If you’re a pinot noir obsessive, one of those sad smitten fiends who spends nights poring over Burghound tasting notes and vintage drinkability tables from Beaune to Vosne, if the tip of your nose permanently occupies the lip of big-bowled crystal glasses and you’re prone to use the pronoun “she” to describe most of your wines, well, friend, you’re afflicted. Your only recourse is to one day attend the International Pinot Noir Celebration held each July at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.
We just passed through IPNC’s 24th year, and as always it attracted a stellar collection of winemaking talent. This year producers from eight countries participated, including Austria, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, Australia, Argentina, and France (many from Burgundy, one intriguing producer from Alsace). Of course, the cooler corners of California were represented, as was nearly every square inch of Oregon’s Willamette Valley — and that was illuminating, if perhaps in a “no news is good news” sort of way.
Where wine, food and leisure meet
Each year the organizers manage with great skill the complex calculus between leisure and activity. There are vintage tastings and pairing seminars; this year four lamb dishes were set against pinots from four countries. There are field trips to a half dozen wineries, in part to take in the spectacular scenery in Oregon wine country, where wheat fields, orchards and tree nurseries occupy the valley floor, leaving vines to occupy the hillsides, set against woodlands of pine, oak and cedar, while the snowcapped Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson loom on the horizon like huge drooping towers of vanilla custard.
Participants in the field were given the chance to make their own blend of pinot noir from different clones and different vine ages. A component tasting like this one is a revealing look at the subtle shades of terroir expression from one site to the next, and the matrix of flavors a winemaker combines to create a complete wine. Indeed, six teams at Winderlea Vineyard yielded six very different wines with the same components (my team’s blend, dubbed “Cuvee Esther Williams” for its, er, “fluid” grace, shared top prize).
Beyond this, there were brilliant lunches and alfresco dinners showcasing the region’s abundant produce and incredible seafood bounty, all culminating in a truly bacchanalian salmon bake on Saturday evening when collectors and wineries pulled out the big bottles and the glasses stayed full well into the night.
Oregon pinot noir’s puzzling problem
In its tastings, IPNC spotlights Willamette Valley pinot — and rightfully so. It’s an annual opportunity to take the region’s pulse the way few tastings can and come away with a vivid picture of a vintage, a trend, a stylistic refinement or departure.
Oregon’s wine industry is now in its fifth decade and has emerged as one of the most closely knit communities in the world. Ever since the late David Lett put down vines in 1967, he and all the great pioneering winemakers who came in his wake — Harry Peterson-Nedry, David Adelsheim, Dick Ponzi, Dick Erath and Robert Drouhin — were willing to share materials, equipment and especially experience and knowledge. The rising tide of quality and interest carried not just a handful of wineries, but the whole region. In the last decade, Oregon wineries have been on the forefront of green agricultural practices, with one of the country’s most active sustainable certifying bodies, LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), as well as exceptional community involvement in organic and biodynamic practices.
Tastings focused on the 2007 and 2008 vintages, which most consider to be quite different. The better wines from the much cooler 2007 vintage yielded wines of real grace and aromatic complexity. The 2008s, from a vintage that was generally warmer, drier, and with more uniform temperatures, revealed wines of exceptional purity.
With all this going for it, you’d think the region’s wines would be off the charts. And in many, many cases they were flawless, beautiful, pristine. So why did I feel so ho-hum about it all? Why did the wines all seem sort of the same? I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but some had come to resemble California wines, in their broader shoulders and less-than-subtle oak imprints, their rounded, oddly sugary fruit, shambly textures and pleasant, slightly boring monochromatism. Where were the wines with a pronounced artisanal flourish, with that cool climate vibrancy, that extraordinary lit-from-within middle palate that had made me fall in love with Oregon Pinot in the first place? Where was the funk? The spice? The razzle? The edge?
The few winemakers willing to concede the point cited three factors that may have led to this strange middling of the variety in Oregon. The first would be the good weather afforded the region during harvest, a mostly unbroken streak going back to 2003. Then there are the clones, especially the set of much-touted early-ripening pinot clones from Dijon in Burgundy (114, 115, 667, 777, if you’re a numbers person) that have certainly contributed to a certain plush uniformity of fruit expression — often at the expense of complexity.
But perhaps the most compelling reason may be the very community that has brought the Oregon wine industry so far, so fast. Despite a high degree of regional diversity, shared lessons in vineyard and winery both may have been adopted a little to readily, too uniformly, or dare I say it, too successfully.
Oregon producers have succeeded in creating a seamless regional identity, where the quality is unassailable. Perhaps, though, that has come at the expense of individuality. It may be time for each winemaker to dig in and shift energy more toward what makes each winery a unique character, an entity within the larger frame.
For all that, there were a handful of the participating wineries who I thought were forging a clear and distinct vision:
Adelsheim Winery (f. 1971, David Paige, winemaker) has been reinvigorated in the last half-dozen years, in part by going small (their production is one third what it was a decade ago) and no doubt through the efforts of founder David Adelsheim and his talented winemaker, David Paige. Precise, detailed, low-alcohol reds with a beautiful transparency of fruit.
St. Innocent Winery (f. 1988, Mark Vlossak, winemaker) continues to produce some of the most delineated expressions of terroir in all of Oregon; with his full-fruited, earth-inflected reds, Vlossak consistently brings a unique sensitivity to the vineyard nuances he’s drawing from.
Cristom Winery (f. 1992, Steve Doerner, winemaker) remain some of the most stylish wines in the valley, in part owing to Doerner’s longtime use of whole clusters (stems), which give his reds a distinctive, some would say Burgundian spice note that has become more refined and impressive over the years (and look for his Syrah, too!)
Andrew Rich Wines, (f. 1995, Andrew Rich, winemaker); Rich makes wines from Washington and Oregon, showing great versatility in his reds especially, including a Syrah from Washington’s first Syrah vineyard, Red Willow. His 2008 Knife Edge Pinot is succulent, brooding, and long, showing impressive concentration and length.
Bergstrom Winery (f. 1999, Josh Bergstrom, winemaker) has garnered plenty of critical acclaim over the last decade, not least for converting his vineyards to biodynamic farming. His 2008 estate has almost incomparable grace and poise; youthful, it has the legs and the staying power to last two decade or more.
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.
Photos from top:
Vineyards surrounding the IPNC.
Featured wines with lamb.
Credits: Patrick Comiskey