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    International Pinot Noir Celebration Turns 25

    by Francoise Villeneuve with Antoinette Bruno
    Antoinette Bruno and Francoise Villeneuve
    September 2011

    This July, for the 25th time, The International Pinot Noir Celebration descended on McMinville, Oregon. McMinville may be the biggest city in Yamhill County, Oregon, but if you wandered around before IPNC, words like "quaint" might spring to mind. For four days, this town in the heart of the Willamette Valley is overrun with winemakers, sommeliers, pinot noir nuts, and yes, a few folks who are just looking to enjoy some great wine.

    The event brings together Oregon pinot noir producers with those from all over the world on the campus of McMinville's flower-studded Linfeld College. Some even relived their college days, sleeping nights in the Linfield dormitories. We took to IPNC like journalists to wine, which is to say, with enthusiasm and volume.

    Zucchini Charlotte, Summer Bean Ragout, and Smoked Tomato Saffron Ravioli at R. Stuart & Co., from the team behind Portland's Aviary

    Zucchini Charlotte, Summer Bean Ragout, and Smoked Tomato Saffron Ravioli at R. Stuart & Co., from the team behind Portland's Aviary

    PRE-DAY ONE

    R. Stuart & Co. Dinner with Aviary Team
    After a long drive from Portland (involving a few wrong turns, a total GPS failure, and way too much technology-bashing for online journalists) we arrived in the idyllic little town of McMinville. Rob and Maria Stuart are the winemaking team behind R. Stuart & Co. (The couple actually met in the 90s at IPNC). And their tasting room on the main street of McMinville felt more like a cozy, family-owned bistro with etched glass doors, chandeliers, mingling guests, and welcoming glasses of R. Stuart & Co.'s bright and floral Brut Rosé d'Or.

    It was here that an intimate pre-IPNC dinner (one of many events in the area that acted as tailgating for winos) reunited us with the team behind Portland's AviaryJasper Shen, Sarah Pliner, and Kat Whitehead. The trio's five-course menu, paired with R. Stuart & Co. wines, was beautifully executed—especially the Arugula Salad with Watermelon, Candied Cumin, and Ginger Vinaigrette, a beautifully complex summer dish, paired with Brut Rosé d'Or. As the wine flowed, chatter continued into the night, and out came the winery's flagship Autograph Pinot Noir, a blend of their currant-y Weber Pinot Noir and the briny Temperance Hill Pinot Noir—a couple that comes together for a balance of earth and spice.

    Attendees gather to hear Keynote Speaker and wine educator Josh Wesson's speech

    Attendees gather to hear Keynote Speaker and wine educator Josh Wesson's speech

    DAY ONE

    Opening Ceremonies
    "Is anyone else here really hungover?" These were some of the first words of keynote speaker of Josh Wesson, the sommelier, wine seller, and author as he stepped up to the podium dressed in a cap and gown. He then gave the funniest wine speech we've ever heard, including an aptly camped up, Monty Python-ish Julia Child impression, all delivered as a mock commencement speech for graduating oenologists. A near-complete (and unofficial) replica is available online. He recalled his earliest wine pairing, at age five—Manichevitz Concord and Gefiltefish. "It was a match with a clear message—convert. To any other religion." And he remembered his childhood in the land of White Castle and orange soda (New Jersey), before moving into the wine world.

    Even with a few hilarious asides ("Statistically speaking at least two or three of you will go on to have a career in the adult film business. I think you know who you are. And please see me after this lecture.") Wesson did manage to hone in on what he considered makes pinot noir such an attractive varietal—it has an eerie ability to improve food. If we were being finicky, we might add "when properly paired." But at that point we were just happy to be there for a stellar beginning to IPNC (and were recovering from a fit of laughter).

