Oregon Wine

Alt Wine Fest Explores the World of Wine Beyond Pinot

The July festival is dedicated to the 80+ varieties of Oregon grapes that aren't pinot noir.

By Michelle Harris May 25, 2022

The Oregon Alt Wine fest in 2019

Wine nerds, this one's for you. After a two-year pandemic hiatus, Alt Wine Fest will be returning for its second year on July 17 at Abbey Road Farm. Its two rules? 1. No pinot noir. 2. All those other varietals on offer must be Oregon-grown. 

In sum, the festival celebrates the 80-odd grape varieties grown in Oregon that aren’t pinot noir, which has long been the star of the show in our state.

Masterminded by Martin Skegg and Mallory Smith of Sunday School Wine, a membership-based wine education platform that provides online classes (for instance, one of the classes is titled “WTF is Orange Wine?”) Alt Wine Fest goes down the rabbit hole. "When people realize there’s local wine that’s not pinot noir they get really, really excited,” says Smith. “They’re just super excited to be discovering the underground world of wine. I guess it’s almost like a secret.”  

Martin Skegg and Mallory Smith

So how did pinot noir become Oregon’s “it” wine anyhow? According to Smith and Skegg, it all began in 1979 when Oregon pinot placed in the top 10 of a wine competition in France, which by default made the grape a household name—and a top money maker. “So, it was really just a sequence of things, and obviously, you know, [it tastes] good. People recognize that. So, it was like, well, we’re going to grow pinot noir grapes because that’s the best—or that’s what you can sell,” says Skegg. 

Now, though, the times are changing, and while pinot noir definitely isn’t going anywhere, more and more people are beginning to embrace Oregon’s alternative wine offerings—not to mention that there may come a time when we’ll need to begin turning to more drought-tolerant, climate-resilient varieties. “Pinot is a very persnickety grape to grow, it needs a particular climate, and I think as the climate changes it’s, as we call it, the Goldilocks grape, because it really needs something very exact,” says Smith. 

Enter the other 80-something grape varieties. The Alt Wine Fest features over 100 wine samples from over 30 local winemakers. While some samples include the old familiars—chardonnay, gamay, and pinot gris— others, like trousseau, chasselas, and savagnin are more obscure. Other oddball wines that Smith and Skegg are excited about are a cabernet franc lineup from Leah Jorgensen Cellars and Golden Cluster’s “The First Row,” which are white varieties taken from the Charles Coury Vineyard, one of the very first vineyards planted in Oregon. “It’s really a historical vineyard,” says Smith. 

Set at the 82-acre Abbey Road Farm, the Alt Wine Fest is both indoor and outdoor (but mostly indoor, says Smith) and visitors are encouraged to bring a picnic blanket and sunscreen. Music comes courtesy of DJ Party Marty (aka Skegg, who was a DJ in a former life) and food will be available for purchase from Ricky’s Tacos. Other shenanigans include lawn games like cornhole and giant Jenga blocks. “We’re encouraging people to bring picnic blankets and hang out and not feel like they’re rushed in any sort of way,” says Smith. 

The Alt Wine Fest, which runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., is open to those age 21 and older. Tickets are now on sale for $68, with early bird discounts available. For more information, visit www.altwinefest.com 

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