Shady Cove have been shlepping cases to the crabfest for five years, too. "Customers appreciate the variety that Southern Oregon offers besides pinot noir," said Mary Gardner, who makes rare teroldego ($39), white grenache ($12) and a sweet chardonnay called Candy in a Bottle.
Pssst! Does sanity come in a bottle?
TASTED: Dick and Pat Ellis of Pebblestone Cellars in Medford have attended the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition's public tasting five Februarys in a row and have poured one of their gold medal-winning wines — like the 2011 Pinot Gris ($16) — to laid-back wine lovers for three years. Their festival tasting strategy? They decide which varietals they want to sample and try as many of those wines as they can.
EVENTS: Saturday, March 16, is the ninth annual Oregon Cheese Festival, a farmers market-style food-and-wine festival in tents next to Rogue Creamery's Central Point facility. Among the dozen wine producers, Sandi Garoutte of Rosella's Vineyard & Winery will pour 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35), and Liz Wan of Serra Vineyards in Grants Pass will offer tastes of 2011 Rosa Marie Pinot Noir ($24) to complement softer, richer and creamier goat cheese, brie and camembert and 2007 Syrah ($30) to pair with the Creamery's Rogue River Blue or earthy, hard cheeses like manchego.
This St. Patrick's Day weekend, Brenda Walden Pine, who is the human equivalent of the happy-face emoticon, is kicking up the Irish spirit at RoxyAnn Winery in Medford. There will be a Klamath potato bar and Celtic music from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 16 and 17. Pssst! I think I heard her say, "Winemaker John Quinones may dress up like a leprechaun."
Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email email@example.com