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The International Pinot Noir Celebration
A remarkable annual wine event in Oregon

Every year since 1987, the gently sleepy Oregon town of McMinnville has been host to one of the most remarkable events in the wine calendar Ė the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). Bringing together winemakers and wine lovers from across the world, itís a joyful occasion where wine is put in its proper context: rather than just being a mega-tasting where the wine is sniffed, slurped and spat, the delegates actually get to drink some stuff, paired with some very good food.

Indeed, the food is a serious focus of the event, too. Some 40 prominent northwest chefs are involved, and the creativity and execution of the catering is incredible, considering the scale of the even Ė and the fact that it is held outdoors.

I attended for the first time this July (2008) and was blown away by the way that the Oregon wineries, international winemakers, trade representatives and wine lovers fused so well in their celebration of this most remarkable of grape varieties: Pinot Noir. The program combined elements of eating, tasting, learning and socializing in a seamless and enjoyable whole. The Ďcampusí setting, where most people were staying within easy walking distance or a short shuttle bus ride away from all the events helped, because you feel you are all in it together. That collegiate spirit works well.

I arrived into Portland airport a little late, early afternoon on the first day of the IPNC, and after picking up a hire car, a Sat Nav and driving for a couple of hours, I checked into my hotel and walked the short distance to the campus of Linfield College for the early evening tasting (above).

The delegates are split into two groups, whose daytime activities on Friday and Saturday mirror each other: the fact that Iíd missed the first part of the day didnít matter much, because my group had spent Friday doing a vineyard visit with lunch at a winery Ė and because I was due to spend a few days touring wine country after the IPNC, missing this wasnít a problem. That day the second group were doing the seminars which I was to catch on the Saturday. 

The walk-around al fresco tasting mixed together Oregon producers with Pinot Noir producers from California, Canada, Burgundy, Austria, Australia and New Zealand. Like the other main events here it was held outdoors in very comfortable temperatures of the low 70s. The IPNC did well with the weather this year; the risk can be that mid-summer temperatures get a little high, putting stress on the wines and punters alike. It was a jolly affair, with enough space for everyone to taste at leisure. Each winery represented showed just one or two wines, which helped keep things manageable: it made it possible for people to try everything without having to work too hard. (Notes to follow.)

This was followed by the Friday night grand dinner, held outdoors (below) - a cracking affair with frequent small pours of a huge range of wines, served by a team of sommeliers, and really, really good food. I was sitting with fellow journos Tyler Colman of Dr Vino (www.drvino.com), Elin McCoy (Bloomberg) and Patrick Comiskey (Wine & Spirits magazine), and a small crowd from the Oregon Wine Board.

I got caught out by the diurnal temperature differential which is of Mendoza proportions: 80 degrees by day, 50 by night. Consequently, I froze as the dinner progressed and I was wearing just shirt sleeves. It didnít outweigh the enjoyment of the food and wine, though.

Saturday began with a substantial buffet breakfast. As with all the events, this is free seating, and if you are alone, as I was, you find yourself mixed up with a range of people from different backgrounds, almost all of whom are fun and interesting. I ended up chatting to a couple of winemakers and a PR person from one of the Oregon wineries. 

Then it was time for those of us in group 'A' to attend the seminar, focusing this year on sustainability. We began with the Jasper (Morris) and Dominique (Lafon) show, which Jasper chaired fantastically. We tasted Dominique's red wines (would have been nice to try his whites!) as he told us about his journey to biodynamie. We were about two thirds of the way through when one of the audience asked whether Dom could explain more about how he uses Vitamin E in his winemaking. It was a wonderful moment.

This was followed by a panel with five Pinot Noir producers from around the world talking about their interest in sustainability. Ted Lemon, of leading California Pinot producer Littorai outlined his four definitions of biodynamics, which were quite controversial and rather unusual (for those with a scientific background).

  • The farm should be seen as a self-contained individuality, with the goal that it should be entirely self-sustaining
  • The material world is nothing more than condensed spirit, so we are farming the spirit rather than material.
  • The idea of using preparations is that by putting them on the ground it enhances the spirit dimension of your farm.
  • The enhanced wine and food grown using biodynamics gives us the force to confront the challenges of our lives.

The other panellists were Nigel Greening of Felton Road, who explained why Felton Road had pulled out of the NZ winegrowers sustainability program (it was toothless, setting the bar too low); Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights in Oregon; and Michael Dillon of Bindi in Australia. 

Following the seminar there was a really nice lunch including some great wines, and also one of the most remarkable gastronomic experiences I've had. It was a suite of three bacon desserts. Yes, bacon. And they worked amazingly well. These were made by Cheryl Wakerhauser from Pix Patisserie in Portland. This typifies whatís fantastic about the IPNC: itís not just about tasting wines, but thereís great creativity across the board. Itís a complete, culturally rich, enjoyable weekend.

After lunch, I hit downtown McMinnville looking for some warmer clothing options. The only shop selling clothes, as far as I could tell, was a surf/skate dude shop. I chose a chocolate brown hoodie with a blue alien on the front, which made me look like a wannabe 19 year old skateboarder. It was the best I could do. 

I returned to Linfield for the second phase of the tasting: a new set of producers.

Then, in the evening, it was time for the event that is seen by many as the highlight of the weekend: the Salmon bake, held in the Linfield College Oak Grove. The wild salmon is baked on Alder stakes over an open fire (pictured), which is a traditional method, and looks pretty spectacular. The salmon is served with a sumptuous buffet, and sommeliers go round distributing wines to the tables so you get to try quite an assortment of things.

Lots of collectors use this as a chance to bring out some serious Pinot Noir (as well as a few others), and so if you are lucky you get to try quite a few really nice wines. I reported on the wines I tried on my blog (here). 

Sunday morning was the Sparkling wine brunch, which consisted of an amazing buffet prepared by five different chefs matched with sparkling wines. I sat with Philippe Pacalet, a natural winemaker from Burgundy who had some really interesting things to say. It was a nice way to finish off a remarkable weekend, and I then hit the road for my first appointment in wine country, which I'll be reporting on in depth on this site. 

Booking is open for the 2009 event: see www.ipnc.org for more information.  

see also:

Wines tasted 07/08  
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