Gearing Up to Go Dark

Vineyards prepare for burst of visitors ahead of solar eclipse

By Neil Zawicki

For vineyards in the Willamette Valley, the heavens, literally, will align Aug. 21, 2017. For an already robust tourist season, the “Great American Eclipse” is attracting an epic level of traffic.

##Original artwork by Jessi Zawicki

Occurring every 18 months somewhere on the globe, solar eclipses — when the moon passes between Earth and the sun, thereby totally or partially obscuring the sun — are not rare, yet the last time one was visible across the entire contiguous U.S. was June 8, 1918. What makes the 2017 event extraordinary is only the U.S. will witness this eclipse — the 1918 event could be seen in the Bahamas.

Even so, not everyone in America will be able to view the “path of totality” — which sounds like an Isaac Asimov novel and, in some circles, carries as much weight. Totality occurs when the moon’s diameter appears larger than the sun’s, blocking all direct sunlight, briefly turning day into night. Only people located within a narrow band, stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, will witness the couple minutes of darkness.

Some estimates predict the influx of viewers in Oregon at nearly 1 million — a seemingly astronomical number. Many plan to visit the entire week, making a full trip out of the brief eclipse event. As a result, wineries have preapred celebrations to accommodate the crowds, and the rest of the hospitality industry is cashing in on the darkness, too. Hotels, RV parks, campgrounds, restaurants and other tourist attractions are readying for the unprecedented wave of tourists. 

Eola Hills Wine Cellars in Rickreall was arguably the first to recognize the lucrative potential of the eclipse. In addition to the custom eclipse-inspired wine, Eola Hills Special Events Coordinator Stephanie Bobb has assembled a four-day festival at the winery’s Legacy Estate Vineyard featuring a science geek night, live music from local musicians and ’80s headliners Nu Shooz and Quarterflash, as well as educational talks and presentations from professors on the effects of a solar eclipse on the natural world.

Unfortunately, Eola Hills sold out months ago, expecting 327 campers on site with many more opting to stay at a nearby hotel or in the dorms at Western Oregon University. These options are part of guest packages Bobb organized. All attendees will enjoy a farm-to-table dinner, as well.

“If I put just one more person in the campsite, I think [owner] Tom [Huggins] is going to wring my neck,” she said, addressing the logistics of the celebration.

When Bobb accepted the job in September, she didn’t expect much from the eclipse as an event, but was hired essentially to plan it.

“The only thing I was told was that it was going to be a big deal,” she said. “I wasn’t quite drinking the water then, but I quickly realized this was going to be ginormous.”

While Eola joins a proud list of wineries set to celebrate, others have opted out, simply locking their gates — much like the house on Halloween that turns off the porch light and pulls the shades.

“You’re either in or you’re not,” Bobb remarked. “We are definitely in.”

Airlie Winery is in, as well. The Monmouth winery is offering a mass campout that’s also sold out. The lucky campers will actually get a two-fer when it comes to celestial celebrations. Owner Mary Olson’s combining her annual Perseid meteor shower gathering with the fortuitous timing of the eclipse.

Willamette Valley Vineyards (left) and Eola Hills Wine Cellars commemorate the 2017 eclipse with special wines.

For Redgate Vineyard in Independence, other stars have aligned as well. The winery celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, and, as luck would have it, the moon will block out the sun to mark the occasion. Owner Steve Dunn states on his website, “The entire solar system is celebrating with a total eclipse of the sun.” Already sold out, the party, which includes a sangria breakfast, wine tasting and more, begins at the time of the eclipse, 10:17 a.m., and lasts until midnight — after all, it is their anniversary.

Stoller Family Estate in Dayton has a strategy for attracting “eclipsers,” offering to simply let people visit the vineyard for the day at $50 per vehicle, with gates opening at 7 a.m. Once there, guests can purchase — separate from the initial $50 fee — breakfast, wine and mimosas.

But Stoller’s real event is the overnight package. For $300, participants will receive a winery-branded camping tent and flashlight, enjoy a Red Hills Market-catered dinner and breakfast for two with mimosas, not to mention s’mores, a tasting flight, Go Vinos, a set of solar eclipse glasses and bottled water.

Austin Raz, Stoller’s digital brand manager, says they’re sold out all 50 overnight spots. “It’s gonna be crazy.”

While essentially every vineyard within the “path” is in a position to benefit from the eclipse, Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner is preparing for a crowd of 1,200, most arriving before dawn on the special day.

Walking the grounds of the estate on July 7, up on the hilltop, there is a sense of impending invasion. The path of totality is dialed in on the property’s iconic observation tower, giving the entire scene the look of a beachhead defense. Retail Operations Manager Eric Ploof gives a tour of the property, describing the coming event almost like a military commander.

“The eclipse will happen right there at 10:17 a.m.,” he explained, referring to a spot above a stand of Douglas firs. He also points down the hill to a cleared area near the warehouse, where the sold-out main event, hosting 1,200 people, will begin with cars arriving at 4 a.m. Those guests will be joined by drop-ins as the eclipse nears.

Like a tactician, Ploof describes how the service staff will operate from several food stations throughout the site, only because the distance traveled and the potential bottleneck is something he doesn’t want to imagine.

“If all the food comes out of the main kitchen, that would be detrimental to my mental health,” he quipped.

Ploof, who has only been in Oregon for two years, having come to work for Willamette Valley Vineyards after meeting Jim Berneau while working in hospitality in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, certainly never imagined he’d be planning such a massive gathering.

“I’ve planned big events before, but this is a little something different,” he said.

Ploof and his team have been organizing for the big day since last summer. He ordered 1,400 solar eclipse protective glasses, which arrived to the winery in June of last year.

There also will be live music and commemorative bottles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, emblazoned with a special eclipse label. The winery produced 25 barrels of the Pinot and half as much Chardonnay, which is already sold out — except for a smaller quantity held in reserve for drop-ins on the day of the celebration.

Like Stoller’s logo-brand tents, Willamette Valley Vineyards’ label idea was a team effort, with the design being produced in-house. Ploof says it’s a great way for the vineyards’ many club members to mark the eclipse even if they can’t participate in the actual event. The wine is unique beyond the label; the Pinot is a cuvée produced from fruit grown in each AVA of the Willamette Valley.

But while Ploof and his cohorts at all the other vineyards in the path of totality are geared up and ready for the event, there remains the potential for a classic layer of Oregon cloud cover to shroud the expected spectacle. The valley experiences an average cloud amount of nearly 40 percent historically for Aug. 21, or to put it in “half-full” terms, a 60 to 67 percent chance of visibility.

But this information is not critical for Ploof. He already has his guests booked, his troops in order, and his material in place. Whether it’s cloudy or not, it will get dark, and the people will enjoy the day.

Neil Zawicki is a writer who, in his spare time, loves to study history, paint and play his guitar. He lives in Independence with his equally creative wife and four children.

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