Their International Pinot Noir Celebration became so popular that other Pinot Noir regions, from Mendocino County's Anderson Valley to the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne, Australia, followed suit. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA's Saratoga-based celebration is the most recent addition: 800 people attended the first festival last year.
Though the festivals, especially those focusing on a single region's wines, are clearly marketing tools for wineries, that fact doesn't explain their immediate and on-going popularity. The key to their attraction is not only their expansive tastings and raucous banquets but also the consumer seminars that sound like college credit courses for oenologists.
Besides the seminar "Clonal Diversity, a Study Across Appellations," an update on "Biodynamic Farming" and a $250-a-person discussion of Louis Jadot vintages were sellout events at World of Pinot Noir.
"It's geeky, but it's a shared passion, so it's not \o7so\f7 weird," says Pat Dudley, an owner of Bethel Heights Vineyard in Oregon and a former executive director of the 20-year-old International Pinot Noir Celebration, the oldest Pinot festival in America.
"These people are sponges," says John Winthrop Haeger, whose 455-page "North American Pinot Noir" (no pictures) is a bestseller with this crowd. After his electronic mailbox jammed with messages from Pinot fanatics eager to engage the expert, Haeger removed his e-mail address from his calling cards. "They still find me," he says. "There is no end to it. They absorb details that no other wine lover would tolerate."
Haeger has to be careful when he says "they." As a project manager in Stanford University's library, writing wine books is just a hobby, albeit one he pursued every weekend and vacation for five years. He's thinking about writing a sequel incorporating the new information he's picked up since the book was published in 2004.
Who are these Pinot fanatics? Palo Alto clinical psychologist Jeffrey Bragman hesitates before he responds with a self-diagnosis. "We're adventurers," he offers. Bragman attends World of Pinot Noir and Oregon's Pinot celebration as well as Farallon's PinotFest. He has helped organize New Zealand's Central Otago festival for the last two years.
The absolute newness of New World Pinot, says Bragman, means it's possible to taste the first wines ever made in places such as New Zealand and then watch the evolution as the winemakers and viticulture improve.
"Most of the wines when I first went to New Zealand in 1996 were undrinkable. It has been so much fun to watch them progress," he says.
More importantly, adds Bragman, Pinot lovers want to share these experiences. "There is a kinship. You have an immediate bond with other Pinot fanatics. People don't collect wines as much as they collect knowledge, they collect the sensory memory of wines that they share."
Though Pinot fanaticism sounds safely nerdy, any obsession can pose problems, according to Laura Insley, a Hermosa Beach psychotherapist who works with Asperger's syndrome patients and other socially challenged individuals. "People find their niche where they can explore something in-depth with their own kind," Insley says.
But wanting to know everything about something, exploring all of the possible variations so you can analyze something such as wine in minute detail may border on obsessive-compulsive disorder. Wine festival participation may not be socially impairing, but if someone jokes about Pinot Noir being an obsession, she says, "it probably is."
Terry Casteel, the winemaker at Oregon's Bethel Heights who chucked his career as a psychologist when he left Seattle to make wine in the 1970s, says he pays attention to that fine line. But, in the end, the wine is simply that compelling. "It's so expressive of the place it's from," says Casteel. "There's just lots to talk about."
A 'private experience'
PINOT NOIR is a particularly expressive vehicle for winemakers. "You can have two winemakers standing next to each other at a tasting and they aren't competitive," says Casteel.
"Both can make very different wines and both wines can be excellent. You can have your own private experience with Pinot Noir that doesn't have to be mirrored by other people's."
At World of Pinot Noir, computer salesman Andrew Steinman and his attorney wife Susan were hoping to find an experience that included not only tasting new wines but also meeting people they could talk to about their Pinot passion. After discovering Pinot Noir five years ago, they now seek out Pinot festivals for vacations.
"What's in your glass means something more than just whether you like it," says Steinman. "People here aren't drinking a lot, they're tasting, mixing with the winemakers and industry people, asking questions."
That's the early phase of Pinot fanaticism, says winemaker Edwards.