IPNC Is for Connoisseur
Pinot Noir enthusiasts unite
By Neal Hulkower
If gorgeousness is bottled, the label will read Pinot Noir. A particularly appropriate gathering for those who share this belief was the 29th International Pinot Noir Celebration, July 24–26, on the Linfield College campus in McMinnville — during a brief respite from record-breaking heat.
Master of Ceremonies Sam Neill, actor and proprietor of Two Paddocks, a Central Otago, New Zealand winery, welcomed attendees to the “Church of Pinot Noir,” offering several incentives to embracing membership like acceptance of sin. He then asked rhetorically, “Have I taken this obsession with a grape too far?”
As one who has adjusted his life and selected my residence based on proximity to major producers, I’m certainly not one to judge. It was, however, a particular delight to be an invited media participant able to savor the entire event and share two and a half days with my fellow believers.
With nearly three decades of practice, the organizers settled on a schedule that kept the faithful well fed and hydrated from 7:30 in the morning until late into the night both Friday and Saturday. The remarkable breakfast buffet featuring Oregon bounty was followed by a vineyard tour and winery lunch on one of the days; and the Grand Seminar, lunch on the lawn and a “University of Pinot” lecture on campus, on the other.
Afternoon activities included food samplings, book signings and white wine tastings — Viognier, Riesling and Gewürztraminer produced by some of the featured wineries were poured the first afternoon; Chardonnay joined the celebration the second day. Each afternoon, half the 68 featured wineries from Australia, Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S. poured the celebrated beverage at alfresco tastings.
The Grand Dinner, a sit-down affair, completed the first day. The legendary Northwest Salmon Bake was the penultimate event on Saturday night, with the Sparkling Brunch Finale mercifully scheduled for 10 a.m. on Sunday.
The schedule of activities merely served as a framework since one’s experience at IPNC was largely shaped by random encounters with other attendees and the beverages sampled.
After opening ceremonies, I boarded a bus to a winery whose identity was revealed only when we arrived. Stunningly situated Colene Clemens Vineyards hosted us for a tour, a seminar on clones and tastings of their Pinots as well as those from Bien Nacido Estate and Davis Bynum in California, and Coelho Winery and WildAire in Oregon. Guest Chef Katy Millard of Coquine — opened just five days earlier in Portland — prepared appetizers and the hedonistic lunch accompanied by wines from our host.
Wine & Spirits Magazine Senior Correspondent Patrick Comiskey moderated the Grand Seminar, “Tasting the Stars: Champagne & Sparkling Wine.” Producers and distributors from France, California and Oregon shared details of the challenges making this most celebratory drink as well as samples of their bottlings. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first planting in the Willamette Valley of Pinot Noir by David Lett, his son, Jason, shared a unique sparkling made by his father.
I attended the University of Pinot seminar, “Does Vine Age Matter?” led by Burghound founder Allen Meadows. We tasted Oregon Pinot Noirs produced by Beaux Frères, Bethel Heights, Elk Cove and Ponzi from both old and young vines — the overwhelming conclusion was that old vines produced more interesting wines.
The casual setting for the afternoon activities was ideal for self-directed encounters with various vendors: Elephant’s Deli offered tastes of three cheeses produced by small dairies around the country and write-ups to answer the question “Why is this cheese so damn expensive?”; while Nicky USA provided John Gorham of Portland’s Toro Bravo and John Sundstrom of Lark in Seattle with raw materials to create recipes from their cookbooks. Particularly interesting was a comparison of an Oregon Pinot Noir sampled in both a Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glass and Burgundy bowl. The nose from the latter was relatively flat and muted while the aromatics from the former would bring smiles to the true believers.
Two hours each afternoon were allocated to the alfresco tasting, during which I was able to sample about 30 wines. One difficulty is that many are still immature and, given the circumstances, none could be aired adequately to compensate.
Noteworthy entries from outside Oregon included the spicy 2012 Eldridge Estate from Australia, the citrusy 2012 Hanzell Vineyards from California, the delicious 2012 Aloxe-Corton “Clos de la Boulotte” from Domaine Nudant in Burgundy, and the young-yet-intriguing 2012 Barthenau Vigna S. Urbano from J. Hofstätter in Italy.
Thirty-four wineries represented the Beaver State. Among the outstanding Pinots were the elegant 2012 Antikythera from Antica Terra, the warmly fruity 2012 Estate Reserve from Belle Pente, the refreshing Big Table Farm 2013 Willamette Valley, the nicely balanced Crowley 2012 La Colina, and the tight-but-complex Kelley Fox 2012 Maresh Vineyard.
While I met many Oregon wine industry notables, including the Ponzi sisters, Tony Soter, Brian O’Donnell and Rollin Soles, whose contributions are obvious, my more memorable and sustained chance encounters were with those relative newcomers or from other Pinot Noir-producing regions.
On the bus ride to and from the winery, I sat next to Christina Pollan, an elementary school teacher from La Mesa, California, who, along with her brother, established Pollan Family Vineyards in 2014 in the Yamhill-Carlton District. She had not been into wine until three years ago when her sibling suggested she start tasting if she would be marketing their grapes. Since their first vinifiable harvest is not expected until 2017, she is just beginning to think about potential buyers.
At the Grand Dinner, I was seated between Lorna Kreutz, recently named winemaker at featured winery Lincourt Vineyards in Solvang, California, and her assistant, Ryan Aura. She poured us two examples of small-production Pinots from 2012: Willie Mae and Annie Dyer. These were among the California Pinots improving my opinion of Pinots from that state — Oregon snob that I am.
While enjoying the lunch on campus, I mingled with Pollan and featured winery Lemelson Vineyards’ newly appointed winemaker, Matt Wengel, who moved to Oregon from California to replace Anthony King, now at Carlton Winemaker Studio. He poured two library wines, the 2000 Jerome Reserve — after some airing, it was truly elegant — and the 2001 Jerome Reserve, which showed the classic signs of a cool-vintage Pinot.
During the Salmon Bake, I chatted with Marina and Bill Knutson, proprietors of SpierHead Winery, a tiny producer in Canada’s Okanagan Valley, with whom I had also lunched at Colene Clemens. I was the only non-Canadian at the dinner table, where I also met the proprietors of one of the featured wineries, Meyer Family Vineyards, also in the Okanagan. I had no problems communicating with them, however, since I had learned to speak Canadian, albeit with an Eastern accent — acquired when I worked in Toronto during the summer of 1969. Pinots from each of the two were nicely structured and well balanced — should global warming push us farther north in search of traditional examples, it is comforting to know that some promising work is already being done there.
The Sparkling Brunch was a bit of a free for all with buffet tables covered with an eclectic array of eats and surrounded by attendees eager to savor the last moments of the event. Costumed ladies showered us with giant bubbles as we consumed several examples of Pinot with an even more insane selection of foods than had been served the previous two days.
Having had the chance to amble about the friendly and unconstrained confines of a very well-planned event, I can assure my fellow fanatics that all is well in Mondo Pinot.