It's funny how a party changes.

It's funny how a party changes.

One minute, I'm trying to weasel my way past bodyguards to chitchat with Brad Pitt at a chichi LA soiree. The next minute, I'm in the alley with people clutching almost-empty bottles of Thunderbird.

Or maybe there's a better example of a party ripening. Take, for example, the upcoming Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival.

Eleven short years ago, three members of Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association were having a drink and shaking their heads. Why were their precious grapes, they wondered, being ignored or sold for less than those from the northern part of the state?

As it sometimes happens after a few drinks, the growers — 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 — came up with a solid solution. They would promote Southern Oregon grapes by throwing a summer wine party.

They rented a tent and hired a band, paying for everything with their personal credit cards.

Cal would boil buckets of crab and shrimp to serve. The rest of the potpourri potluck would be prepared by wives Vicki Mankin, Suzi Ginet and Judy Schmidt.

The spirited supporters would hang up posters, badger their friends and winemakers to attend and encourage everyone to try wine made from local grapes.

As odd as it seems now, few restaurants and stores in 2003 carried Southern Oregon wines, and there were only two dozen tasting rooms sprinkled from Ashland to Eugene. Southern Oregon wasn't even an officially recognized wine region until 2004.

Lee, Cal and Joe remembered Talent grape grower Laura Lotspeich saying that unlike the Willamette Valley, which is known mostly for pinot noir, the warmer, southern part of the state grew varietals from around the globe. This region, she said, represents a "world of wine."

Catchy. The remark became the party's name and continues to accurately reflect the 70 types of grapes, from albarino to zinfandel, that thrive here.

About 300 people came to the first event at Rob and Jolee Wallace's picturesque Del Rio Vineyards in Gold Hill. The third year of WOW, the founders added a wine competition and hired nit-picky, out-of-state judges to blind-taste the regional offerings.

"We wanted to play with the big boys," recalls Lee, adding that wine producers learned from the judges' early, brutal critiques.

Over time, the efforts paid off. The eno trio could not have predicted that the growth and recognition of WOW would parallel that of Southern Oregon as a respected wine region.

This year's WOW ( offers four days of wine-centric events Aug. 21-24 at Jacksonville's original school, the Bigham Knoll Campus.

For the first time, Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College will hold its cluster conference for growers and winemakers in Jacksonville during WOW week. People will be rolling in and staying for days.

"I didn't see it when we started," says Lee, 64, on his patio overlooking merlot and syrah vines. "But as WOW has evolved, it still follows the original mission to let people know the quality we're growing here."

Across a table dotted with chardonnay-filled wineglasses are Cal, 68, and Joe, 61, who immediately asked me to reveal my age (21).

Looking through a virtual rearview mirror, they say they're satisfied that WOW flourishes with support from various organizations and that ticket sales continue to underwrite educational programs.

The three founders have graduated, themselves. They make and sell wine from their grapes. And those stringent, blind-tasting judges have bestowed hard-earned WOW medals on these original dreamers.

WOW events start Wednesday, Aug. 21, with a cozy cocktail party ($25). Participants in a wine tasting seminar ($75) Thursday, Aug. 22, will sample WOW-winning wines in keepsake Riedel glasses (worth $100 alone).

There are three $30 seminars. On Thursday, brainy enology expert Dwayne Bershaw of Southern Oregon Wine Institute will have participants sniffing and sipping through four or more wines to evaluate flavors and food pairings.

Renowned climatologist Greg Jones will speak Friday, Aug. 23, about wines representing a "taste of place," with examples of the world's varying terroirs. That evening, Peter Adesman, a Medford doc better known for sharing hidden bottles from his private cellar, will compare Old World wines to Southern Oregon's.

And the Grand Tasting ($75) takes place Saturday, Aug. 24, in an enormous tent. More than 50 wineries will pour tastes near a feast of locally produced beef, cheese and chocolate.

I have not missed a WOW party, and I won't this year. Wear something cooling, throw a wineglass-holder lanyard over your neck to free up your hands for backslapping and belly up to the tables to chat with your favorite wine producers. It's time to celebrate how far they have come since 2003.

EVENT: La Clinica, which provides medical, dental and behavioral health services for all in need, benefits from your attendance at the fifth annual Raise Your Heart for Health dinner, from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25, at Grizzly Peak Winery in Ashland. Call 541-512-3114 or see for more information.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or