    Argyle Winemaker Rollin Soles in the vineyards used to make sparkling wine (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier)

    Argyle Winemaker Rollin Soles in the vineyards used to make sparkling wine (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier)

    Vineyard Tour and Winery Lunch with Name that Pinot
    What better way to recover from the opening ceremonies than with a winery tour? We hopped onto a bus full of wine pros, and headed to a surprise location. The Heathman beverage director Erica Landon pointed out the vineyards along the way. And finally, from in between the trees we saw the entrance to Argyle winery in Dundee. We got off the bus mid-vineyard, and winemaker Rollin Soles gave us the grand tour of the pinot noir and pinot meunier (what he calls "hamburger helper for champagne") vineyards. He pointed out the fluffy, light silver leaves of the pinot meunier, and the smoother leaves of the pinot noir. The high-altitude, upright trellised vines were planted in 1975 (all more recent plantings are planted on rootstock).

    We enjoyed a glass of Argyle Brut 2002 while handlebar-mustachioed Soles discussed his winemaking, saying that sparkling wine "gives you the confidence to make picking decisions—with the reds here, phenolics develop nicely and you're just waiting for that last element of sugar." After enjoying a glass of bubbly, we headed back to the bus and over to Argyle's winery for a blind tasting challenge. Teams of four to seven huddled together and tried to match the five sparkling wines with their five producers (Argyle, Domaine Chandon, Champagne René Geoffrey, Gloria Ferrer, and Soter Vineyards), aided by heavy hints from the winemakers! The competition was fierce, but our table was victorious, and in any case, the losing teams licked their wounds over a lunch prepared by Bunk Bar chefs Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood, paired with Argyle wines.

    Scott Dolich from Park Kitchen’s Northwest Farm-to-Table dish: Mussels marinated in Pinot Noir with Red Currants

    Scott Dolich from Park Kitchen’s Northwest Farm-to-Table dish: Mussels marinated in Pinot Noir with Red Currants

    Evolution of Northwest Farm-to-Table Cuisine
    Fresh from our winery lunch, we headed back to campus, for a culinary panel featuring Greg Higgins (Higgins), Cory Schreiber (formerly of Wildwood), Anthony Boutard (Ayres Creek Farm) and Scott Dolich (Park Kitchen and The Bent Brick). Northwest Palate editor Cole Danehower led the panel, and the chefs and farmer guided the audience through the ins and outs of the locavore scene that drives Northwestern cuisine. Schreiber made the observation that in terms of transactions at farmers' markets, Oregon is the second highest grossing state in the nation (the first is Vermont). As a mere 2 percent of the industry, fine dining doesn't drive this. Sometimes there are challenges from customers—Dolich observed that "this summer all the customers were begging for tomatoes, well tough s*&*; they're aren't any tomatoes, it rained the past eight months." The chefs pointed out that in Portland in particular, there's an emphasis on farm-to-table and sustainable food, but 93 million acres of farmland have been taken up by other land in the past 24 years, so there's more reason now than ever to try and move farm-to-table forward.

    Higgins spoke to the 90s spike of farmers growing specialty crops that challenged the creativity of Oregon chefs. "I don't think you have to be a great chef to make great food. You have to have good ingredients," said Higgins. After the panel, we stepped out into the sunlight to enjoy dishes from the chefs. Schreiber's Chilled Oregon Star Tomato Soup, Oregon Bay Shrimp, and Sour Cream was just what the sizzling day needed. Dolich's dish of mussels marinated in Pinot Noir with red currants managed to incorporate the celebrated grape, and Higgins' house-cured capicola was served with Oregon's famous boysenberries.

    Charcuterie from Olympic Provisions

    Charcuterie from Olympic Provisions

    Charcuterie and Rosés
    Across the lawn from the Northwest farm-to-table booths, salumist Elias Cairo, Chef Alex Yoder, and Restaurateur Nate Tilden of Olympic Provisions greeted guests and handed out samples of salumi. Meanwhile, wine producers poured samples of Pinot Noir rosés (some just containing a little Pinot Noir, some the whole hog). The stone fruit and floral nose of a 2010 Domaine les Temps Perdus "Rosé de Bourgogne" Cotes d'Auxerre from Burgundy were a great companion for the Olympic Provisions Saucisson d'Arles, a straightforward saucisson with virtually no seasoning. And from Washington, the Syncline Wine Cellars Rosé from Columbia Valley had a great balance of berries and minerality. We enjoyed a glass with the Chorizo Rioja made with sweet paprika, smoked paprika, garlic, and oregano.

