There He Goes Again, Preaching About Oregon Pinot Noir

There are people who feel compelled to constantly teach others lessons, to impart their knowledge whether anyone's asked or not, to basically annoy the hell out of just about everyone around them with their unsolicited advice and showy displays of intelligence. I was one of those people.

After living in Portland for the better part of the 1990s, I granted myself ambassadorship from Oregon's wine country, and would regularly regale wine drinkers with tales of this magical pinot noir wonderland. I'm sure nobody wanted to hear it. Burgundy drinkers wanted their burgundy, Zin fans chose to stick to Zin. I sipped my Oregon pinot with a smug, superior air. I'm surprised that nobody smacked me. Now, a decade and a half removed from my time in proximity to the Willamette Valley, I considered this: What if I were just romanticizing the whole thing? What if Oregon's pinot noir wasn't really the well balanced, exquisitely tinted elixir I'd made it out to be?

To seek out the answers, I accepted an invitation to the 27th annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, amidst the Willamette Valley's AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). The three-day event went down a couple weekends back on the campus of Linfield College, as well as in the vineyards perched on the rolling hills about 30 miles southwest of Portland and 45 miles from the Pacific Coast. It didn't trumpet celebrity chefs or gimmicky food contests, and the bold-face names who hosted seminars and talks were limited to New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, Champagne expert Terry Theise and a handful of well-known chefs, somms and winemakers.

My IPNC started a day early, with a lunch at the Painted Lady in nearby Newberg, a fine dining restaurant in a jewel box house that's usually only open for dinner. Chef and co-owner Allen Routt served us lunch on the sun-soaked patio, and the menu and plating showcased the skills of an artist. I posted a photo on Instagram of a starter that resembled a still-life painting — a bit of my Oregon-proud smugness resurfacing and emanating from the frame. The dish centered around a lightly fried squash blossom and a hunk of seared foie gras, with herbs and edible flowers and an emulsion or two completing the composed plating. A commenter wrote: "There's a lot going on there. #busy." Maybe it looked that way (love the hashtag, btw), but this was a spectacular dish — just the right amount of richness, freshness and flavor.

That dish would serve as a bellwether for the weekend and especially for the majority of pinot noir we'd drink — fancy and high-minded at first glance, but down-to-earth on the finish (as they say).

While the IPNC strives to live up to its international billing, the vast majority of the pinot comes from the wineries in the 30 or so mile radius around the campus that doubled as the Celebration's grounds (many attendees even stay in the dorms). California and French (Burgundian) wineries were out in force, and a smattering of New Zealand and South American producers made the trip as well, but this is Oregon's show.

And despite Oregonians' inherent modesty and laid-back-to-the-point-of-sleepy nature, they manage to throw one hell of a festival. For my money*, this is one of America's premier food and wine festivals. Rather than the usual taste-around set-ups, organizers arrange for many of the Pacific Northwest's best chefs to prepare lunches and dinners on campus and offsite at secret lunch parties held in the vineyards. Also in Oregonian fashion, the chefs aren't revealed; a list on the Celebration site offered their names, but it wasn't until participants showed up for the various meals that a menu listed which chefs were in the house. At a secret lunch on a Yamhill Valley hillside, chef Sean Temple of Paulée in Dundee served flawlessly cooked albacore and pork dishes to pair with the Angela winery's selection of Pinots. At a pre-IPNC dinner that wasn't even affiliated with the IPNC, chef Leather Storrs from The Noble Rot in Portland paired dishes such as a sous-vide salmon with corn, cherry tomatoes and basil aioli with wines from the host winery, Penner-Ash, which boasts a Napa-style haute tasting room alongside its winery, and a dining room that opens up on a terrace that features breathtaking views of the Willamette Valley. The main IPNC dinner — in which about 800 guests sit in one of the campus's open spaces under strung lighting — featured Portland legend Vitaly Paley and others.

At that dinner and at the next night's Salmon Bake, the amount of pinot noir poured was nothing short of intense. Wait staff poured pinot noir, producers pulled pinot noir out of bags and poured pinot noir that was often better than what the wait staff was pouring; I'm pretty sure I even saw a salmon pouring pinot noir, but things got a little murky that last night.

The point is, these family-style meals led to unexpected interactions with strangers, a welcome change from the usual taste-around, wait in line and gobble up as much food as possible scenario at most food and wine festivals. The free-flowing wine at these meals—and at the daytime seminars on campus—bordered on pinot overload, but I'll say this: a glass never stayed empty for long.

By the end of the festivities, I found myself asking: So what is the IPNC exactly, and how has it managed to go on for 27 years without obtaining the buzz or status of an Aspen Food & Wine fest or South Beach Wine and Food Festival? Well, it's a gathering of pinot noir fanatics, wine geeks, indie producers, sommeliers, a few wine bloggers. I ate lunch with a couple that actually met at a previous IPNC and have been together ever since. I met a guy whose love of pinot noir was second only to his love of baseball (the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams) and in a dead heat with rock and roll (he referred to Ken Wright, a Californian-turned-Oregonian who produces pinots for more than a half-dozen wineries, as "the Mick Jagger of Pinot Noir"). I shared a bus seat with a retiree from Boston who returned to the workforce to do sales for an Oregon winery because she likes pinot noir so much. And I visited Saffron Fields Vineyard, where a winemaking couple from Texas are building the latest in a series of seriously impressive winery/tasting rooms in the Willamette Valley.

As pinot noir evangelists, these people and many others I met have me beat by a long shot. About 48 hours into the IPNC, I found myself craving a beer, a margarita, a Negroni — anything but another pour of that juicy, luscious, ever so slightly peppery pinot noir. I still love it and will proselytize for pinot noir any chance I get, probably to the point of annoyance for friends and acquaintances, but I've got a ways to go until I'm in the same league as the IPNC regulars. Looks like I'd better book my tickets for next year's event.

*It should be noted that the IPNC footed the bill for some of my trip, including a hotel stay at the area's only luxury accommodations, the Allison Inn & Spa.

A Postscript: After returning to NYC, I visited several wine shops to check out which Oregon pinot noir bottles were on shelves. Here are a few brands from the Willamette Valley that I tried at IPNC or around the area and that I'd recommend as entry points for the pinot noir drinker (not that I'm preaching!). Some should be fairly easy to find; others you may have to search for:

  • Montinore Vineyards
  • A To Z
  • Penner-Ash
  • Belle Pente
  • Ken Wright Cellars
  • Winderlea
  • Anticca Terra
  • Big Table Farm
  • Erath