In 1980, the economy was hurting, Southern Oregon was a viticultural mystery and the region's national public radio was starved for operating income.

In 1980, the economy was hurting, Southern Oregon was a viticultural mystery and the region's national public radio was starved for operating income. The crazy idea to rescue it all: an event where people bought a ticket for the privilege of drinking many, many small tastes of different kinds of wine.

Fast-forward: Jefferson Public Radio celebrates its 31st Annual Wine Tasting from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Ashland Springs Hotel, 212 E. Main St. Participating are more than 35 wineries, triple the number at the inaugural event. Chefs and food servers will be well-stocked with sweet and savory bites, so they won't run out as they did that first time. And some of those who worked the original, uncharted event will raise a glass to success.

The first event packed a hall in what was then Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, and it made money for the public radio station. This year, more than 350 tickets were available for the larger venue. As in the past, proceeds will support station operating costs, including programming.

From the start, organizers invited only Oregon wineries.

"We kicked around the idea of having California wines, as well," recalls Lorn Razzano, who organized the original event. Razzano had just opened Ashland Wine Cellar on Lithia Way.

"But the economic times were as hard as they are now. There were empty storefronts. And we asked ourselves, 'How best do we help the Oregon wine industry?' We decided not to look south, even though we could have bombed without them."

Memories are fuzzy, but Razzano and others remember Girardet, Henry Estate and Valley View Winery braving the unknown. Protocol was created on the spot, from how much to pour to who could legally pour.

Adding to the hullabaloo, the station broadcast live from the event, with Gina Ing, the station's development director, and Razzano interviewing the winemakers and supporters.

Razzano remembers he had a wine glass in one hand and a microphone in the other. He wandered to each of the booths, dragging cables behind him and begging people not to step on them. Then he "stuck a mic in people's faces and asked them, 'What do you think of this wine?' "

John Baxter was JPR's program director back then, and he worked the mixing console during the two-hour, live broadcasts.

"It was a way of promoting the wine-tasting," he says, "but I'm not sure it was very good radio. By the end of the evening, the interviews got less and less focused as more wine was consumed by those being interviewed — and those like me behind the console."

This year, Geoffrey Riley is the host, and live music will be performed by Pachanga and the Charles Guy and Crystal Reeves Group.

Despite the missteps of the first JPR Wine Tasting, winery owners asked to be invited again in 1981.

"Then we knew we had jumped the fence," Razzano says. "We took everyone by surprise. Now these kinds of wine-tastings are everywhere."

Tickets cost $50. Call 541-552-6301 or 877-646-4TIX or see www.ijpr.org.