IPNC 2007: Tidbits, Gossip, and Thoughts

I’m now safely back in San Francisco after spending last weekend at the 2007 International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon. I have to say, I’m already missing the sun and the trees and relaxing days filled with good food and great wines.

As I reflect back on the event, which I can heartily endorse for anyone interested in the Pinot Noir grape and its wines, there are some small bits and pieces of my experience which have not yet been captured by my previous posts, so I thought I’d just catalogue them here for my own peace of mind, and for your potential enjoyment.

I have neglected to mention explicitly thus far, that one of the big “highlights” of this year’s IPNC event was the unveiling of a new Riedel wine glass — one specifically designed not just for Pinot Noir, but for Oregon Pinot Noir. In his remarks during the opening ceremonies Georg Riedel asked the hypothetical question of whether such a glass was warranted, and then declined to answer his own question, suggesting that he did not want to “open a can of worms.”

Well I’m pulling off the lid and dumping them on the table.

I had a conversation with Georg Riedel about 4 months ago when he was in San Francisco in which he pretty much admitted that he had been cajoled, begged, and finally (as appropriate for a good old fashioned business man) paid to create this glass against his better judgment. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about bribery here — apparently the IPNC was able to place an order for enough of these glasses that it became worth Riedel’s while to make the glasses. That is, after all, the business that he is in.

But does the world need another Pinot Noir glass? And does the world need a glass specifically for Oregon Pinot Noir? And does the Oregon Pinot Noir glass actually improve the experience of drinking Oregon Pinot Noir more than it does, say Santa Barbara Pinot Noir?

The answer to all of the above is NO. Don’t get me started on whether great wine glasses are even capable of changing the flavors of wine in the first place, as the manufacturers claim. You don’t want to stick around for as long as I can rant about that one. Aromas, yes. Flavors, no.

I don’t begrudge anyone their opportunity to create whatever product they’re willing to pay for, so kudos to the IPNC for getting their own glass, but consumers are confused enough about wine glasses not to need something like this.

In my opinion, it’s a dangerous precedent for the world’s leading wine glass purveyor to be setting. Like bridges and highway projects in senatorial home districts, the door is now open for every wine region, if they’ve got enough lobbying power, to get their own glass.

Lord help us.

I was surprised to see just how much there really is a rivalry between French and American winemakers. I think by and large it is a friendly, but definitely exasperating one at times. The cultural, or perhaps better stated, philosophical divide between the two was clearly demonstrated through a number of conversations I had and interactions I witnessed (and heard about second hand) throughout the weekend.

Perhaps the most blatant of these were the conversations I had with winemakers from both regions surrounding the issue of ripeness. The French complained to me of over-ripe American Pinot and the American winemakers that think it’s good wine. The Americans complained to me about under-ripe French Pinot that tasted like dirt, and the French winemakers who seem to be in denial about how ripeness affects their wines.

“They almost refuse to admit that the legendary years for Burgundy then AND now are all the years in which the grapes got the ripest!” railed on top Oregon winemaker to me at one point. “It’s some sort of cultural blindness,” he said.

Old rivalries die hard, even amidst a clear spirit of cooperation and celebration that brought many French and American winemakers together as part of this event.

Buddy, one of my readers, asked me whether I thought the small winegrower/winemaker was on the wane. He said that he had spoken to some winemakers who were concerned at the amount of acreage being purchased by large companies.

I did not have similar conversations with people, but what I think is happening is an inevitable maturing of the Oregon wine industry — a process which Napa and Sonoma have both undergone as well. Big money will inevitably move in, but there’s a lot of ground not planted yet to grapes, and even if that land gets more expensive over time (which I’m sure it is) there will always be people who are looking to follow their dream of living in wine country and growing grapes. These folks will buy up small plots that may or may not be planted, and they will start their own labels and sell grapes to those who want them.

In short, I’m not worried. But then again, I don’t live in Oregon, and I’m not trying to buy grapes on the market.

Speaking of big money in Vineyards, a source who shall remain nameless told me that CalPERS, the public employee pension and investment behemoth is making huge investments in Oregon Pinot Vineyards — buying land in chunks of 500 acres and planting it to Pinot Noir.

It’s quite funny to hear that many California government workers may be silently investing in the Oregon wine industry.

How good an investment that will prove to be, it’s not quite clear. Apparently the folks hired to manage these vineyards are going to HUGE expenses in their maintenance, including the use of helicopters to spray the vineyards, when a field worker with a tank and hose could do it just as well. Not only that, but apparently the grapes aren’t that good, but are being offered at astronomical prices ($9000 per ton was the starting price my source suggested). Apparently though, they’re keen enough to sell that they can be talked down to $2000 per ton pretty easily.

Seems like buying bottles of DRC might have been a better bet.

On the last morning of the conference, while he was no doubt on his way to the airport, the folks at the IPNC decided that they ought to auction off the wine glass that wine writer Eric Asimov had been using all weekend, finger smudges and all.

They got $125 for it, once it was filled with Schramsberg sparkling rose.

He is truly a god among men, isn’t he? (I can hear him cringing from here).

I tell you, though. Ain’t no one ever paid good cash for something that had my lips on it for a few hours. Even for charity. You go, Eric!

Speaking of what a dude Eric Asimov is, you only need to look at my list of tasting notes on Burgundies from the IPNC conference and his list. Which one of these kids was sitting at the right table for the Sunday night Salmon Bake?

During this big dinner out on the lawn of Linfield College, people break out some pretty amazing wines. The problem is, you either need to know who these people are and they need to like you, or you need to be good at ingratiating yourself with groups of strangers.

Proving nothing has changed for me since junior high school, I’m still not good at either.

Maybe next year Eric will take me under his wing if I pay him $125 and dip myself in Champagne.

If you’ve found my coverage of this event interesting, you should check it out yourself. Registration for the 2008 event is now open (but not necessarily evident on the web site — you should call them). Tell them Alder at Vinography sent you and you might get a free Oregon Pinot Noir Glass. Thrown at you.