Recalling the Greatest
Umpqua Valley event celebrates 45 years.
Greatest of the Grape
Date: March 7, 2015, 7 p.m.
Location: Seven Feathers Casino Resort
Address: 146 Chief Miwaleta Lane, Canyonville
Greatest of the Grape, celebrating its 45th year March 7, is Oregon’s oldest wine festival and first of its kind on the West Coast. Originally called the Oregon Wine Festival, it was established in 1970 by Richard Sommer of HillCrest Winery and Paul Bjelland of Bjelland Vineyards, pioneering winemakers in the Umpqua Valley.
The Umpqua Valley AVA, designated in 1984, now in its 30th year, is defined by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east, 65 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west. Just as the region has grown in recognition and influence beyond these boundaries, the Greatest of the Grape far surpasses its beginnings as a “wine tasting supper” held at the Umpqua Hotel in Roseburg.
In 1970, the theme for the inaugural Oregon Wine Festival (OWF) was “Wine: One of Man’s Oldest Arts – One of Oregon’s Newest Industries.” A quote from Governor Tom McCall was both a prediction and vision of the future for the Umpqua Valley, “I can see where one day this may be a scenic valley of vineyards.” In the early days of the festival, the Roseburg News Review published a “Vintage Edition” with all features related to the event — grapegrowing, winemaking, “wine cookery” — even ads from tractors to tuxedos promoted the festival.
These editions — pages now yellowed and fragile, albeit charming in an outdated way — are the perfect way to recall the event’s beginnings.
In 1971, the second annual festival combined with the Home and Travel Show in the Fairgrounds Community Building. The OWF was listed on the schedule between floral displays, auto races, dance competitions and Jackpot Team Roping. Greatest of the Grape was a special wine tasting within the festival with hors d’oeuvres, sponsored by the Oregon Wine Growers Association and held at the Roseburg Country Club.
By the third year, the OWF was back to being an event unto its own, and Greatest of the Grape moved to the top of the list to begin the festival. It was still only a wine tasting at the country club, but the hors d’oeuvres were now “fancy,” and provided by local restaurateurs. Wine experts at each table were there to enhance the fine wine experience. Even the ads in that year’s “Vintage Edition” had been elevated to promoting the “art of winemaking.”
While the fifth OWF was underway, the 1975 edition declared “wine fever has hit the state,” to the musical fanfare of the Roseburg German Band, highlighting the festival that year. Tours of Umpqua Valley wineries had been added and although the Greatest of the Grape was still only a wine tasting, it was the featured event; European selections had been added to the tasting along with Umpqua Valley wines.
The region’s grapegrowers and winemakers had been given the status of “vintners” and listed by name, some of whom have been obscured by the passing of time but without whom the wines of the Umpqua may have remained in obscurity as well. Their vision of the valley and foreseeing the future of the wine industry has transcended time.
“The grape industry in the next five years is going to be the going thing in Douglas County. I believe the end will be worth it all,” said Harley Widener, vineyard owner, 1972. What remains as his legacy is the Greatest of the Grape.
Gone are the baton twirlers, entertainers with hand puppets, animal acts, folk dancers and chafing dish meatballs. All replaced now with a night of more sophisticated pursuits. A signature event for the region, it is sponsored by the Umpqua Valley Wine Association. A fundraiser supporting local charities, tourism and wineries. Held at the Seven Feathers Resort in Canyonville with up to 28 wineries paired with restaurants, chefs and caterers, it is an unforgettable feast.
The gemstone for the 45th anniversary is the sapphire, signifying good fortune and success. From the April 1970 “Vintage Edition” of the News Review, “Humble beginnings have fostered many a giant industry. Continued success: that is our wish for the Oregon wine industry. We salute the grape.”
The industry today honors the founders of Greatest of the Grape, the crown jewel of the Umpqua Valley.
Nancy Rodriguez is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Oregon.