    Tasting booth at the Al Fresco Pinot Noir Tasting

    Tasting booth at the Al Fresco Pinot Noir Tasting

    Al Fresco Tasting (2008 and 2009 Vintages)
    Every year, on Friday and Saturday afternoons, IPNC hosts big, walk-around tastings on the grass, where over 30 featured pinot noir winemakers pour their wines to enthusiastic audiences. So after enjoying several pieces of saucisson from the charcuterie stand, we headed over to this event, going from table to table, comparing pinot noirs from different producers and different areas of the world, from Oregon to California and New Zealand to Italy.

    When writers equate a varietal with a particular flavor profile, it's always a huge (if somewhat helpful) generalization. But of course, saying all pinot noirs taste the same is a bit like saying all brunettes look alike—in a vague, superficial way, sort of … but not really. Friday's '08 tasting really brought that home. The next night, we returned to taste '09 vintages. It was a good cross-section of Oregon pinots, and because they were pitted against those from many other countries, it was an indicator of how the future of pinot noir is shaping up.

    Sustainable wine had a good showing, courtesy of French proprietor Bernard Lacroute, whose WillaKenzie Emery Pinot Noir 2008 was produced in the Willamette Valley. And winemaker Melissa Burr works at LEED-certified Stoller winery. A surprise standout in terms of flavor profile was Canada's delicate Blue Mountain Reserve Pinot Noir from Okanagan Valley in British Columbia—redolent of warm spices, leather, and red berries.

    Chef Vitaly Paley from Portland’s Paley’s Place and team

    Chef Vitaly Paley from Portland’s Paley’s Place and team

    La Grande Fête
    As the sun began to fade on our first day of wine tastings and events, a star lineup of chefs prepared to wow attendees with an open-air dinner and wine extravaganza. Tuxedo-ed sommeliers from Oregon poured Fleury and Chierry Massin Champagne as guests piled up, eager to find their seats. Chefs riffed off of the same ingredients in all sections, so the meal was a telling indication of the culinary style of each of them. Ken Collura from Andina (the sommelier at our table) poured predominantly grand and premier cru Burgundies with a Northwest menu from Leif Benson and Jason Stoller Smith of Timberline Lodge.

    Pinot Noir winemakers and moderator Eric Asimov

    Pinot Noir winemakers and moderator Eric Asimov

    DAY TWO

    The Grand Seminar

    Every year the IPNC features a single main seminar—this year it was a panel of Pinot Noir producers who, moderated by New York Times wine writer and critic Eric Asimov, dished on their stories, their introduction to IPNC, and the contributions to Pinot Noir that the global conversation between winemakers (at events like IPNC) has created. Here's a brief look at 25 years of collaboration.

    Veronique Drouhin's winemaker father traveled to Oregon, but it wasn't until Veronique took up the mantle that her father persuaded her to go to there for a wine internship, instead of California. "I said, 'where's that?'" she recalled. After an invitation to IPNC, the family of winemakers first rented a space in Oregon to make wines, then built a winery here, bridging the Old World-New World gap.

    Oregon-based David Adelshiem began by buying land and planting his vines in August, "a beautiful time of the year and a really dumb time to plant." He decided to stage at a Burgundy winery. Only one place was willing to hire an American—the Lycée de Viticulture in Beaune. Years later, Adelshiem recalled his fight to get Burgundian producers to come to the first IPNC. "You couldn't just invite 12 Burgundians to McMinnville. It was all but 'Indian country,'" he chuckled. But they pulled it off, and the first IPNC came about.

    Dominique Lafon from Comtes Lafon told the story of the winery's vineyards in Meursault and Volnay dating back to his great grandfather, a moneyed art collector who purchased the land. Lafon now consults for many Oregon wineries. Jim Clendenen made wine in Australia and California before heading to Burgundy and realizing nothing he knew as an American about winemaking was done the same way there. Once he became a winemaker, the advice of the Dijon clone inventor he met at IPNC would be pivotal—"My wines would be very different without the influence of this event." Larry McKenna grew up in Australia before moving to New Zealand. He first came to IPNC in the 1980s. Inspired, he returned to New Zealand and established the Southern Pinot Noir Workshop (their own version of IPNC).

