Grand Finale

Behind the scenes with an Oregon wine experience volunteer

A volunteer feeding guests at the Oregon Wine Experince.##Photo By Steven Addington Photography
Guests at this year’s Oregon Wine Experience.##Photo by David Gibb Photography
Oregon Wine Experience tent entrance. ##Photo by David Gibb Photography

By Andrea Jacoby Oshell

In October, the Asante Foundation Board announced its decision to end the Oregon Wine Competition® and Oregon Wine Experience®, widely called OWE. Dana Keller, supervisor of foundation events, states, “Oregon Wine Experience raised over 12 million dollars for Asante children’s healthcare programs in nine years. I am sad to see it go…” While the Asante Foundation swam upstream in a post-COVID world to make OWE an exceptional annual event (with several other Oregon Wine University® classes throughout the year), unfortunately, the financials simply no longer added up. In a recent press release they highlight, “... like most health systems nationwide, Asante is navigating financial challenges and is taking steps to conserve resources while remaining true to its mission…” The final Oregon Wine University class will happen this month.

This article was originally written to showcase the work of those who did so much behind the scenes– and to garner excitement for 2024. While there won’t be a next year, we can still say, “THANK YOU.” We express our gratitude to the Asante Foundation staff who worked tirelessly to ensure each year was a success, the judges who carefully evaluated and tasted for two full days, the vendors and wineries donating their time and products, and, of course, the volunteers who made the events possible. To the guests– the heart of OWE– thank you for raising money and supporting our local community. Finally, thank you to the World of Wine founders: Lee Mankin of Carpenter Hill Vineyard, Joe Ginet of Plaisance Ranch and Cal Schmidt of Schmidt Family Vineyards. Recognizing the future and potential of wine in Southern Oregon, these visionaries founded an event that eventually became OWE.

Volunteer Virtuosos: Celebrating
Behind-The-Scenes Magic of the
Oregon Wine Experience

You could hear a pin drop. Volunteer wine stewards stand ready as the Oregon Wine Competition judges sip, scribble and spit. This represents the most critical aspect of the OWE and presents a rare opportunity to see behind the scenes. But this marks merely the start of the carefully choreographed dance of the volunteers. Each year requires 200 volunteers to ensure the Experience is a success.

Annually, the Asante Foundation chooses six judges from across the United States, all top-tiered wine professionals, from Master Sommeliers and wine writers to Masters of Wine. Over two days, the judges carefully assess the submitted wines using the American Wine Society Evaluation Chart. The attention to detail makes this Competition unique. Each wine is assigned a control number, repeatedly documented to ensure the utmost accuracy. At the helm: Ashley Myers and Liz Wan, under the watchful eye of the nearly decade-long volunteer, Bruce Nicholson.

Liz Wan has been with the organization since its inception; Ashley Myers fell in love with the long days and detail-oriented events. Myers states, “The final check Liz and I perform as we prepare the wine samples requires more concentration than I ever expected. So much preparation goes into making sure each bottle matches its control number.” No detail is overlooked as each of the 371 submitted wines is poured for the judges.

After the Competition ends, the Experience begins. It requires an orchestra of volunteers to ensure the four days of celebration and fundraising operate in perfect harmony. The first night of the Experience, the Medal Celebration, feels electric as hopeful wine industry professionals and their loved ones anticipate the winners. The collective comradery offers a breath of fresh air before the grape harvest begins. Owners and winemakers run, dance and strut the red carpet leading to the stage. The crowd erupts when Best of Show awards are announced. The 2023 Oregon Wine Competition Best of Show winners: Blakeslee Vineyard Estate 2021 Infinity Assemblage Chardonnay, Willamette Valley (white category), Maison Jussiaume 2019 Blanc de Blancs, Rogue Valley (specialty category) and Resistance Wine Company 2018 Syrah, Rogue Valley (red category).

As the buzz of excitement continues, the second night allows winemakers to highlight their artistry in the winery: The Founders’ Barrel Auction. It’s also the first night OWE ticket holders experience the magic of the enormous tent with perfectly polished wine glasses, sparkling chandeliers and smiling volunteers waiting in the wings. The evening is something out of a dream. Cowbells ding– celebrating top bids– as winemakers present one-of-a-kind wines and auction goers bid on specialty lots. None of this would be possible without an army of volunteers cleaning tables, polishing stemware and refreshing ice. Little did anyone know what the next night had in store…

Saturday night’s Miracle Auction & Dinner is the most important fundraising opportunity of the annual event. Things looked a little different this year. While battling wildfire smoke and hot temperatures, no one anticipated the literal storm that altered the evening’s agenda. Myers recalls her volunteers working through loud cracks of thunder, gusting winds and heavy rain as a storm raged directly overhead. Says Myers, “After opening the first 700 bottles, we shifted to assigning table sections, giving encouragement and outlining service expectations… Bars were set and ready to serve. Suddenly, Liz interrupted orientation announcing all volunteers must vacate the tent immediately. Everyone scattered.”

Myers continued, “Guests returned to their cars and a number of us [volunteers] scrambled.” This was a pinnacle point… Do you turn everyone away? Once the storm passed, we decided to make the best of the situation and “gathered all 700 open bottles in soggy cases from behind the tent in wagons, toting them to the exit assembly line where the development team gifted wine, dessert and programs to the departing guests,” says Myers. While certainly a challenge from a fundraising perspective, many said it was very memorable experience.

The final day concludes with the Grand Tasting. After the previous night’s weather, many wondered about the tent’s condition. Volunteers worked tirelessly to make the afternoon as grand as possible. Glasses were polished and put back in their places, tent walls re-hung and the sound system returned to its rightful spot. Centerpieces from the previous night found their way to the tables of the presenting wineries.

As people walked through the main entrance of the tent, their faces were in awe. No visible damage was left from the sudden storm. It seemed almost magical how perfect everything was again in a matter of a few short hours. They simply could not believe such a catastrophe could be completely reversed.

That level of excellence is what makes the Oregon Wine Experience a true “experience.” Volunteers and Asante staff work tirelessly to make each moment special for wineries and attendees. Dana Keller, events supervsor, sees all as she flits like a hummingbird from place to place during the events. She lovingly states, “It truly takes a village to execute the Oregon Wine Experience at the high level we demand of ourselves and our organization. We could not do what we do without support from our community, sponsors and over 200 volunteers.”

Of course, the cause makes the Oregon Wine Experience far more than a wine event. Each year, proceeds benefit the Southern Oregon Children’s Miracle Network-designated hospital Asante. For the last couple of years, proceeds directly support the Olsrud Family Women’s and Children’s Hospital at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, set to open in early 2024. Although OWE will no longer be under the big tent, you can still support this important work. Make a difference in the lives of women and children by donating here:

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