Sipping Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

August 3, 2014 by John Brown

I’m just back from my fourth trip to the Oregon wine country and participation in the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). If you like pinot noir and superb cuisine, I encourage you to put this event on your bucket list.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the world’s most heralded wine regions and Oregon’s Willamette Valley is among the most revered, particularly for pinot noir. (Incidentally, Willamette, often mispronounced, rhymes with Willdammit).

Oregon's Willamette Valley

Oregon’s Willamette Valley

The event was held at Linfield College – a small liberal arts institution located in an idyllic setting in McMinnville, Oregon. This town is wine central for Oregon pinot noir and is where most of the alfresco lunches, tastings and dinners are held. Each day, half the attendees stay on campus for seminars, tastings, etc., while the other half bus to different vineyards to participate in wine-related learning exercises and tastings. The next day, the two groups switch venues.

Here’s the agenda for a typical day at the IPNC: alfresco breakfast with fresh berries, croissants/breads, mini-omelets, juices and espresso/coffee/tea; visit to a winery (or stay on campus) with an extensive tasting of pinot noirs from Oregon and the world and a Q&A with winemakers; lunch in the winery or alfresco on the campus prepared by a chef from the region and paired with wines; post lunch afternoon seminars and more tastings; and a two-hour tasting of the pinot noir offerings of the participating wineries before a gourmet wine dinner under the stars.

The wonderfully fresh local foods were prepared by an all-star lineup of chefs from some of the Pacific Northwest’s most highly regarded restaurants, and the servers included sommeliers, wait staff and restaurant owners. One of the two evening gourmet extravaganzas featured an incredible and visually striking Northwest Salmon Bake.  The event winds up Sunday morning with a spectacular sparkling wine brunch.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: how can any normal human being survive all this food and wine for two and a half days without exploding? The key, of course, is moderation and understanding the necessity of spitting the wine after tasting. Paper cups were provided for just such a purpose at all activities. I saved the swallowing for the dining events.

Enoying an IPNC Sip

Enjoying an IPNC Sip

While enjoying superb wine and food is the happy result of the weekend, there is always an educational theme for the event and this year’s was: “The Doors of Perception.” In other words, what forms our preferences for the wines we choose to drink, and how do various influences such as weather, geography and the components of the wine itself affect our perceptions.

Thought provoking? Yes, but the real learning experience was tasting wines from not only Oregon, but also from geographically diverse vineyards including those in Argentina, New Zealand, France, California, Italy, Germany and Canada. More than 80 wineries participated in the event and attendees got to interact with wine makers as well as sip and dine with them throughout the weekend.

While it is always fun to compare and contrast pinot noir produced in different parts of the world, the focus of this event is on Oregon. The northern Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, is where the most famous Oregon wineries are located within several American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) including Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill Carlton.

Within these AVA’s, more than 200 wineries produce pinot noir. From a taste perspective, Oregon pinot noir combines the fruit and richness of California pinot with the earthiness, balance and elegance of Burgundy.

Northwest Salmon Bake

Northwest Salmon Bake

For example, California wines are generally more fruit-forward, rounder and many times have less balance and acid than their Oregon counterparts. Burgundian wines can be balanced and earthy, but are sometimes less fruit-forward and can be overly acidic. So, in my opinion, Oregon pinot noir exhibits the best of both worlds.

So which of the 80 or so wineries were my favorites. From Oregon: Argyle; Archery Summit; Anne Amie; Bergstrom; Benton Lane; Domaine Serene; Domaine Drouhin; Harper Voit; Hyland Estates; Patricia Green; Seven Springs; Cristom, Stoller; Westry; and Chehalem.

From California: Drew Family Cellars; J Vineyards; Knez Winery; Navarro Vineyards, Patz & Hall; Red Car Winery; and Talley Vineyards.

Other Standouts: Bodega Chacra – Argentina; Maison Ambroise, Domaine Marc Roy, Joseph Drouhin – Burgundy; J. Hofstatter – Italy; and Akarua and Mt. Beautiful Wines -New Zealand;

If you love wine and particularly pinot noir, you should check out the IPNC website (http://www.ipnc.org/) or call them (800-775-4762). It’s not too early to book reservations for next year’s celebration to be held July 24-26, 2015.

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