International Pinot Noir Celebration, Willamette Valley

For Pinot Noir fans, there is no better event then the International Pinot Noir Celebration or IPNC. IPNC is an annual celebration that is probably the premier global pinot-focused event in the city. Although roughly 60 percent of the hundreds of participating vendors in 2018 were from Oregon, it also has a number of representative and premier wines from Californian, France, New Zealand, and to a lesser extent, Austrian, German, Canadian, South African and Australian producers. The mix changes from year to year depending on the theme of the event.  The perpetually sold-out blow-out weekend typically totals about 1,000 people (roughly evenly divided between industry professionals and consumers) plus 500 additional people for the Saturday evening Salmon Bake.

It took us a four years to return after our first IPNC in 2014….mostly because we were travelling out of the country during the time of the event. Once there, we vowed to not wait as long for our next return.

Domaine Serene’s PreIPNC Dinner

The formal weekend begins informally with a number of optional Pre-IPNC wine dinners on  Thursday evenings hosted by a number of wineries. These dinners range  generally  from  $120-$200 per person and include food and the winery’ wine. This year, we chose a new wine release event and buffet dinner at Domaine Serene; one of the valley’s preeminent (not do speak of most expensive) producers. The price of admission for two people equaled the cost of buying the 2 release wines: Domaine Serene’s Coeur Blanc (a white pinot noir) and Monogram (a blend of the best of the wineries best pinot noir vineyards. ALthough we would not have spent that much money on 2 bottles of wine, when one threw in the party, it seemed like a no-brainer

The event, with a classical quartet and opera singers, was a stand-up affair with stations for four of the winery’s wines:

  • 2015 Recolte Grand Cru Chardonnay;
  • 2015 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir;
  • 2016 Coeur Blanc and
  • The super-premium 2014 Monogram

They were also pouring  a number of older library wines poured from magnums.

The food, also at stations, included oysters, shrimp, tuna ceviche, crab salad, lamb lollipops, dry aged strip sirloin and fried eggplant.

Overall, the facility and the wine were extraordinary and the entertainment and the food were both good. Even so, Joyce and some of the club members who attend a number of Domaine Serene events, felt that something was missing. First, it was a black and white event…something that somehow we missed knowing about and seemed to be 2 of the 4 people who were not formally dressed in black and white.  Opera singers, long gowns, tucs. OK, we felt a little out of place. While we knew it was a a buffet, and the food was good,  we felt there should have been more choices.  This being said, however, it is tough to be too critical of an event at which these four wine (not to speak of the library wines) were so generously poured.Honestly, though, we would have preferred to be at a different event.

After a night’s sleep, we were almost prepared for the 2.5-day tasting, eating and educational marathon that is IPNC. The volunteer-based, non-profit organization that runs the event recognizes that it must provide an extraordinary event, not only to entice people to pay $1,200 per person to attend (not to speak of the need to pay for transportation and lodging), but also to return year after year, after year.

IPNC (International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC)

The weekend attracts about 1,500 attendees per year (about 1,000 for the full weekend, roughly evenly divided between industry professionals and avid consumers, and an additional 500 for the Saturday evening Salmon Bake). The weekend continues for two very full days (Friday and Saturday from roughly 7:30 AM to 11:00 PM) of seminars, tastings, vineyard tours and wine-centric meals followed by a Sunday Sparking Wine Brunch. Nor does this include the other optional, separately priced ($125 per person) Sunday afternoon Passport to Pinot tasting of the event’s current release wines.

Exactly what value is provided to incent so many people to pay to attend, not to speak of return year after year? And why do more than 1,000 people vie for the honor of winning one of the right to volunteer to take time from work and their families to cook for and serve at this event (even though they are not allowed to taste wines until after the guests leave for the evening)? Consider for example, the professional restaurant sommeliers who are responsible for assessing the tastes and preferences of attendees at each of their assigned lunch and dinner tables and for assuring that guests get access to the hundreds of often extraordinary library wines that hundreds of wineries happily donate to the event.

To get an idea, consider the highlights of this year’s IPNC weekend. Although the group is divided into two groups so as to avoid overcrowding and ensure that each attendee gets access to presenters and winemakers, all end up with basically the same experience.

Breakfasts

The full-day sessions (Friday and Saturday) begin with 7:30-9:00 breakfasts. We were blown away by the quality and taste of the ultra-fresh, Oregon blueberries, blackberries, marionberries and cherries. The first day’s breakfast also had a keynote speaker: the recently retired White House Director of Wine who explained the evolution of the role of wine over the years at the White House and the preferences and habits of different presidents, such as how Nixon insisted on the best wines of the world for himself, while serving much lower quality and cost wines to his guests. Gotta love it!

