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IPNC: A Primer

For my friends who are considering attending IPNC 2016--and there are a number of you--I'll offer an overview...a primer...on what it's like.

IPNC 2016 will be the 29th International Pinot Noir Celebration held in Oregon's Willamette Valley. It is in the eyes of many experts and past attendees the best pinot noir celebration and the best organized wine festival of any kind in the world. It is always centered on the last weekend in July--for 2016 that means it will be July 28th to July 31st. Climatological data suggests that timeframe produces the best weather of the year--and my experience, having attended the last four or five, supports that.

For those who are coming from out of the area--and that includes my friends who are considering attending--you should arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday. If you're traveling all that way, you want a day or two before IPNC formally starts to visit wineries in the area. There are literally hundreds to choose from. A notional schedule with me might include a visit to a new winery--one I haven't visited before--or two on Wednesday. Thursday, I might taste at Antica Terra in the morning, have lunch at nearby Dundee Bistro (great burgers and truffled fries) or Red Hills Market (great deli sandwiches) and taste at Brooks in the afternoon. Or it might be the other way around.

But I'll arrive at Linfield College, where IPNC is held, between 3 pm and 4 pm to check in at registration. There are a number of different lodging options--ranging from pretty luxurious to pretty rustic. Want the high end? The Allison Inn and Spa in Newburg is very nice. But it's ~20 to 30 minutes from the College and IPNC activities--there is a shuttle bus--and fairly pricey. At the other end of the spectrum are the dorm rooms. They're on campus--crawling distance from IPNC activities--and very reasonable. is a dorm room. Basic furniture and--more important--communal bathrooms. If the bathroom for your sex is nearby, that's not a huge issue. But one of the years I stayed in the dorm, the nearest men's room was one floor away and ~30 yards down the hall. Not ideal! Between those two extremes, there are lots of inns, motels and B&Bs.

For me, the best answer is an apartment in the student family housing area. There are both two- and four-bedroom apartments (with one or two bathrooms, respectively). They also each have a living room, kitchen and dining area--all nice to have, but it's the bathrooms that seal the deal. Like the dorms, the furniture is pretty basic and they're not air conditioned (not normally a problem in Oregon, but it does occasionally heat up). However, that advantage of being within crawling distance--and being able to sneak back for a quick afternoon nap--is compellng to me. I'll be in an apartment again next year. For those who are thinking "me, too" you need to be prepared to act fast. Once they are released for reservation (normally November of December) they book up very quickly.

Thursday evening, there are a series of Pre-IPNC dinners across the valley. Some are in restaurants, but the majority are in wineries. They are not officially part of IPNC--but the list of dinners is published on the IPNC website. Since you have to be there early the next morning for IPNC opening ceremonies, it only makes sense to join one of the dinners the night before. Some are in McMinnville--within a ~15-minute walk of campus. And one--the dinner that raises money for Salud (the fund to help with medical care for the vineyard labor force)--normally provides a shuttle bus. Some mean you have to drive. If they're in a winery, they're paired with a top area chef. If in a restaurant, paired with a top winery or two (or more).

Breakfast Friday morning is in a giant tent on one of the lawns. Loads of berries...pastries...and savories--like bacon and sausage. Toward the end of breakfast, the opening ceremonies begin. There's a guest speaker. This year it was Sam Neill, the actor (Jurassic Park and Hunt for Red October, among others) who owns a winery in New Zealand. The marching orders are "be interesting, be funny and be brief"...and every opening speaker I've seen has complied. Then all the participating estate owners/winemakers (about 60) quickly introduce themselves. It may sound a bit tedious, but it's actually kind of fun...there's some "Wow--I didn't know they'd be here!" and "I didn't know that's what he looked like."

All ~900 participants are there for breakfast and the opening ceremonies. They're from all over. But the majority are more or less in my age group...and share at least an interest--and many a passion--for wine. So it's a group that's naturally inclined to have a good time together. After the opening ceremony, they divide into two. The "A" Group heads for the buses and their day in the vineyards. The "B" Group heads for the Grand Seminar.

The picture above is from this year's Grand Seminar. In honor of the first planting of vines in Oregon 50 years ago, the theme was champagne/sparkling wine (pinot noir being a primary grape in those wines). Last year, the seminar focused on perceptions--the different ways we perceive and describe wines. IPNC usually brings in heavyweights of the wine world to lead these seminars. In the last couple of years, those have included New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov, importer and author Terry Theise, Burgundy and pinot expert Allen Meadows (The Burghound) and rock star sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier. I've always found the Grand Seminars interesting--most years fascinating. But learning at IPNC is never a hardship. As the photo shows, all education is accompanied by great wines to help make the points.

Then "B" Group heads for a lovely lunch on another of the lawns--a multi-course seated meal with lots of wines poured by the top sommeliers in the Northwest (who volunteer their time). It's elegant. This past year, two people at our table brought some stunning additional wines from their cellars to share. That's more common at the dinners than at lunch--but it's a wonderful aspect of IPNC.

