Winemakers and representatives
pour their wares during the 50th Greatest
of the Grape hosted at Southern Oregon
Wine Institute. ##Photo by Andrew Calvert
A pianist entertains
next to the event’s silent auction.##Photo by Andrew Calvert

Golden Hour

Historic celebration shines bright at 50

By Paula Bandy

Presented by Umpqua Valley Winegrowers, Greatest of the Grape, Oregon’s oldest wine celebration, popped its first cork in 1970. The 2020 event would mark its 50th year, but COVID had other plans; the following year was also canceled.

Fast-forward to April 9, 2022, and the golden anniversary was finally, officially honored. While the last event (2019) was hosted at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, featuring wine competitions, local restaurant pairings for featured wines and more, this year’s affair marked some changes, in both location and approach.

Inside the tasting room at Southern Oregon Wine Institute (SOWI), on the campus of Umpqua Community College, attendees were visibly excited for the face-to-face interactions with winemakers and other guests, and, of course, the Umpqua wine.

Having been encouraged to “wear comfortable shoes because there’s a hill,” I followed the recommendation. However, a golf cart was at the ready to whisk guests up to the mingling crowds. My sensible shoes did come in handy though, as I walked up many steps to what was a festive atmosphere I was eager to experience.

This year’s strategy for a smaller, more socially intimate event, with no competitions or formal pairings, drew a crowd of 450, with 19 wineries each pouring two wines. Under a tent in the fresh air of the night, attendees danced to live music. Inside, with little elbow room, guests gathered around large tables piled high with a variety of wine-friendly foods. Bidders perused the silent auction and the Wheel of Wine spun steadily with donations and instant gratification from bottle winners.

The SOWI tasting room offered an expansive view of the surrounding mountains and the “Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua” landscape. Bright and spacious, the space warmed with the large brick fireplace lit and smiling guests gathered round its flames. As the golden-hour light of the setting sun streamed through the window wall, the idea to host a more casual and intimate event was on full display, a triumph for organizers and ticketholders alike.

Standout Wines

Knostman Family Winery debuted their wines. The 2018 Pinot Gris, made from 100% estate fruit, offered a light aroma, opening with a crisp tartness more in line with a Pinot Grigio than Gris. Notes of fresh green apples, honeysuckle, dried pear and a slate salinity makes this the perfect wine to chill for a summer boat drift on the river.

Lexème Wines poured two estate Gamays. The 2020 Blanc de Gamay Noir, pale and delicate, showed soft notes of strawberry pastilles and a silky texture. Low tannins and a lingering finish of white peach suggested this refreshing wine is perfect for summertime fare. Lexème 2019 Gamay Noir, representing the winery’s first vintage of Gamay, was rife with Beaujolais freshness. Soft violet and strawberry notes segued to a hint of subtle earthiness in the finish, making for a superb food-friendly find.

A delicious surprise, SOWI 2019 Grüner Veltliner tasted of quintessential crisp lemon, lime and nectarine. The wine’s windfall was its high acidity and tingly mouthfeel, much like its Austrian counterpart — this aspect of Grüner can get lost in New World winemaking. Subsequent notes included fresh green pepper, an herbaceousness, a spicy hint of ginger and the classic honeyed flavor in the lengthy finish. Of course, students make the wines at SOWI. Speaking with Debra McKinney, administrative winery assistant, I learned this particular selection was produced by a student from Austria.

Abacela poured its 2021 Albariño, and it did not disappoint. One of America’s first producers of the Spanish varietal, Abacela planted Albariño in 2000. With much practice, and a history of awards and high scores to show for it, the winery farms more than 11 acres of the lively white. This vintage, just bottled in February, tasted tingly, refreshing and opens bright with citrus notes, a little lemongrass, stone fruit, and the racy zip and dry zest expected from a vibrant Albariño.

Abacela also sampled what they call their “basic” Tempranillo, a 2018 Barrel Select. Savory, fruit-forward and aged in American oak, the full-bodied wine showed layers with notes of spices, violet and mocha, plus a lingering smoky finish. Abacela, the first winery to commercially grow and produce Tempranillo in the Pacific Northwest, is recognized worldwide for this varietal and others.

Made with fruit sourced from vineyards in the Valley’s warmer west hills, Paul O’Brien Winery 2017 Tempranillo tasted bold, deep and rich, although less fruit-forward than Abacela’s. The Tempranillo presented a structured balance of black fruit, tobacco, prune, old leather and dusty spice, rounded by an earthy, cigar-box finish. This wine begs for hearty stews, rich cheeses and platters of meat served at a king’s banquet — think braised turkey leg.

Giradet Vineyards 2018 Bush Vine Teroldego represents the third vintage from the winery’s obscure estate vines. A dark garnet color, the wine’s indulgent aromas of spice and tobacco mixed with anise, cassis and a snap of cranberry. Secondary notes revealed flavors of moss and rich earth, balancing the fruit in a supple, velvety-textured, richly complex wine. This is a beautiful example of an ancient grape varietal.

Spire Mountain Cellars 2014 Tempranillo Gran Reserva, made with grapes cultivated during what was a long, hot summer, featured softer tannins, a deep ruby color and a pop of bright cherry flavor. Beautifully balanced, the wine showed a toasted richness mid-palate, peppery accents and burnished notes of cedar, old leather and chocolate on the finish.

The winery also introduced its soon-to-be-released Riesling. Grown at a higher elevation of 1,200 feet, this wine was distinctive with its juicy yet dry palate. Well-toned and light-bodied, it began with hints of flint followed by apricot and damp herbs. I was pleased with the right amount of acid and the classic petrol aroma.

Sipping Spire Mountain’s Riesling, my final wine of the night, I made sure to grab some well-paired salted chocolate caramels and dried apricots for my stroll back down the hill. A perfectly sweet ending for a gleeful golden gala. Congratulations on 50 fabulous years.

Web Design and Web Development by Buildable