Vineyard Tour, Blind Tasting and Winery Lunch

Participants spend one morning at a winery. While each group was assigned to a different winery which was not disclosed until we arrived, we were assigned to Sokol-Blosser, a winery which we knew and liked. In fact we had a bottle of their wine a few nights earlier at a restaurant. We started with a vineyard tour in which one of Sokol-Blosser’s owners explained the soils, micro-climates, the planting and pruning techniques and the characteristics of the wines that come from each. Along the way, owners, vineyard managers and winemakers from other five other wineries from different pinot appellations (Brewer-Clifton, Bethel Heights, Et Filles, Furthermore and Foresight) explained how their terroirs and techniques were similar to and different from each other and how these resulted in wines with different profiles. The wineries and attendees then put this knowledge to the test with a blind tasting in which we all tasted and attempted to identify wines from each vineyard. The winemakers fared somewhat better than in us, where most correctly identified three wines and only three failed to identify their own wine. Attendee averages were between two and three correctly identifying the wines, with only one person (of about 70) correctly identifying all wines. Then came the three-course lunch of chilled heirloom tomato soup with Dungeness crab, Mozzarella and porcini arancini, wild Chinook salmon with vanilla bean pinot beurre rouge, and shaved corn and pea spouts, followed by Valrhona chocolate bundt cake, fresh berry coulis and vanilla ice cream. Each course was accompanied by a different Sokol-Blosser wine.

Although very informative, the morning suffered from two flaws. First, the tasting and lunch were held in the winery’s large fermentation room—a room with terrible acoustics which made it almost impossible to hear and understand many of the speakers. Second, the salmon was overcooked. The good news, however, was that this was the only time we experienced either such flaw and, in speaking with other attendees, it seemed that those whose sessions were at other wineries fared much better.

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Grand Seminar

Calle Two Vineyards/Six Hand, was a wonderful learning experience. Elaine Brown, the excellent moderator, prevailed over a fascinating experiment in which two of Willamette’s premier merchant vineyards, Temperance Hill in the Eola-Amity AVA and Bella Vida in the Dundee Hills AVA, produced a single block of identical pinot grapes which were sold to three different wineries. The winemakers from each of these wineries (Bergstrom, Lumos and Walter Scott using Temperance Hills grapes and Penner-Ash, Belle Pente and Dominico IV using Bella Vida grapes) then produced wines that they saw as yielding the best expression of the grapes.

The results were fascinating. Although each of the three wines from each of the vineyards had underlying similarities, each was very different. The moderator guided each winemaker to explain what they saw in the grapes, the characteristics they wished to express and how they did so. The session not only allowed us to understand how winemakers make the decisions they do, but how slightly different approaches can yield very different results. (Our tastes, for what it’s worth, leaned toward Penner-Ash for Bella Vida and Bergstrom for Temperance Hill. Interestingly, however, our subsequent tastings at each of these wineries yielded few favorites—a sharp contrast from our previous years’ experiences.)

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University of Pinot Seminars

A second educational (combined, of course, with tasting) experience in which each attendee went to one of several 90-minute seminars. These included sessions on California Pinot AVAs, New Zealand Pinot AVAs, unusual food/wine pairings, biodynamics, the role of extra virgin olive oil in elevating cuisine and several others. Our moderately interesting session, Sensory Evaluation, took us through the tasting and assessment of six very different Pinots (including one that was corked) and different techniques for thinking about evaluating the appearance, aromas, tastes and palate sensations of wines.

Afternoon Activities

By 3:30, we, along with many other people, have taste bud fatigue. At this point we have a 90-minute “break” during which some people return to their rooms, other lounge around campus playing lawn games, listen to a jazz quartet or engage in other informal tastings. One day, for example, offered an informal sparkling wine tasting (with different flavored artisanal popcorns) and the other a rose tasting (along with wonderful prosciutto, fresh-made mozzarella, olives and marinated anchovies and vegetables).

Early Evening Al Fresco Wine Tastings

This period of relaxation was followed by two hours of “work”, consisting of unguided tastings of one wine apiece from up to fifty participating pinot wineries. Each day’s tastings featured different wineries and wines and each provided plenty of opportunity to meet and speak with winemakers and winery owners.

