Wednesday, March 5, 2014

World of Pinot Noir Reigns

After 13 years in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast, organizers of World of Pinot Noir moved their event 60 miles south to Santa Barbara this year.  The 14th annual WOPN wine event was staged at the Bacara Resort & Spa   just outside the city of Santa Barbara in Goleta. 

One thing that would almost never have been predicted was three days of rain.  California is dealing with a well-publicized drought and Santa Barbara hasn’t seen rain in almost eight months.  This is a region that is known for its never-ending ideal weather. 
The rain was celebrated by the winemakers and Californians.  For attendees and exhibitors it meant that activities would be moved indoors.  In the previous year at the Cliff’s Resort in Pismo Beach the Grand Tasting events were under large white tents overlooking Shell Beach.   The move indoors this year made for a similar experience, albeit without the cooling ocean breezes.

I was particularly drawn this year to the Pinot Noir wines coming from Oregon.  There were 16 Oregon wineries represented at WOPN this year, which seemed like an increase from the past.  Considering that the Willamette Valley is branding itself as one of the world’s premier Pinot Noir growing regions, it seemed fitting to try and taste their wines instead of randomly approaching the nearly 200 California wineries on hand.  New Zealand, France and Spain were also represented this year along with a return visit from Heart & Hands Winery representing Finger Lakes, New York.

Willamette Valley and Oregon have a bit of an image problem.  “Willamette rhymes with Dammit,” explains Soter Vineyards National Sales Manager Michelle Cove.  Michelle travels nationally on behalf of Soter and she often hears, “Is Oregon first or Washington first?” when describing the upper left corner of America.   Oregon’s reputation for Pinot Noir is making gains at the same time that the varietal is moving onward as one of the most popular red wine choices by consumers. 

It was interesting to note that a handful of the Willamette Valley wineries have their roots in Napa Valley.  Soter Vineyards, Brittan Vineyards, Cornerstone Cellars, Pener Ash Wine-Cellars and Hamacher Wines all trace their history to winemakers and growers who worked in Napa but migrated to the cooler regions of Willamette Valley. 

Craig Camp of Cornerstone remains in Napa with his original winery but felt passionate that he needed to move north to produce world-class Pinot Noir.  “When I see vineyards in Napa that are growing Pinot Noir grapes right next to rows of Cabernet, I know it isn’t the best,” said Camp.   He feels that the Willamette Valley is “one of the few perfect places on earth” to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

As I was able to taste through the Oregon Pinot Noir selections in the ballroom and media room, including Aberrant Cellars, Archery Summit, Left Coast Cellars, and Trisaetum, I found myself using the descriptor “elegant” quite often.  These beauties in a bottle were exceptional wines that would rate a 92 in my book.

Organizers estimated that WOPN attracted 2,000 attendees this year which may have included the trade and media.  Consumers seemed to enjoy themselves despite the light rain.  Mike Reed from Corralitos in Santa Cruz County, California  has been coming to WOPN for four years with a group of about 20 friends and family.  “Oregon is a new frontier for us” said Reed.  “When you spend $30 on a bottle in the store, you would like to have a tasting first,” he advised.  He had noted several of his favorites as he made his way through the ballroom.

The Bacara offered guests a $275 room rate if they were attending WOPN for the weekend.  There were several seminars in the morning hours, including a discussion about the parallels between Burgundy and Oregon.  A screening of the movie “Sideways” was held in the Bacara Theater to celebrate the film’s 10th Anniversary.  A Silent Auction with rare wines was fetching bids as high as $300 per bottle.  There were also winemaker dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Despite the rain and the logistics of moving to a new location, World of Pinot Noir continues its reign as one of California’s premier varietal-specific wine events. 
PHOTO CAPTIONS (top to bottom)
Pinot Noir tastings spread to the rotunda at the Bacara; Michelle Cover & friend pouring wines from Soter Vineyards from Oregon; Craig Camp of Cornerstone Cellars is passionate about the Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley; Sommerliers and media conducted self-guided tastings in a private room; C'est Cheese of Santa Barbara in the Grand Ballroom






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