Stateside: Pinot Noir for the masses

Pinot Noir People & Places Articles
  • Friday 16 February 2007

Stateside: Pinot Noir for the masses

Led off by Remington Norman MW, the 20th annual programme of the 2006 International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) was held in late July at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. It followed the same pattern of the previous years, those attending spending one day on-site, and the other in the vineyard. This summer camp devoted to Pinot education is an established event, and this year 700 guests enjoyed free-flowing wines and substantial meals – as you’d expect at an event costing $795 (not including accommodation).

We were divided into two groups for seminars and lunches, reuniting for the late afternoon activities, which involved tasting the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Pinot Noir from across the world, complete with grand dinners. Saturday’s programme mimicked Friday’s; those who were in the first group acted out the second group’s activities of the previous day, and visa versa.

My programme kicked off on Friday with an event called The Course of Two Decades: New World Pinot Noir. For 20 years, Pinot producers from the New and Old World have assembled at IPNC to share their passion for, and to enjoy good Pinot. Here, author Leslie Sbrocco chaired a discussion and blind tasting with winemakers from Pinot Noir’s most successful homes outside Europe.

On my visit, the blind tasting of Oregon, Californian, Australian and New Zealand Pinot Noirs was the most fun – the winemakers couldn’t identify their own wines! On the downside, the commentary on Friday could have been more developed. It’s fine to make a discussion accessible, but there was no need for it to be quite so fluffy.

Each winemaker told the audience what they thought the most significant Pinot development over the last 20 years had been in their region. Fair enough, but I’d have been more interested in specifics. Did the wine taste a certain way because of spacing, soil, climate, altitude or age of the vines? The session was slightly rushed through in order to have us move onto the next event, worryingly described as a Science Fair.

It featured five tables of wines, each with a theme: cooperage covered different types of forest and barrel toasts; clones; whole cluster fermentation; closures and something called Translating Terroir, a 2003 experiment conducted by three winemakers to vinify the same parcel of Domaine Drouhin Oregon. This last table featured wines that were the focus of the 2004 IPNC seminars, and what it showed then – overripe grapes from a season of drought and heat much like 2003 Europe – still prevailed. The factor of over-ripeness, and alcohol in particular, dominated each wine more than anything else.

Lunch followed for the on-campus group. In honour of the fact that this was the 20th annual IPNC, we were in for a real treat. Winemakers unearthed Pinot treasures from their cellars so that we could experience just how well New World Pinot Noir had developed over the last two decades. My table was particularly lucky, allocated a selection of 1985 Oregon Pinots that were truly excellent. The Ponzi was especially delicious, a bonus, as Nancy Ponzi, seated at the table, said that not all bottles of the 1985 had been showing particularly well recently.

The next day, we headed out to the vineyards for the Biographies of Burgundy programme. Buses took us to various Oregon vineyards, where a Burgundian winemaker was waiting to meet us. He or she then talked about life as a vigneron in the birthplace of Pinot Noir.

My transport travelled to Ridgecrest Vineyard, Chehalem’s top site, where our allocated Burgundian was Philippe Prost of Bouchard Père et Fils. Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem ably played Terry Gross of national-public-radio-interviewing fame in the US, asking questions of Prost, and taking enquiries from our small group. It was a mixed bag, with some basic questions that showed a rather variable range of knowledge. But the discussion was lively. At one point Prost declared, ‘You have a clearer future here. You can continue to build. You’re lucky – we can’t change.’

Food is a major focus at the IPNC, as it must be when you’re drinking so much good wine. Lunches and dinners are grand events, featuring top chefs using expensive ingredients. Most people bring extra wine to the meals to share with friends – and this can become competitive. A few, including Au Bon Climat winemaker Jim Clendenen, carried in cases of older Burgundies to share, some of which anyone would find hard to beat. At the Saturday night Salmon Bake evening, a popular event, one could easily recognise Clendenen’s table by the swarming hordes circling. Not only did wine flow freely, but great, old vintage Burgundy watered the grass too, as glasses were emptied in order to taste the next bottle. The Salmon Bake is always a study in excess.

The Sunday morning brunch was more sedate, and this year was better attended. In past years people have skipped the brunch to sleep, or in the case of the more diligent, visited a few wineries.

Norman closed the event, thanking all involved, but why, he asked, were the restrooms so far from the dining areas, and without any signage? He told of his own plight on Friday night, trying to find a place to go, but stumbling upon a bubbling fountain. Had this been a temptation that proved too much for others, he wondered?

Next year’s IPNC will be held on 27-29 July 2007, at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. To be included on the mailing list, visit the organiser’s website, www.ipnc.org.

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