Packed to the Gills

By Kate Verotsky

Despite what might be considered inhospitable weather, the coastal town of Newport has been packed to the gills during the last weekend of February for 32 years running. The Newport Seafood & Wine Festival’s fervor grows each year, right along with the prestige of the Northwest wineries that come from all over Oregon, Washington and Idaho to participate. Add to that the nearly 30 unique food vendors serving up everything from sushi to chowder to crepes, and you’ve got a certain recipe for success. 

The theme of this year’s show was “Wonders of the Sea,” and each vendor’s enthusiasm for the event’s decorating contest seemed more exuberant than the last, from the whimsy of a bikini-clad mermaid to the understated elegance of glass floats, fishing nets and seashells.

“Every year is a surprise,” said Lorna Davis, executive director of the Newport Chamber of Commerce. “There’s always something different because the vendors are different.”

All the same, there are traditions to be upheld, such as the giant man-crab that wanders about mingling cheerily with visitors and the roving band of raucous pirates making merry.

Without a doubt, the festival’s most alluring draw is the wine.

“There is such a variety of wine offered,” explained Davis. “Visitors get the opportunity to taste wine from some of the newer, up-and-coming wineries as well as their old favorites.”

This year, 164 entries set a new record for the competition, among them 37 Pinot Noirs and 32 Pinot Gris. The diverse judges panel included professionals from all corners of the wine industry, including a wine writer, a wine merchant, a wine consultant and former restaurant manager, a sommelier and wine buyer and even the founder of the Northwest Enological Society. 

The coveted “Best of Show” was awarded to Washington’s Domaine Ste. Michelle for a delightful Blanc de Noir sparkling wine with an attractive price point of $8 to $11 per bottle. Domaine Ste. Michelle is part of Chateau Ste. Michelle, the Northwest’s largest wine producer.

Small Oregon wineries were also well represented in the awards, with several small family-owned wineries earning multiple golds. Saginaw Vineyards, from which less than 2,000 cases are produced each year by the Byler family, was honored with two gold medals for a 2007 Chardonnay and a 2006 Marechal Foch. Another small outfit, Philomath’s Spindrift Cellars, proudly displayed two gold medals for their 2006 Pinot Noir and 2006 Pinot Noir Reserve. Anthony Dell Cellars was honored with gold medals for their 2005 Rogue Valley Syrah and 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

Those visitors who arrived under the impression that the food would take a backseat to the wine were soon corrected. Twenty-nine vendors took full advantage of this unparalleled opportunity for self-promotion, each striving to outshine the next with the freshest, most flavorful and innovative dishes possible.

Local Ocean Seafoods, a popular fish market and grill located on Newport’s historic bay front, served up samples of their famous albacore tuna kabobs, grilled fish and chips and famous specialty fish tacos. After sampling, visitors happily went home laden with cans of house-packed salmon and gourmet albacore tuna, or a brave few even selected from the tank of live crabs.

The flavor of the southwest made an appearance at the Canby Asparagus Farms booth, where visitors enjoyed mouth-watering tamales, such as the classic pork tomatillo and the decidedly Northwest Dungeness Crab chile relleno.

Sada’s Sushi Bar, a popular Newport bay-front eatery, was on location serving up impossibly fresh sushi rolls and sashimi selections, while C&H Classic Smoked Fish distributed samples of salmon, smoked using a combination of fragrant apple and cherry woods and flavors such as brown sugar, lemon pepper and Cajun.

Visitors cheerfully endured the long lines at the Rogue Creamery booth, eager for a taste of their internationally renowned cheeses, such as “Smokey Blue,” which boasts an extraordinary flavor credited to a process of smoking the cheese over hazelnut shells.

Monastery Mustard, lovingly crafted by the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel, drew curious tasters with such cleverly named creations as Glorious Garlic, Heavenly Honey and Hallelujah Jalapeño.

In addition to their famous chowder, Moby Dick’s booth served up plenty of oysters—in shooters or steamed on the half shell.

There was plenty of good old-fashioned “fair food” to be enjoyed as well, including hand-dipped corndogs from Leyah’s Catering, gooey crab and shrimp melts from Shrimply Delicious, and steaming bowls of lobster gumbo from the Newport Volunteer Fire Department.

The crafts vendors more than held their own against the allure of the gastronomical. Returning favorites included Silk & Stone, a small Oregon company offering bold and beautiful jewelry, apparel, handbags and home decor, as well as face painting for children and henna body art for all ages.

The Bead Chicas, a company born right in Newport, return every year to delight visitors with beaded jewelry that is fun, unique and best of all—affordable.

Young and old alike were entranced by Uncle Stinky’s Magic, a Washington-based company, showcasing unique novelty items and all manner of magic trick paraphernalia. 

Local art galleries Wind Drift and Breach the Moon each displayed their exquisite collections of fine art, jewelry, sculpture, pottery, art glass and more. Silky and sustainable, bamboo apparel in every imaginable color and style drew visitors to the Bamboo Originals booth, and Paschal Winery and Vineyard displayed an amusing selection of wine apparel, including infant onesies and “I Walk the Vine” T-shirts.

The Festival is not without some degree of situational irony, requiring even the most buttoned-up introvert to let loose a bit. Yes, the finest wines in the region are represented here, but the atmosphere is reminiscent more of a crowded college fraternity party than a serious tasting venue. Of course, there’s the vital difference in repast—here, fine wines and fresh seafood are found in place of watery beer and stale Doritos. Still, the raucous 20-somethings are out in droves, clad in Mardi Gras-style beads and keeping alive an infectious enthusiasm with impromptu toasts and spontaneous cheers erupting any time a glass is dropped by some over-imbibing reveler. Subdued, it is not. Nevertheless, the Newport Seafood and Wine Festival takes wine, food and fun to new levels of memorable. ◊

Kate Verotsky is a freelance writer, living in Sherwood.

Web Design and Web Development by Buildable