A Wide, Wild World of Pinot Noir

Report from the Frontlines of Ground Zero for Today’s Most Coveted Grape

The wines were piling up in the media room at World of Pinot Noir 2011.

Delicate, pretty, and floral, nearly pink in hue. Spicy, zingy, and herbaceous with hints of cola. Rugged, meaty, animalistic, blood red.

With such a wide and wild array of styles and flavors, perhaps it should be no surprise that pinot noir has been the darling grape of the wine industry for the past decade. It’s a reality that was echoed and then cliché-ified by the Oscar-winning film Sideways, but it’s also one that’s persisted ever since. And nowhere can one witness and experience the bounties of pinot noir more completely than at the World of Pinot Noir (WOPN) in Shell Beach, which this year celebrated its 11th annual affair with a weekend of tasting, talking, and enjoying pinot at The Cliffs Resort from March 4 to 6.

I like pinot as much as the next California wine fan, for it’s a notoriously challenging grape to grow, meaning that all of the techniques and tweaks employed by growers and winemakers as it moves toward our lips make for very different manifestations in the bottle. And it’s been that way ever since the grape emerged from France’s Burgundy region to become a preferred cool climate varietal on other parts of the planet, particularly our own Central Coast region. But diving into something as tightly focused as WOPN — which, speaking of Sideways, is the opening scene for author Rex Pickett’s recently released sequel Vertical — wasn’t on my calendar until an invite came from boardmember and Buttonwood Farm winemaker Karen Steinwachs (who, I later discovered, happened to be revealing her new Seagrape Wine Company bottling at the event).

A view of the Pinot Noir By the Sea Grand Tasting at The Cliffs in Shell Beach.

That was all the excuse I needed to slip out of work around noon on Friday and make it to Shell Beach in time for the “Pinot Noir by the Sea Grand Tasting,” which was promptly followed by a gourmet locavore dinner for the ages at Chamisal Winery in the Edna Valley, where some of California’s more familiar epicurean faces could be found pouring wine and dropping dishes before the hundreds in attendance. I missed the informational tastings during the day and would miss a similar series of events on Saturday — when dinner culminated at Au Bon Climat in the Santa Maria Valley — but I figured that about eight hours of intense pinot-fication would be a swell enough intro to WOPN. And I was happily correct — any less and I wouldn’t have been fully immersed, and any more may have turned my palate off to pinot for good.

Pinot Noir by the Sea Grand Tasting

The grand tasting-by-the-sea is just that: a series of white tents filled with the West Coast’s top pinot producers — as well as some from other parts of the globe — set atop the grassy knolls of The Cliffs Resort, just north of Pismo Beach and above San Luis Bay, with views stretching from the Guadalupe Dunes to Montana de Oro. More than 90 were on hand Friday, many pouring multiple bottles of their best pinot noir, and food was available, too.

Being a member of the media, however — and having already spent my fair share of afternoons enjoying the view at The Cliffs for one reason or another — I took advantage of the press room, where more than 100 wines were lined up around a big suite with less than three other people at any given time tasting their way through them. If I was really going to dive in and taste pinot, I might as well go full bore, I figured, especially since I was alone, wanted to learn, and found it more socially acceptable to spit when there was no social situation to offend.

So I started on the odder foreign offerings: a distinctive Austrian spice box called Johanneshof Reinisch from the village of Tattendorf and another Austrian called Dr. Heger followed by some south Tyrolean/northern Italian rarities (Manincor and Tenuta J. Hofstaetter, happily proclaiming itself to be “from the sunny side of the Alps”). Then came a couple legitimate Burgundies: a 2008 Gevrey-Chambertin Cote D’Or, which had remarkably high acid, keeping it light on the tongue; and then a Domaine de Clos Frantin, which struck me as a significant departure from anything I’d ever tasted, gracing my notes as “meaty, rugged, earthy.” I later learned from a longtime sommelier and wine radio host that my impressions were dead on: the Clos Frantin is grown on a property just steps away from the La Tâche Vineyard of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, considered by pretty much everyone to be the best pinot noir maker there is, if not just the best winemaker period. He called the Clos Frantin “sanguine,” as in relating to blood, and it made perfect sense.

Aside from three interesting New Zealanders (Rippon from Lake Wanaga was meaty with clean finish; Cairnbrae was playful and zingy; and Kawarua, which tasted of tobacco), an Aussie called Yarra Yering with cola notes, and the Swiss standout (at least for the communistic label) Maienfelder PILGRIM, the rest of the show was all about domestics, specifically California and Oregon. I stuck with the alphabetical order, and found the Bergström from Dundee Hills in Oregon to be the first standout (“something regal about it,” I wrote, “like an aged strawberry?”) and was then fully impressed by the Breggo Cellars from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County (“great balance of intensity and drinkability”).