After lunch, we headed off to "The University of Pinot"...smaller seminars focused on specific topics. Participants sign up in advaince for the seminars they want. Past seminars I've attended included "Cool Climate Wnes" that included winemakers from particularly cool climates such as Central Otago in New Zealand and the extreme Sonoma Coast. Another year, Jon Bonné--author of The New California Wine--moderated a panel of wineries featured in his book. This year, I attended a seminar on "Does Vine Age Matter?" (spoiler alert--yes, it does). And, of course, there are wines to make whatever points are the focus of the seminar.

The seminars end by 3 pm. There are optional additional activities that take place after that. Some require reservations (and additional payment). Some you can just show up for if you like. I've done both. But I don't really recommend them. What I recommend is a nap! Even a wine zealot like me needs at least a short break during a ~12-hour day of wine drinking!

From 5:30 until 7:30, the al fresco tasting is held on the Quad. Half the participating wineries pour on Friday night and half on Saturday night. So 30 to 35 wineries are arrayed more or less alphabetically at tables amongst the trees in the Quad. You're given a glass when you arrive and can walk around and taste as much or as little as you like. The first couple of years, I tasted darn near everything they had. Now, I tend to be a little more selective...tasting those I've never had and those I particularly like. But even with that, I spit/dump the majority. You just can't swallow it all.

Friday night, the Grand Dinner begins at 7:30. It's an elegant dinner on one of the lawns. While they don't open "the gate" until 7:30, some people get in line ~20 to ~40 minutes early. They're either advance scouts, who'll claim a full table for their friends (still drinking on the Quad), or they want to sit with a particular winemaker (for the Grand Dinner, winemakers are assigned to a particular table in advance...if you want to sit with one of the "rock stars" you need to know which one and get there early). In the evenings, it is more common to bring a special bottle or two to share. You absolutely don't need to. There is plenty of wine. But it's fun to bring something special to share. I buy a few bottles there in Oregon before IPNC wineries I visit and/or at Portland outlets (and there are some great ones).

Saturday morning, after breakfast, the schedules are reversed. "A" Group is on campus for the Grand Seminar, etc, and "B" Group boards buses for the vineyard visits. You don't know where you're going. You just get on the bus indicated on your name tag. This year I got on 15B. You may recognize that there are some winemakers on your bus. This time it was Lynn Penner-Ash (from Penner-Ash), Arron and Ashley Bell (from Domaine Drouhin Oregon) and Anthony and Olive Hamilton-Russell (from Hamilton Russell in South Africa). But the winemaker from the winery you will visit is not on the bus. He or she is waiting to greet you at that winery. Lynn was the host on the bus--she kept up a funny commentary all the way to our destination: Alexana Winery.

When you step off the bus, you're welcomed with a glass of wine or two and a few words about the place you're visiting. Then there's a bit of a seminar--often out in the vineyard--with all of the winemakers participating. That's followed--or accompanied--by a tasting of all of their wines. And then a multi-course lunch cooked by a top chef from the region, paired with wines from the host winery. Are you noticing a trend? Then it's back to campus, arriving between 2:30 and 3:00. Again, there are optional activities...and again, I recommend a nap.

The second al fresco tasting takes place from 5:30 to 7:30 with the other half of the participating wineries. At 7:30, the gates open for the Salmon Bake. This is a little different...for several reasons. Unlike the other lunches or dinners, it's a buffet. And unlike any other IPNC meal or event, locals can buy a ticket just for the Salmon Bake. So it's more casual--and there are half-again as many people there as at the other dinner. But there are no more the individual attention that you get at every other meal can be a tad more sporadic at the Salmon Bake. Of course getting to know your somm--or sitting in the area with one you know--can overcome that. So can bringing some bottles to share. I didn't the first year. I have every year since. It's not necessary--there's enough wine. But sharing something special begets other people sharing something special...and it's really nice.

There's music at the Salmon Bake--this year an excellent jazz band with singer. Some people dance. I drink wine. But in either case, it's a lovely, casual night. People tend to circulate and chat with old and new friends as much as they sit and eat. As for the eating, there are buffet tables with lots of salads and cold vegetables. Others with lots of desserts. And, of course, some with salmon and meats. The chunks of lovely fresh salmon are roasted over a huge bonfire. I don't normally eat much salmon...but this is really good. And there's beef, lamb and/or pork.

There are a few hardy souls who party pretty late. I tend to drift back to my apartment (walking, not crawling, thank you!) between 10:00 and 10:30. I know my limits. Sunday morning sees a brunch, starting at 10:00 on the lawn. I'm usually up and packed well before that and head up early to sip coffee and wait. This year, I took it a little more casually--arriving about 10:20. Mistake. I got the opportunity to spend ~20 minutes or so in line. Not the end of the world. The IPNC brunch is their breakfast on steroids. Still lots of berries and pastries and savories. But also things like Eggs Benedict (the last couple of years) and sushi and Mexican dishes (this year). And, of couse, lots of bubbles--both domestic and champagne. It's relaxed and pleasant. The somms--who've been dressed formally all week--dress in costume. One year it was togas. Another, they dressed as animals. This year, they were "bubble fairies."

Then it's time to say farewell. It's possible to fly back to the east coast on Sunday. But I don't recommend it. There are early direct flights Monday morning. That lets you enjoy the brunch and

perhaps the afternoon/evening in Portland (a great city).

How good is IPNC? I'm already registered/paid for IPNC 2016. The sincerest form of flattery!

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