Pre-Harvest Par-Tee

October 2009

By Karl Klooster


At least 400 folks, who are in one way or another connected with the Oregon wine industry, flocked to the Kelty Estate Bed & Breakfast in Lafayette on Aug. 12. They were there because of one couple—Jerry and Meg Murray.

Four years ago, Meg, who works for Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Jerry, who works for Patton Valley Vineyards, decided to host a pre-harvest party for a few of their industry friends at their home in McMinnville.

The idea of celebrating the culmination of another vintage with a gala get-together appealed to them. And Meg, being the go-getter she is, threw herself into making the event something well beyond your run-of-the-mill backyard barbecue.

Its success exceeded her expectations.

That first year, some 70 of Meg and Jerry’s closest friends showed up to welcome interns and revel in the prospect of a great vintage. The party featured hot dogs and beer.

Sharing a common work interest, especially one with a socially convivial attribute, can result in such a pleasurable outcome. It can also lead to a groundswell of enthusiastic encouragement for a repeat performance the following year.

The Murrays’ second annual harvest party, in September 2007, saw the turnout approach 200. While a sizable affair, it still managed to maintain a relaxed and intimate air.

Word-of-mouth spread the news that this was a party not to be missed. A bottle of wine, preferably an example from one’s own cellar and/or winery, bought admission.

The bottles proved to be a major attraction. Cross-comparing became a leading element of the evening.

Everyone feasted on a bountiful buffet spread, courtesy of the Murrays, while the primo pluckin’, toe-tappin’ sounds of Portland’s Jackstraw bluegrass band lent a lively, upbeat atmosphere to all that sippin’ and suppin.’

When 2008 rolled around, an eager industry awaited the third annual edition. More than 300 people crammed inside the house, overflowing onto both the front and back yards. Claustrophobic closeness notwithstanding, a terrific time was had by all.

The wine. The food. The flying-fingered musical musings of Jackstraw.

Plus fire dancers? Holy pyromania, Vatman.

Effusive accolades afterwards sent a loud and clear message: Do it again.

The only catch was that the Murrays were in the market for a new house. And the one they bought, although well suited to their needs, wasn’t logistically conducive for a large gathering.

In stepped a cadre of true-blue friends to save the day. While Meg still led the charge, she received ongoing support from an ad hoc committee who helped pull together the logistics for an event that would far outdo its predecessors.

What had been originally conceived as a relatively low-key, private gathering now took on a considerably more ambitious tenor in size, scope and potential longevity.

The Murrays didn’t object.

“Our idea always was to do something the industry could look forward to every year,” Meg said. “If more people are able to attend, that’s all the better.”

With the assistance of such stalwarts as Shelby Zadow, Gretchen Phelps, Don Crank, Darcy Pendergrass, Courtney Shields, Remy Drabkin and Nicci Stokes, the 2009 Harvest Fest began to take shape.

Though not directly involved in the wine industry, Stokes was a key player in this year’s event. As owner and innkeeper at the Kelty Estate B&B, she offered to hold it at her sprawling one-acre facility without charge.

Its spacious interior, complemented by covered patios, manicured lawns and expansive gardens, provided an ample and inviting venue for this year’s edition.

Shuttle service was arranged from designated parking areas in the vicinity. A supervised play area was set up for children so parents wouldn’t need to line up a sitter.

Committee members secured 34 sponsors. According to Zadow, that kept out-of-pocket expenses to a bare minimum.

Proving to be a fixture, Jackstraw played again. And bassist Jesse Withers somehow found time to take snapshots during sets.

The fire dancers also returned, flitting through flames during a 10:30 p.m. performance that enticed many to linger later than they had planned.

Attendees included winery owners and managers, winemakers, vineyardists, cellar assistants, marketing, sales and hospitality people, retailers, writers, a barrel maker and, of course, the special guests: interns from near and far.

Quite naturally, much discussion centered around the upcoming harvest, which, by all accounts, is shaping up spectacularly. “We’re at 22.5 brix,” someone said. “Picking within the next two to three weeks,” another commented. “It’s looking great.”

Predominantly a mid-20s to early-40s crowd, these people represent the industry’s future, thus the high probability of the event’s continuation for many years to come.

Names of those attending, as well as well-wishers who sent regrets, were listed on an Evite sent by Murray. That may have been informative in retrospect, but I’d still vote for name tags next time.

How else can a writer avoid the embarrassment of running into someone who looks oh so familiar, only to learn later that she’s the wife of a winery owner you recently interviewed and is standing next to him in a photo he just sent you?

The only sad note to any otherwise upbeat story is that Meg’s mom, who had attended last year’s party, passed away just before this one. She wanted to express her gratitude for the outpouring of sympathy and thank all those who attended to last-minute details.

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