In fact, as the day went on, Anderson Valley seemed to be getting more and more recognition as the next best pinot place, and the Breggo, whose winery is just north of the fine ale-making, weird local slang-talking town of Boonville, made me immediately see why. Another shining star for a number of tasters, myself included, were the Evening Land selections, which would make sense, as they produce wines from the three top pinot regions around: the Sta. Rita Hills outside of Lompoc (where the winery is based), Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and the Sonoma coast. In just three bottles from the same winery, I saw the breadth of what pinot was, is, and can be.

My afternoon tasting continued, but my note-taking turned into conversation with veterans more knowledgeable than me. I eventually found my way onto the lawn to mingle with the rest of the tasting crowd, who all seemed pretty pleased with the pinot they’d found. My palate was a bit washed out by then, having sipped and spit at least 50 wines at that point, but it’s always refreshing to see and sip with Richard Sanford, whose Alma Rosa pinots were on point as usual. And in the happy surprise department: a white pinot, made by Oregon’s Anne Amie Vineyards, which presses pinot noir grapes and quickly removes the skins, leaving an aromatic but crisp white wine to enjoy.

Dinner Extravaganza: “Dine Local, Drink Global”

With no break on the schedule, I hopped on the shuttle to Chamisal Vineyards, where WOPN’s Friday night main event was going down. In the back of the bus, I made friends with the sons of Larry Hyde & Sons, a Napa County winery, and we made plans to get into trouble later if the dining got stuffy. Once at the winery, I found a number of familiar faces rather quickly: Mitchell Sverjen of bouchon and the Wine Cask, who happened to be the evening event’s co-captain, was pouring Goat Bubbles and fellow journalist Kathy Marcks Hardesty was enjoying herself and her bubbles. Near the entryway, a beaming Paul Lato made his way into the room surrounded by a small entourage, his smiles no doubt a reflection of the great applause his pinots had already received at the event. Around the room, appetizers were floating, made by the folks at Central City Market in Santa Maria.

Once seated, the food and wine began coming in a flurry, beginning with a citrus peppercorn chicken pate with rye crisps and arugula, prepared by Chef Shaun Behrens from Luna Red in San Luis Obispo. At my table was a typical mix of folks for WOPN: an older couple who had fairly recently gotten into wine and decided WOPN was the place to learn about pinot, and a younger contingent of industry folks, specifically the crew from Dierberg Vineyards, the winemakers on down to the friendly cellar rats.

My sommelier, Christina Perry, another familiar Santa Barbara face, kept bringing the good stuff on over, and proved quite helpful when I admitted that I was finding it hard to keep track at that point. (With 50 or so wines, I came to understand, even spitting doesn’t keep all of the alcohol out of your system, and spitting wasn’t acceptable or desired at dinner, of course.) The wines went particularly well with the mushroom and shellfish portion of the evening, but that’s putting it mildly, for we enjoyed oven-roasted, wild-gathered chanterelles and a Cayucos abalone salad, prepared expertly by Clark Staub of Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos—my only complaint would be that were too many ‘shrooms and abalone, which isn’t a complaint at all.

The main, pinot-perfect dish was made by Jeff and Janet Olsson of New West Catering in Buellton: braised short ribs of Drum Canyon beef with North African flavors, heirloom beet saffron couscous, and braised black kale. Hearty, yet packed with spice, it was the perfect complement to those rugged pinots I had discovered earlier in the day. Altogether, the entire dinner revealed the myriad ways that pinot noirs can entertain the palate, and made for an enticing foray into WOPN for this neophyte.


Tickets for next year’s 12th annual World of Pinot Noir go on sale—and quickly sell out—in January 2012. See wopn.com.

Embassy Suites, San Luis Obispo

As you might imagine, with hundreds of out-of-towners slamming San Luis Obispo County for World of Pinot Noir, hotels close to Shell Beach tend to fill up pretty quick. But with just a few days notice, I was able to line up a room at the relatively new Embassy Suites in San Luis Obispo, which proved to be spacious, inviting, and, best of all, offered a complete, tasty, and totally complimentary breakfast in its ground-floor courtyard, which is the quintessential salve for a WOPN morning-after.

For a one-night stay, the trade-off was being 10 miles away from most of the WOPN festivities, which amounts to about a $25-$35 taxi ride, depending on your cabbie (and that cost, it should be reminded, is thousands of dollars — and perhaps a life or two — cheaper then risking the drunk drive home). But if you’re spending the whole weekend at WOPN, the Embassy Suites actually gives more of a central point to attack downtown SLO (which is a couple minutes away) and offers a straight shot into the Edna Valley, so you’re only about five miles from the start of winery row there. And rather than just have a bed and small table to relax at between tastings, the Suites are indeed suites, so you get a living room of sorts to stretch your legs, try out some of the new bottles you’ve purchased, or just nap in a different room than your wife or buddy.

For next year, it would be great to see the hotel start a little WOPN delivery service, but even short of that, it’s worth your attention when booking a room for WOPN 2012. For more info on this hotel, see embassysuites.com. For other hotels in the SLO zone, see sanluisobispovacations.com .


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