Every year in April, a beautiful marriage occurs. From the depths of the sea, crab are called to land by Northwest fishermen while grapes are grown and harvested in vineyards from across Oregon. Destined to meet at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds every April, crab and wine meet in a kind of kismet on the palettes of thousands of people.
For three days every year, the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce Crab, Seafood and Wine Festival draws 16,000 people to the area for the event voted Best Local Festival by readers of Coast Weekend. All the hotels are full. Restaurants say it’s the busiest weekend of the year. The festival’s shuttle service ferries an endless stream of people to and from town. Inside the event, the myriad vendors offer a feast for all the senses with wine, food and handcrafted art and jewelry. Many people line up for what Regina Willkie, the marketing director of the Astoria-Warrenton Chamber of Commerce, calls “Clown Bread.” Sold by the Astoria Clowns, “it’s French bread with cheese and crab or shrimp on it. It’s very popular. They have very long lines at their booth, so people definitely look forward to that. It’s kind of a tradition every year.”
In order for this festival to be such a success, a group of dedicated people work behind the scenes almost year-round to prepare for the event. “The week after it’s over, we start working on next year,” Willkie says. The Clatsop County Fairgrounds are reserved again immediately after the festival ends. The chamber contracts with a tent company to make sure they have the large tent and chairs for the event. The police department has to be scheduled so they can provide off-duty officers for security.
By November, applications for vendors are released. About 200 vendors will be selling their food, wine and wares at this year’s festival. Of these, 60 to 70 different vineyards and wine merchants will be represented. Many choose to participate in the annual wine competition. For the judges, “it’s a long day and a hard process,” Wilkie says. But for the vintners who win “Best in Show,” their sales soar.
Alana Kujala has been coordinating the festival and the chamber’s other annual events since 2010. According to Willkie, “she keeps all the moving parts working.”
“It’s exciting to see such an enormous event from start to finish,” Kujala says. “We accomplish quite a bit and are able to keep the integrity and quality of the event so high because of the dedication of our volunteer base in this community. It really makes you feel good to share the pride of an event with all of your neighbors.”
The support of many organizations and individual volunteers makes this event possible. The Astoria Band Boosters, Astoria Kiwanis Club, Astoria Railroad Preservation Association, BSA Troop 509, Shanghied Roller Dolls and the Warrenton Sunrise Rotary will be on hand to help as parking monitors and coat check and trash cleanup volunteers. “This is in addition to the approximately 200 volunteers working a shift or two – or even three – covering a door, taking admission or answering questions at the chamber information booth,” Kujala says.
Lighting is something that people often take for granted. “Wadsworth Electic is one of our major unsung heroes,” Kujala says. “They have been supplying electricity to the festival since the beginning.” One of Wadsworth’s electricians, Kevin Carson, will be lighting his 30th festival this year.
“The Clatsop County Fairgrounds and its staff also goes above and beyond the call of duty in helping to prepare for one of the largest events at the fairgrounds the entire year. The staff work long hours and are invested in a quality event. It’s always a pleasure working with Gary Friedman, the Clatsop County Fair and Expo manager, and his staff,” Kujala says.
Good food and drink always pair well with good music. This year will feature both “new folks and local favorites,” says Willkie. Steel drum band Sharkie & the Fins will kick off the festival at 4 p.m. Friday. Local band the Brownsmead Flats will play Saturday morning. The Astoria High School jazz band will play 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday; Kujala says they always draw a big crowd. The Knappa Marimba Band will play at the festival for the first time, 1:30 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Sunday. The band features 11 to 13-year-old musicians.
The festival has grown from its more humble beginnings 31 years ago. According to Willkie, it started as a crab feed with a small selection of wine and a few vendors. “They were out in a small building on the port, and they had a line of people before they even opened, so it’s been a popular event since the beginning,” Willkie says.
“This event is clearly a community project for everyone in Clatsop County. The people in our community are providing a personal and valuable service,” Kujala says. “That makes it one of the best wine and seafood festivals in the entire state of Oregon.”