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“First of all, it rains,” says Brian Talley of the inaugural World of Pinot Noir (WOPN), which the Arroyo Grande vintner cofounded back in 2001. “The main event was under a tent, and there was literally a question of whether this tent was going to be blown off the side of the cliff.
“Then the clouds broke and the sun came out,” continues Talley, who watched this scene unfold at The Cliffs resort in Pismo Beach, the event’s home until it moved to the Bacara in 2014. “It got warm enough that they had to roll up the sides of the tent.”
Up walked Oregon winemaker David Adelsheim, who had long suggested a new pinot-focused event in California. Oregon’s Willamette Valley started its own version, the International Pinot Noir Conference (IPNC), back in 1985, but its organizers were being overwhelmed with interest from pinot producers in Sonoma and along the Central Coast.
“We’re looking out over the ocean; the sun is hitting the water; people inside the tent are having a blast,” remembered Talley. “The fact that we are looking at the Pacific Ocean — which basically defines this region, and allows us to make world-class pinot noir — it was this whole thing. David said, ‘Dude, you guys did it. You nailed it.’”
In the ensuing 20 years, WOPN — pronounced “whoppin’” — grew into what just may be the planet’s largest annual gathering of pinot-philes and pinot producers. Its 20th anniversary is this weekend at the Bacara and features the grand tasting events, with hundreds of wineries, on Friday and Saturday, plus much more intimate winemaker panels and dinners. (Get tickets now because the panel I am moderating this year, a career retrospective with Siduri founder Adam Lee, sold out weeks ago.)
The seeds for WOPN were planted unknowingly by Talley back in 1996, when he hosted a 10-year anniversary for Talley Vineyards with a simultaneous tasting for fans in both California and New York. That was attended by legendary bon vivant Archie McLaren, who later suggested that Talley organize a larger event for the Central Coast.
Talley called up winemaker friends in the Edna Valley and Santa Barbara County and scheduled a meeting, stupidly for Memorial Day. “But people actually showed up at my winery, every single person I invited, with the exception of Jim Clendenen,” said Talley, joking that Jim never would have come anyway.
The support was instant. “There were not that many wine events at that time, and not only that, but neither the Sta. Rita Hills nor the Santa Lucia Highlands really existed,” said Talley. “Or if they did exist, there was zero awareness of them as world-class pinot noir regions. Sideways had not happened. We were pioneers out there, trying to promote California pinot noir as on par with Burgundy.”
Talley assembled a team: his wife, Johnine, came up with the name, and his controller, Michelle Good, now Talley’s CFO, became the de facto executive director. Ken Brown offered the services of David Block, his GM at Byron Winery, and more tasks were picked up by Jenny Willamson Doré, the wife of Foxen Winery’s Dick Doré, who was then handling PR/marketing for Cambria Winery.
“We just ripped off a lot of ideas from IPNC,” admitted Talley of the initial strategy. “We wanted to have a really high-level Burgundy producer and have a super fancy Burgundy tasting, so we got Domaine Leroy. We wanted to get people off-site and out to the wineries, so everybody had satellite events for people to go to.”
Excitement grew, at least among winemakers and sommeliers. “The only problem is that we weren’t selling any tickets,” said Talley, who considered throwing in the towel until he ran into famous sommelier Fred Dame at an event in San Francisco.
“He said, ‘Wow, that sounds cool. I’ll buy a dozen tickets,’” explained Talley. “That just totally changed everything. We were on the verge of canceling it, and that just made all the difference both in terms of giving us some revenue but also in raising the level of confidence.”
The first WOPN featured a tight list of about 60 wineries from around the world. “Pretty quickly in subsequent years, it turned into more people wanting to attend than we had space for,” said Talley. “Over time, we embraced being the biggest pinot noir event in terms of numbers of producers, and to really be a way to bring exposure to newer producers so people could taste things they had never even seen or heard of before. The event has evolved in the way that it’s needed to.”