The International Pinot Noir.Celebration started in Oregon in the late 1980s as a way to gather the best Pinot Noir producers--and Pinot Noir lovers--from around the world...oh, and to demonstrate that Oregon's wines belonged in the conversation with the world's best. In the years since, it has become what observers like the New York Times and London's famous writer Jancis Robinson have called the best festival of its kind anywhere.
IPNC starts Friday morning of the last full weekend in July (climatologically, the time of year most likely to enjoy good weather) at Linfield College in McMinnville. About 800 wine lovers gather for breakfast and the opening ceremonies. This year, the speaker at opening ceremonies--and the host of the Grand Seminar which followed--was well-known wine writer and wine personality Steven Spurrier. Spurrier, currently both consulting editor of London's Decanter magazine and a winemaker exploring the potential of sparkling wine in England's chalky southern soils--actually became famous in Paris. His love of French wine took him there where he founded both the wine shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, and the wine school, Academie du Vin. Intrigued by the quality of wines he tasted from California, he organized a tasting--one that would present, in a blind format, some of the best wines of France (Burgundy and Bordeaux) and California. To give it credibility, Spurrier enlisted some of the leading wine personalities of France to participate. The year was 1976. The group assembled in a hotel ballroom. They joked about how awkward the American wines would be in comparison with the jewels of France. But when the tasting started, they were first surprised, then astonished, at the difficulty they had in telling which wines were French and which American.
That astonishment was followed by complete shock when they scored the wines. The highest scoring white wine was a chardonnay from California's Chateau Montalena. The highest scoring red--a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag's Leap in Napa. Many of these French experts reacted with denial...California's wines better than French? Couldn't be. There must be something wrong. This could have all gone unnoticed (the French were certainly not eager to publicize it) had Spurrier not invited a writer for Time magazine--George Taber--and had Taber not had a little extra time that day and decided at the last minute to drop by. Intrigued by what he saw, Taber published a little article on the "Judgment of Paris" in Time...and in doing so, rocked the wine world. Spurrier became famous--first because of the book Taber later wrote, entitled Judgment of Paris, and then because of the popular movie about the event entitled Bottle Shock (Spurrier despised the movie for its dramatizing of the real story--threatening to sue the producers as he said "There is hardly a word that is true in the script..."). But while Judgment of Paris is what he's best known for in the general public, in the wine world, he's a highly respected author--having written a number of books.
Spurrier seemed to clearly understand that the audience, while eager to hear from him, was not in a mood for a long speech. On a gorgeous morning on the lawn of the pretty college, he charmed the group with a few personal stories and then stepped aside, allowing the 80 participating winemakers to introduce themselves. And then we broke and moved on to the Grand Seminar. The subject: "Côte Chalonnaise--the Third Côte." The point? When we think of Burgundy, we focus on the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. But because of high demand and limited supply, prices of wines from those two appellations have gone stratospheric. Spurrier and the panel of winemakers from the Côte Chalonnaise demonstrated that there are good wines from this region (in the southern part of Burgundy) and that they're significantly more affordable. Nice evernt. Then Lunch on the Lawn--a wonderful multi-course meal with a variety of wines served at tables set under the trees on the front of campus. Those who haven't been would be amazed at the beautiful setting, the elegant service (including somms in black tie) and the excellent food and wine...not easy to do that for such a large group.
And that was the big difference between the Pre-Week and the Event...the scale. Pre-Week focused on intimate, direct interactions between winemakers, one at a time, and our group. The Event focused on interactions between the 80 winemakers and the 800 wine lovers. The insights of Pre-Week are wonderful. The camaraderie of the Event is great. They complement each other well. And the enjoyment of the latter was clearly on display at Friday night's Grand Dinner. It was a fabulous five-course meal in a beautiful setting under the lights on a playing field turned into an elegant al fresco dining venue. Each table was hosted by one or more winemakers--our particular host was John Grochau of Grochau Cellars. Nice man. Not only did we drink his wines, and the wines our somms offered, our group brought a variety of superb wines to the dinner...among the many were a beautiful bottle of 2002 Bereche Côte--their limited production tête du cuvée--and a few bottles of 2016 Thomas Pinot Noir, Oregon's cult wine. Delicious...and surprisingly approachable for a young wine.
Saturday, after a delicious breakfast, we hopped on our designated bus...we knew we were off to visit a winery for the day, but didn't know which. The destination is held as a secret until you arrive. In our case, it was Gran Moraine.in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. It was a lovely setting, with polished presentations and nice wines. As always, the session included three visiting winemakers a well as the host. And lunch on their patio was superb--prepared and served by the culinary team from Portland's Il Solito restaurant. Truth be told, Gran Moraine is one of several Oregon wineries that has been recently acquired by the Jackson Family Wine company. Does that make it "corporate wine?" Not necessarily. Jackson has a reputation of working to preserve quality and individuality. It is simply my preference--perhaps even my quirk--that I choose to buy wines made by a person or family as opposed to a company,
Saturday evening, after the al fresco tasting of 40 wines (which happens before dinner both Friday and Saturday evenings) saw the Salmon Bake--one of IPNC's signature events. It's significantly more casual than the other meals--as the photo suggests. The dinner is served buffet-style. And the crowd is significantly bigger. The Salmon Bake is the one event that people not attending the full IPNC can buy tickets to attend...instead of 800 people, it's 1500. Still somms in black tie--but overall a fun vibe. Besides the food and wine, there's an excellent band that plays (and dancing for those who wish).
We were flattered that Steven Spurrier and Dave McIntyre (the Washington Post wine writer) asked to sit at our table--though that certainly had more to do with Janie sitting with us than my charm. It was a great night. Spurrier was relaxed, friendly and fun. Dave, as always, was a little more reserved--but smart and insightful. The food was very good. The salmon, grilled on paddles suspended over a ~100' long alder fire pit, was delicious. So was the beef and the lamb. But it was the wines that shined brightest...wines that we brought. We started with four different champagnes--from the great1995 and 1996 vintages. Then the whites...there were several, but among those that stood out to me were the Kelley Fox Barbie Pinot Blanc and the Antica Terra Aequorin Chardonnay. Then some of Oregon and Burgundy's best pinot noirs. And lots of winemakers came by the table to chat and share a glass of wine. It was a great evening.
IPNC concluded, as it always does, Sunday morning with the Sparkling Brunch. Lots of good food...lots of good bubbles...lots of good camaraderie. And while there, a number of us signed up for IPNC 2020. So the story continues...