Back in the 1980s, Willamette Valley wineries had a good thing going with an open house on Thanksgiving weekend. So a spring or summer event to bring out wine lovers became the next goal.
In Yamhill County, Don Lange of Lange Estate Winery recalls wineries trying such events as “The Reds are Coming” and “A Match Made in Heaven.” Nancy Ponzi remembers the Washington County wineries putting on a July festival called “Taste of Wine Before its Time.”
These ended up being the precursor to the Memorial Day Weekend open house, an event that started in Yamhill County, expanded to include the Willamette Valley and now encompasses the entire state.
“It’s good for exposure – and good for the wine industry,” said Ponzi, who started Ponzi Vineyards more than 40 years ago with her husband, Dick.
Ponzis run winery, wine bar and restaurant
The Ponzis not only will be welcoming more than 1,500 visitors to their Beaverton winery, but they’ll also see throngs arrive at the Ponzi Wine Bar and Dundee Bistro, both on Highway 99W in downtown Dundee.
“At the restaurant, we just have to make sure we have a lot of food this weekend,” she said. “We don’t want to run out!”
The restaurant, which opened 15 years ago, can seat about 140. And while reservations don’t hurt, they aren’t needed.
“One thing about the bistro is we can seat people without a long wait,” Ponzi said. “Most people aren’t there for a two-hour lunch.”
She said the restaurant also can accommodate larger groups – both inside and out.
Many Oregon wineries charge tasting fees on Memorial Day weekend
Because of the large numbers of wine lovers coming to Oregon wine country, most wineries charge tasting fees – which often are refunded if a customer buys some wine or joins the wine club.
Lange was among the first to charge a fee – something he started a quarter-century ago.
“That was somewhat controversial back in 1988,” Lange said. “Back in the day, we charged $1. It was kind of a radical thing to do. It wasn’t about the dollar. It was about taking the wines seriously.”
These days, Memorial Day weekend is just as important to wineries as Thanksgiving. As far as sales, Lange said they are just about even.
“Thanksgiving is the big daddy,” Lange said. “Even when we got here in 1987, it was already going well.”
Small Oregon wineries not usually open
While the Lange and Ponzi tasting rooms are open daily year-round, the likes of Beaux Freres, Brick House and Ken Wright Cellars all welcome guests this weekend, said Charles Humble, director of communications for the Oregon Wine Board in Portland.
“I think it’s helpful to the smaller wineries,” Humble said.
Because of the event’s success, it has expanded statewide, with wineries outside of the Willamette Valley also jumping on board, he said. It also is the culmination of Oregon Wine Month, during which retailers, restaurants and wineries focus more heavily on events.
“Every region in the state has hopped on board,” he said.
Pre-Memorial Day events
Because of the large crowds that will arrive this weekend, many wineries have begun to create a “pre-Memorial Day Weekend” event that takes place the weekend prior and is generally by invitation to wine club members and case buyers.
“The crowds show up for Memorial Day,” Lange said. “That doesn’t always give us time to talk about the wines in detail with customers.”
The pre-Memorial Day events help the wineries make that connection with their biggest supporters.
“It’s not quite so big and unwieldy,” Lange said. “Sometimes these events get so big, you have trouble engaging the customer. It’s kind of like the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Pretty soon, you’re playing your music in a stadium full of people. That makes it hard to address fans individually.”
The Oregonian newspaper also makes a big deal out of the event, publishing a special section in the days leading up to Memorial Day weekend. Ponzi recalls the early days, when she had to do a bit of cajoling to convince the editors it was important.
“I used to go in and lobby The Oregonian and point out it would be a big help to readers to put in a map,” she said. “That was back in the day when they used typewriters. Now, they are putting out a big supplement. It’s a big deal, and it’s great for everybody.”
Ponzi said that while some family members will staff the tasting room this weekend, it isn’t important for her to be there to personally greet visitors.
“I don’t know that it adds much to the experience,” she said. “I’m planning to plant my tomatoes this weekend.”