    Poached Oregon Albacore Tuna, Smoky Tomatoes, Corn, and Summer Squash Ragout from Chefs Rocky Maselli of Osteria Sfizio and Stephanie Pearl Kimmer of Marché

    Poached Oregon Albacore Tuna, Smoky Tomatoes, Corn, and Summer Squash Ragout from Chefs Rocky Maselli of Osteria Sfizio and Stephanie Pearl Kimmer of Marché

    Al Fresco Lunch
    Two Eugene, Oregon, chefs teamed up for this open-air lunch on the lawn at Linfield College—Rocky Maselli from Osteria Sfizio and Stephanie Pearl Kimmel from Marché. The chef team's influences were Italian at times. A beautifully creamy burrata with green beans was paired with a 2006 Belle Pente Vineyard pinot noir from the Yamhill-Carlton district, which proved to be extremely food friendly (full of dark fruit, with a solid structure). The 2007 Murto from Dundee was full of bright red fruit, and had softer tannins that complemented the delicacy of a Poached Oregon albacore tuna with tomatoes and ragout. A nice, loose goat's milk panna cotta finished off the meal, before diners rushed over to the Stumptown cart, eagerly waiting for the coffee company to open under a canopy of colorful maple leaves.

    Cheese expert and author Laura Werlin

    Cheese expert and author Laura Werlin

    White Wine and Cheese Pairing
    Any cheesehead worth her salt knows of James Beard award-winning cheese author Laura Werlin. In this seminar, Werlin guided cheese nuts and winos alike through the tricky business of pairing whites with cheese. Without a doubt, our favorite cheese was "Eugenia's Cheese," the raw cow's milk, Epoisses-style beauty. Some great tips we picked up from Werlin:

    1. Cheeses bring out tannins in reds that you didn't realize were there—all cheese, but especially creamy cheese, will make red wine taste bitter.

    2. Cheese affects wine more than wine affects cheese.

    3. Taste the wine first without cheese; then taste the pairing.

    4. Higher acid cheeses go with higher acid wines (e.g., a Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs 2006 with River's Edge Sunset Bay cheese).

    5. Salty cheeses are challenging—go with a sweet wine to contrast with the salt.

    6. The bigger the cheese or the bigger the wine, the smaller the universe of cheese or wines that pair with it.

    Fire pit-baked salmon

    Fire pit-baked salmon

    Northwest Salmon Bake
    The last night of IPNC, a huge outdoor fire pit was built, and the baked salmon fest began, prepared by a team of Oregon, Washington, and California chefs (including The Hitching Post's Frank Ostini, for fans of the movie "Sideways.") The mood was relaxed as the meal wound to a close. Sommeliers started losing their ties, kicking back glasses of wine with a sigh of satisfaction. The end of the meal was the highlight—wine producers whipped some of the IPNC wine library's wines and diners crowded in to get a taste. The party went on late into the night, as diners gathered around the still-hot fire pit and sommelier afterparties shook the dormitories (for once it was legal to get sloshed in the dorm). Rumors of wine kegs remain unconfirmed.

    Lisa Schroeder of Portland restaurant Mother’s serving guests Salmon Hash

    Lisa Schroeder of Portland restaurant Mother’s serving guests Salmon Hash

    DAY THREE
    Sparkling Brunch Finale
    When it comes to hangover cures, you can't beat a glass of bubbly and a heaping plate of food. This is where the Sparkling Finale came in. Picture, if you will, wine producers, somms, and wine educators after days of nonstop drinking. Educational or not, it takes a toll. Stumptown and the orange juice stalls looked like god-sent oases to us. We were happy to catch up with Lisa Schroeder from Portland restaurant Mother's. Her salmon hash had just the heft we needed to counteract a hangover. And a Blue Mountain Brut from Canada (surprisingly refreshing) didn't hurt either. We came, we drank, we wrote. And in search of new events to conquer, on to Oregon's Brewfest we drove. Slowly.