The Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival sure looks like a series of carefree parties.

The Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival sure looks like a series of carefree parties.

But from its start 11 years ago, it's had a serious goal: Attract discerning wine buyers.

The grape-growing founders of the summer wine event, which returns to Jacksonville Aug. 21-24, needed local wine grapes to be known for their quality.

That way, the growers reasoned, they could sell more varieties to vintners and create a vineyard destination out of undefined farmland.

To accomplish this, WOW originators — Lee Mankin of Carpenter Hill Vineyard in Medford, Joe Ginet of Plaisance Ranch in Williams and Cal Schmidt of Schmidt Family Vineyards in Grants Pass — went about it the hard way.

They created a wine competition, hired out-of-state judges and demanded that they be critical.

From the judges' unfiltered remarks, then-fledgling wine producers would learn how to improve their process and the region would start to build a stellar reputation.

The idea is working.

Southern Oregon is getting attention from national wine experts and publications, and the number of wine brands here has tripled since the first WOW event in 2003.

Today, judges Christy Canterbury, Peter Marks and Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, all with hard-earned Masters of Wine credentials, will complete their two-day task of blind tasting and evaluating about 180 wines made from grapes grown in the less-recognized southern part of the state.

From these entries, they will decide which deserve a medal.

Their thoughts — good, bad and honest — will be revealed tonight at a dinner that, for the first time, will be open to the public.

"The region's wine has advanced dramatically," says Les Martin of Red Lily Vineyards, who volunteers with WOW. "You now have professional winemakers working here, like John Quinones at RoxyAnn Winery (in Medford), and the judges have noticed the improvement."

Tonight's World of Wine Awards Dinner at Hanley Farm in Central Point is the prelude to four days of wine-centric events to take place in two weeks at the Bigham Knoll Campus in Jacksonville.

It's fitting that the events are centered around a historic school.

Education has helped fuel the region's enology success, says WOW co-founder Mankin, who has graduated to making his own wine, as have Ginet and Schmidt.

On Saturday, Aug. 24, more than 700 people will gather at the Grand Tasting on the campus in search of their favorite syrah, chardonnay or one of the other 70 locally grown varietals.

Making the tasting event unique is that the 50 family-owned wineries usually send the winemaker, grape grower or tasting room manager to answer questions about the decisions made in the vineyard or the barrel room.

Want to know why Earl Jones' once-rare Spanish varietals from his Abacela property in Roseburg now grow across the region?

Wonder how Traute Moore of South Stage Cellars decided to buy a six-acre vineyard in Talent in 1989 that has spread to more than 300 acres and supplies grapes to the state's top vintners?

Curious about Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden outside Jacksonville and owner Bill and Barbara Steele's biodynamic vintages that Wine Spectator and Robert Parker have rated at 90 points or higher?

Just ask.

Since education is a foundation of WOW, there are wine seminars that lead up to the Grand Tasting.

People comparing winning wines can take home Riedel Vinum glasses and those in climatologist Greg Jones' presentation will learn about the world's varying vineyard geography, geology and weather.

WOW first-timer Margaret Pashko, who moved from California to Jacksonville in May, bought a $30 ticket to a sensory evaluation of wines on Thursday, Aug. 22, led by Dwayne Bershaw of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College.

On Friday, Aug. 23, the wine institute is putting on a professional conference at Bigham Knoll focused on the economic wine forecast, viticulture varieties and building a $1 million winery.

Wine novice Pashko won't be there, but she will listen to Peter Adesman, a WOW speaker who has been conducting blind tastings in his Medford home since 1991. He will compare Old World wines to Southern Oregon's.

"I know what I like to drink," Pashko says, "but I don't know the process."

Sampling wine and tapping experts during a party, she adds, is an easy way to gather information.

"Now that I'm living here with all these wonderful wineries," she says, "I want to know more. WOW will make that fun."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com