IPNC Meal Experiences

Each meal (other than the winery lunch) was served on the college lawn and consisted of gourmet-quality food, opportunities to taste dozens of additional wines, and to meet and speak with winemakers, sommeliers and fellow Pinotphiles. The other full-day three-course lunch began with Oregon Dungeness crab, Washington nectarines, mint and white balsamic with cucumber, beet and fennel. This was followed by spice-roasted hen with smoked tomato, summer vegetable ragout and herb aioli and ended with macaroon pavlova with red fruit. And of course, wine, wonderful wine.

The dinners were special events:

Friday’s Grand Dinner, prepared by selected volunteer chefs from across the northwest. It began with hors d’oeuvres of stone fruit, cured meat, cheese, grape leaf “sushi” and dried tomato with basil and snow peas. The formal dinner began with Oregon Dungeness crab and Newport pink shrimp with wildflower honey-roasted black plum and chanterelle parsley salad. This was followed a second course of Oregon Albacore tuna, smoked tomato coulis, pole beans, crème fraiche and fried black pepper. Then came the main course of braised short ribs, summer squash, herb puree and chanterelle, corn and cherry tomato salad with pinot noir and black garlic jus. Dessert consisted of the aptly-named Chocolate Parade, with five, wonderful, chocolate-themed dishes, each from selected Northwestern chefs.

Saturday’s Northwest Salmon Bake. This buffet-style meal, although certainly not the best meal of the weekend, is always highly anticipated and is a grand experience. The light-festooned, hay-bale lined lawn is home to the annual event at which hundreds of Alder-roasted Chinook salmon fillets are skewered on stake and slowly cooked around a large open fire. This is complemented by two meat dishes, spice-rubbed, smoked pork shoulder with peach/jalapeno chutney and slow-roasted rib roast (both of which are from Carlton Farms) with balsamic-red wine braised mushrooms and sweet corn. The buffet also had roasted corn, grilled fingerling potatoes, an array of salads and vegetables, and of course, a large selection of desserts. Although the event is great fun, the salmon this year was also overcooked. But this, and that typically free-flowing tastes of library and large-format bottle wines from many vineyards prompts hundreds of non-weekend attendees to pay handsomely ($225 per person) for the experience. However, it was part of our weekend fee. We have to admit, however, that the wines ones drinks depends on the person servicing your table. This year our somm underwhelmed us.. We choose poorly in where to sit apparently.It was unfortunately that our experience differed so vastly from our friends who had a great somm working with their table.

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The Sommelier Experience. The on-campus meals do not defined wine pairings. Instead, each table is assigned a sommelier who is SUPPOSED TO identify the interests and tastes of the people at the table and find the wines that that best address these tastes. In addition, there is supposed to be a winemaker/winery owner at each table, each with wines from their own winery, and attendees are encouraged to bring their own wines to share with their tables and friends. This, anyway, is the way it is supposed to work. It worked fine on our last visit. This time, our experiences were decidedly mixed. For the Friday Grand Dinner, our table did not have a winery representative. However, our somm, Dan McGarry, the wine buyer for Seattle’s Wild Ginger Restaurant, more than filled the gap, continually coming to the table with ten- and 20-year-old large-format and library pinots, burgundies and occasionally other varietals from all corners of the world. He was wonderful.Unfortunately, the rest of the time we did not fair as well. The somm really can make or break the experience. Dan made it. The others….well, we wish we didn’t sit at their tables.

Sunday’s Sparkling Brunch Finale is a large buffet of “standards” including fruits (and yes, plenty of fresh berries and cherries), bagels and smoked salmon spread, berry tarts, ham and a range of croissants, muffins and pastries. Other stations focused on specialty foods including biscuits and gravy, salmon sashimi, tuna poke and Dungeness crab rolls, shrimp and grits and foraged mushroom quiche. And then there were the 150 dozen freshly shucked Olympia oysters which actually lasted through about three-quarters of the two-hour brunch. Although there was orange juice and mimosa-quality sparkling wine at each table, the somms returned for one last time with several domestic sparklers and a few rounds of premier French champagnes.

The IPNC Bottom Line

Overall, although we certainly would have liked to see some improvements, as with the Sokol-Blosser venue, the overcooked salmon and especially the sommelier service (other than Dan, who we loved). Yet, these issues barely dented the enjoyment of and knowledge we gained over the weekend. We will absolutely return. Probably not every year like many of the regulars, but every 2-3 years. However, if you like pinot noir, this is the best of the pinot noir events that we have ever attended and is well worth the money to attend. But get your hotel reservation early as the best rooms are booked way in advance.

If you are a Pinot Noir lover, you need to go to this event. Yes, it is expensive. But think about the wonderful food and wine. And the people that you meet. It then becomes a reasonable price for a great experience.

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