International Pinot Noir Celebration
On July 25 to 27 in McMinnville, Ore., about a thousand Pinot lovers gathered for the International Pinot Noir Celebration, a gala for the grape that the state has come to be identified with. Now in its 20th year, the celebration is held annually on the pristine campus of Linfield College and is one of the more uplifting wine events in the western states. It brings together Pinot Noir practitioners and enthusiasts from all over the world to revel in Pinots from France, California, Austria, Australia, New Zealand and of course Oregon. IPNC has been going on long enough for most loyal yearly participants to feel like old friends, and while most wine weekends feel like celebrations, this one often takes the form of a reunion.
The theme this year was "Sustainability Without Sacrifice," and in this, Oregon has some considerable bragging rights. Of the 17,000 or so vineyard acres in the state, more than 7,200 are farmed using sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices, by far the largest proportion of sustainable acreage in the country.
“Where is the sacrifice?” asked the well-named Nigel Greening of Felton Road Winery in the Central Otago region of the south island of New Zealand.
Greening spoke at the weekend’s first seminar. To him, committing to sustainability has usually had more benefit than hardship. As an example, he told of the difficulty in clearing the nasty thorn bushes that routinely encroach upon his property. In the past, Greening and fellow vignerons in area have rented helicopters, at great expense, to spray the steep hills with herbicide –- often a temporary fix at best. Now, Greening maintains a herd of goats, which are “not only more efficient, but quite flavorful too, when the time comes.”
The weekend’s honored guest was Dominique Lafon, who maintains his family’s winery, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, in the village of Meursault in the Cote d’Or of Burgundy, making both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in several bottlings. Lafon, who has made the wine at his family’s estate for 25 years, has been practicing biodynamic farming, an extreme, in some cases esoteric form of organic farming, beginning in 1998.
The reason, he explained, was simple: His father used to employ an arsenal of herbicides in the vineyards to keep the vine rows pristine, and Lafon was only too happy to adopt his father’s methods at first. Then he too became a father, and found himself warning his wife not to allow their daughter to walk anywhere near the vineyard during the days following a spraying.
He was quick to see the absurdity of his predicament: “I couldn’t even walk in my own vineyard,” he said, “and I was very concerned for my daughter’s safety. There was something very wrong in all this.” So he went in search of alternative growing practices, settling on a personal version of biodynamics that has been his regular practice since 2000. In less than a decade, he says, biodynamics has been taking over the Cote d’Or. Rather than chemical farming contaminating their vineyards, said Lafon, “we are contaminating the conventional winemaking practices, when they see the quality in our wines.”
It always feels a little weird to extrapolate something as airy-fairy as biodynamics into a finished product, but few would doubt that there is something luminous in the wines of Domaine des Comtes Lafon. The seminar featured a vertical flight of Lafon’s Premier Cru from Volnay, called Santenots du Milieu, and in vintage after vintage, the wines possessed an almost unearthly grace, a level of poise, delicacy, and impeccable balance that put them in the ranking of the greatest Volnays, which is to say, the greatest Pinot Noirs. To have the privilege of holding these wines in your mouth for just a few minutes on a Saturday morning is the reason to travel to McMinnville in July.
-- Patrick Comiskey, Special to The Times
Photos of Lemelson Vineyards, Carlton, Ore., top, and the salmon bake at IPNC by Patrick Comiskey