Sunny Skies in Newport

Festival celebrates 38 years with fine weather and wine

By Ken Friedenreich

Some parades and public functions are at the mercy of the weather gods, and the encounters are not always pretty. Thankfully, the 38th annual Newport Seafood and Wine festival did not merely have sanguine weather gods, but deities apparently working for the Newport Chamber of Commerce.

Imagine 25,900 people — visitors, volunteers, security guards, locals and exhibitors — able to move about minus slickers and umbrellas. The weather, said Lorna Davis, executive director of the Chamber for this seaside destination, the seasonal anomaly assured success. “The weather didn’t sound a wrong note. Every vantage in the city simply appeared at its best.”

Idyllic weather translates into good returns. The coastal city of about 10,000 residents realized a two million dollar spike in revenue opened to the public for an average seven hours over four days. “It’s about $2,000 per capita for Newport,” Davis says. “There is no doubt this season’s weather at the coast attracted a big crowd.”

The turnout, a mixed demographic not immune to party-hearty collegians, has, over time, become if hardly sedate, respectful on balance to the ubiquitous security firms that patrol the acreage next to Yaquina Bay. The crowd is less constrained than mellow. Surely certain enthusiasms lead to rowdy rambling, but this is a rare exception. Crowd control is not merely security.

It is also balanced in layout amid exhibitors. This latest configuration encouraged much conviviality without the sense of one’s being stuck between floors on a Los Angeles elevator. We might say that the weather gods commanded good behavior and better cheer.

Range and variety assured a motivated public. More than 150 exhibitors proffered wares; of these, 75 were wineries. As the population of wineries has accelerated, visitors encounter those that recently reinvented themselves through merger or acquisition, but more likely vintners who come upon the scene for the first time.

“It’s our rite of passage,” one said, as he poured an old-vine Pinot Noir with Hungarian pedigree. Lots of spice and balance made this wine an appealing discovery in the panoply of wineries. “This is simply a really good way to get the story out there,” said a partner of Hip Chicks Do Wine, surely one of the best known in-city urban wineries in Portland’s warehouse district.

Some people seem to need valium in bulk just to prepare a dinner party for eight. The Wine and Seafood crew have to host a peripatetic horde of more than 2.5 times the city’s population. They pull off the challenge with confidence and good manners. This modus Vivendi is somehow absorbed by visitors. “I like coming here,” said one visitor balancing a stem of Pinot Gris. “It’s a scene, but it’s not ob-scene,” she told me with an audible hyphen to reinforce the point. She took a sip from her glass, and then added: “No slob-scene, either—everyone treats me well.” Her companion piped in: “If we need some help or info, it’s seamless. We got an impression the support people have been to hospitality training. They’re on it.”

Davis is very specific about the chamber’s goals. “We start planning for next year even as we’re running this year. We don’t need to canvass participants. They’re already here.”

Asked to explain, Davis does not skip a beat. “We have three publics to please.” She sweepingly gestures as if she offered guests the best table in a big dining salon.

“We have our community to show off. So we want visitors to feel welcome. That translates into perceiving they’ve gotten their money’s worth. We’re not some ‘Newport’ on this weekend. We are the Newport. We have to get it right.” This also explains being forward looking.

“Next, we need to attract and retain exhibitors. We added a few new wineries and some key food vendors this year.” Counting verbally on her fingers, Davis adds up a total of 150 exhibitors to which community organizations and other nonprofits make the festival the main event in their respective calendars. “We have constituents for which we must make a difference.”

Davis turns then to the Newport Chamber itself. “We are membership-driven. We are fortunate to represent the commercial interests of a tourism destination, which possesses the twin virtues of viticulture and aquacultures. The festival is a great incentive and a great recruiting tool.”

John Barsdale, a repeat exhibitor from Salem-based winery Pudding River, credits the Chamber with foresight and attention to detail. “This year the festival organizers made a smart strategic decision. They varied the admittance costs for each of the show’s four days. By putting a premium on Saturday, the crowds balanced out so booth activity and customer interaction could be better managed by wineries and other vendors. It’s not something a visitor sees, but it makes huge positive impact.”

This impact percolates in the area restaurants and hotels. The superbly positioned Hallmark Resort on S.W. Elizabeth Street had a lively clientele enjoying its view restaurant, Georgie’s Beachside Grill, and the various amenities great weather encourages. Happy canines did not wander in the halls wearing vineyard T-shirts but did, nonetheless, take advantage of the sniffing opportunities on Nye Beach. Up the road near the Performing Arts Center, the Deep End Café and its Bi-Valve Bar had to navigate between the hungry troops who had patrolled the spacious festival tents a short distance away.

Portland News 12, which reported the cooperative weather encouraged better than average visits to the coastal towns, found proprietors of eateries bemoaning being geared for typical winter traffic. “We were shorthanded,” said one seafood operator from Cannon Beach, “but these are crocodile tears.”

Back at Newport, Davis responded thus to a “best is yet to be” appreciation. “Exceeding expectations? Yes. That will be our theme in 2016.”

Start planning now. And remember the weather gods. We need to keep these campers happy.

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