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A Report from the International Pinot Noir Celebration

McMinnville, Oregon - July 29-31, 2005

Heavens to Betsy! There's Wine All Over the Campus

A Jaded New Yorker drops in on the Pinot Noir Blow-Out and is blown away himself in the process
By Bill Marsano

I owe my presence at the IPNC, which I refer to as "the ipnick," to Amy Wesselman, who is the gentlest nag I know. It was as far back as last February that she took it into her head to get me out to McMinnville late in July. Every now and then a polite reminder would arrive by e-mail; these would alternate with genial encouragements.

Well, I'd been to such events before and grown to view them with a warm rush of loathing. They were either "laid back" to a degree bordering on chaotic disorganization or organized to the point of teutonic regimentation--and always grossly overcrowded in any event. Nevertheless, Amy penetrated my defenses, and I'm glad she did.

Not to say that there weren't a few shocking phenomena. First, the temperature. Do I divine rightly that the previous summer was a hot one? If so, Oregonians were taking no chances this time around. The airport was so cold you could have hung meat in it, and while folks elsewhere were working on their tans, Oregonians had cranked up the air-conditioning to achieve a pale, bluish tone.

Then there was the air--almost unbreathably clean stuff, devoid of taste and texture. Back here in Manhattan we're used to air that's full-bodied, with a long, diesel-nuanced finish. Oregon's air is kid stuff.

Still, there were compensations. There were vineyard visits and winery lunches and the like, and if they were a little hard to find it was only because they weren't marked out by long lines of inconvenienced visitors muttering darkly about guides and transportation that hadn't shown up. Everything was somehow in place and on time, and off we went. Plenty of seats, too, and no one clinging to the roof racks. La Wesselman can apparently organize as well as she can nag. Also, McMinnville isn’t especially thronged with traffic, because it’s on what is basically a two-lane road, which is to say two except when it comes to Dundee, where it shrinks a bit at considerable cost to vehicular progress.

And yet, organized as everything was, all the people involved were relaxed and friendly and helpful, very good at getting visitors where they wanted to be. Much of the time that place was the college campus, which was plentifully provided with tables swaybacked with the red best of Oregon, not to mention a handful of pinots from less blessed locales. All of them were well attended, yet somehow they failed to attract that taster's curse, the little knots of two or three people who in too many other places park or plant themselves in front of tables and refuse to leave, obstructing everyone else who wants a drink. Possibly the local politeness is contagious. The sit-down tastings indoors were enjoyable too, especially when it became clear that--just as no two people judge a wine the same way--here the same wine was often judged differently by people who tasted it two times.

The dinners on the great lawn of the college were delightful--excellent food in plenty and wine that never ran dry. The long and fiery salmon bake was worthy of a spread in a magazine and the carvers slicing beef and other meats worked with an alacrity that would do justice to the pastrami counter at Katz's Delicatessen. Yes, there were lines, but they were lines that didn't stand still.

My favorite meals were, however, what I think of as the Olympic Breakfasts because of their semi-competitive athletic events. A good deal of splendid food was on offer, but the center of interest was the several large wading pools. Each was surrounded by diners seated around the perimeter dunking their dogs and kicking, heading or batting large inflatable beach balls back and forth. No scores were kept, so far as I could tell, but every player observed the proper etiquette, which was that anyone might return any ball that came to him (even from another pool) in any way possible so long as he did not rise from a sitting position.

The only vertical players permitted were non-team members--uninvolved folks to-ing and fro-ing between various serving tables and their seats in the shade. I was among them, and I can honestly state that several balls came to me and I bent them like Beckham. Still, the highlight-reel Play of the Weekend belonged to a tall, round woman who was bearing a pair of heavily loaded plates. Only one ball came her way, but with insouciance and aplomb she lofted it high with one knee and then briskly headed it smack into the center of the nearest pool, and then without batting an eye or taking a (much-deserved) bow moved on to her spot in the shade. To wild applause.

When it was over, I own that I was not eager to leave. I'd been well fed, well wined and given a grand good time, along with everyone else. I'd met a dozen interesting people, and although I never caught up with Eyrie’s David Lett or Argyle's Rollin Soles, I did find time to suggest to Susan Sokol Blosser that she do a special bottling called Dundee Bottleneck. She took it very well and did not call for Security.

By the time I got to the airport I was getting used to both the air and the air-conditioning, and had decided that if invited I would certainly come back. My wife says, among other things, that I look good in blue.

Bill Marsano is the wine and spirits editor of Hemispheres, the in-flight monthly magazine of United Airlines. He is a James Beard Award winner and more trouble than he is worth.

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