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Got Pinot? Well, throw a festival!

March 08, 2006|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Shell Beach, Calif. — JAMES FLAGG doesn't notice the rainwater puddling around his feet. And he doesn't care that a storm is raging outside the giant tent pitched next to Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria. The president of Valencia-based Ocean Park Hotels is absorbed in a panel discussion about the genetic history of a particular strain of Pinot Noir vine. He's having fun.

OK, it's not laugh-out-loud fun, but Flagg is a Pinot Noir fanatic. And at last week's World of Pinot Noir festival in Shell Beach, one thing was abundantly clear: Pinot Noir lovers aren't like other wine enthusiasts. Chardonnay lovers might quaff, Cab cultists might collect, but tossing around the latest thinking about esoteric winemaking practices is what rocks the Pinot sphere. The thin line between hobby and obsession? Pinot lovers joke that they cross it with their first good glass of Pinot.

But it's no fun to "geek out" by yourself, they say. So Pinot fanatics craving connections with others who share their passion, as well as with the winemakers they revere, flock to the dozen -- count 'em, 12 -- major Pinot Noir festivals around the world. Although this is more wine festivals than for any other varietal -- the runner-up would be Syrah, with a mere two festivals -- each new Pinot festival has quickly established itself; long-running festivals continue to sell out.

"You get hooked on Pinot Noir," says Peter Palmer, sommelier at San Francisco's Farallon and creator of the restaurant's PinotFest, where top producers spend the day talking with a gathering of 300 Pinot enthusiasts. "The more festivals there are, it just increases the interest. There seems to be an insatiable demand."

Festival groupies

WINEMAKERS came up with the idea of Pinot festivals as a way to generate interest in their wines. To their surprise, fans raced to attend, hoping to learn something new that would help in their hunt for Pinot treasures. Today the Pinot cognoscenti are devoted festival groupies. The World of Pinot Noir attracted 800 Pinot lovers over the weekend. Now in its sixth year, this Central Coast festival has been a sell-out event since 2002, with tickets snapped up faster each year. Many of the participants know each other from other festivals on the Pinot circuit.

Wine festivals are ubiquitous these days, but they rarely celebrate just one kind of wine. While Paso Robles celebrates its Rhone-style wines, and Australia honors its Shiraz, this kind of thing is just not done for Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay or any other varietals. They've neither needed the extra attention to spur sales nor generated the devotion to inspire a fan club.

"Pinot fans have always been a minority," says Merry Edwards, a Pinot Noir winemaker in Sonoma with her own label. "They first started gathering together out of a sense of isolation. The festivals proliferated because every region wants to showcase its wines. There are so many Pinot Noir events now, I'm getting overwhelmed," she says.

Says Jancis Robinson, one of a handful of internationally acclaimed wine critics, "Pinot Noir is the underdog. And Pinot lovers have always felt that they belonged to a special social subgroup -- one that understands Burgundy, for a start, which is no mean feat."

Pinot Noir is a single variety red wine from Burgundy, but there is nothing "hearty" about it. Perhaps more than any other wine, it reflects terroir. The soil it grows in, the weather and the touch of the winemaker are all in the glass, according to Allen Meadows, America's foremost authority on Burgundy.

"It is its sense of originality, of each wine's uniqueness that makes Pinot Noir distinct from other wines," says Meadows.

That also makes it difficult to find a great bottle. Fans call it an ethereal wine and wax on about the expansive array of red fruits, spices and herbs they taste in the glass.

But it's an unforgiving wine, and an unsuccessful version can unleash harsh flavors of unripe vegetables or heavy gobs of cooked fruit. It's a wine that can cost $200 a bottle and still be a disappointment.

Pinot "freaks," a term considered endearing among true believers, call the process of trying to find a great Pinot a "treasure hunt."

Though the popularity of the 2004 film "Sideways" has been credited with sending Pinot Noir sales soaring -- in 2005, grocery stores sold twice as many cases of Pinot Noir as they sold two years earlier -- the festivals took off long before malcontent Miles gave a face to Pinot freaks.

The granddaddy of Pinot festivals is the Hospices de Beaune, Burgundy's nearly 150-year-old food and wine celebration. But the proliferation of events is a global phenomenon. Oregon winemakers organized the first of the modern festivals 20 years ago to try to gin up a little excitement for their fledgling wine industry.

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