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Wednesday wraparound: World of Pinot Noir, and Hearty Burgundy

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Once again the World of Pinot Noir is happening, the 14th annual. Pinot Noir producers and lovers will again gather for two days of sipping and savoring under the sun, except this year, for the first time, WOPN will no longer be held at its ancestral home, the The Cliffs Resort, in Shell Beach Instead, the event is moving south, to the Big City of Santa Barbara, and the luxury Bacara Resort and Spa. WOPN has outgrown its humble origins for fancier digs.

There had been talk for many years of migrating away from Shell Beach and “growing” WOPN. Not being on its board of directors, I wasn’t privy to the internal discussions. But I was close to the event (having gone from Day One) and close, too, to people within it. The move was delayed, I think, not because it didn’t make sense to find a larger venue, closer to a major population center, but due to simple inertia. The Cliffs was a really nice place to hang out for a couple days. Their staff did a great job handling the event. The weather almost always cooperated along that stretch of the Central Coast (which actually can boast the nation’s best weather in winter). It was nostalgic to return every year to Shell Beach, to the dog-friendly Cliffs, to have breakfast every morning at Marisol (I always sat next to the fireplace) and hang out on the terrace at night, drinking awesome Pinot Noir and Burgundy. It must have been hard for the organizers to say bye-bye to Shell Beach. But it had to be done.

And once again, this year I am “official blogger of World of Pinot Noir,” as I was last year. Woo hoo! In practice this means I’ll blog about it from time to time. Yes, this is a quid pro quo: They give me lodging (although not at Bacara itself) and waive the price of admission to all events.

The reason I like WOPN is because I like Pinot Noir. Not just the wine, but the culture it fosters. Pinot Noiristes are special people, different from Cabernet makers in important and not-so-subtle ways. Cabernet makers always seem a little snootier than Pinot makers. Maybe this is because Bordeaux–the city and its environs–is considerably more buttoned-up than Burgundy. In Bordeaux, the chateaux are elaborate Beaux Arts palaces whose sound construction suggests old, distinguished money. Burgundy by contract is a simpler place, more rural, less visibly defined by cash. This dichotomy has transferred to California. Pinot Noir winemakers seem less self-conscious, more connected to the earth, than Cabernet winemakers. They wear clothes more like mine. They’re no less serious than Cabernet vintners, but more approachable, and perhaps a little less sure of themselves. It’s almost as if Cabernet makers know they’re at the top of their game (I mean, where do you go from Harlan?), while Pinot makers have the attitude of, “Hey, I’m not even close to figuring this out!”

WOPN has grown up, and it’s been a pleasure to grow beside it. From a little Central Coast event it’s become a worldwide showcase. WOPN isn’t as big as the International Pinot Noir Celebration, nor will it ever be in all likelihood. But it is the biggest Pinot Noir event in California (and hence the second biggest in America) and I am glad to be able to return.

* * *

Speaking of Pinot Noir–well, Burgundy–E&J Gallo has announced that this is the 50th anniversary of their Hearty Burgundy.

Surely HB is one of the most famous wines ever in America. Can you come up with another, home-grown? I used to drink a lot of that wine, and I’m sure lots of other people did. I didn’t know what grape varieties were in it and I didn’t care. All I knew was that it was cheap, dry and really good. To this day I have fond memories of it. Kudos to Gallo for that wine. By the way, thinking of it recalls an incident that happened in 2001, I think it was. It was the 100th anniversary of Beaulieu Vineyards. We were at a big event where then winemaker Joel Aiken presided over a tasting of every Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ever made. Robert Mondavi, who was among us, stood to deliver a stirring paeon of praise to the wines. Then Ernest Gallo clanged on his glass. We all fell into silence as he rose majestically from his chair. “These wines,” he said (and I paraphrase from memory) “are all dead. You want to drink a great red wine?” Here, he lifted up his glass and declared triumphantly, “Gallo Hearty Burgundy!”

Jaws dropped, but there was more amusement and affection than shock. That was Ernest Gallo, outspoken and direct. And who, after all, is to judge? Thank you, Gallo winery, and salud! for Hearty Burgundy!

  1. Regarding Pinot vs Cab winemakers: I once was lucky enough to be on a wonderful junket to the wine regions of France, hosted by the cooper Seguin Moreau. First stop was Burgundy, where the highlight was getting down with a bunch of local winemakers in the back room of a three star Michelin restaurant (Lameloise), drinking vast amounts of their wines over dinner–they were totally into having fun. On the plane to Bordeaux, we were told the visits there would be very formal and we would need to be dressed appropriately in jackets–and sure enough the visits were quite stiff. When asked to explain the difference between the two regions, our host pointed out that the Bordelais had been domesticated as subjects of English Kings, but the Burgundians had remained rather feral under their Dukes. Here in the new world, as shown so well by my friend Tony Sotor during his Napa days, it is possible to approach making both varieties with a sense of adventure and discovery. Not all of us living in Napa wear cravats and drive luxury cars. I feel equally comfortable while hanging with the Pinot crowd in West County Sonoma where the decade of the 60′s lives on, and it is not uncommon to still hear the Grateful Dead here on Diamond Mountain.

  2. Thanks Bill Dyer for that anecdote!

  3. I remember Hearty Burgundy. I think it was made of mostly Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, with a little Grenache or Carignan. Just guessing.

  4. Jerry Murray says:

    Steve,
    I am glad to hear someone else propose radically different cultures for Cab and Pinot makers. I would also point out that the differences aren’t simply social in nature. The World of Cabernet production is heavily populated with international wine consultants while I am unaware of Pinot Noir having its own Michel Roland.

  5. Dear Jerry, good point!

  6. Avila bound says:

    The Cliffs in Shell Beach/ Avila Beach was a storybook location for World of Pinot Noir. Moving to Bacara is a total sell out. The Cliffs represented what the producers are all about; intimate, personal and sustainable in nature. Bacara is beautiful-but so is a huge winery with fancy artwork and shiny tanks.
    I will remember how and where the event started. I will remember that the event ended with patrons taking pictures of a beautiful sunset from a sun drenched ocean side deck. This year I will likely finish the day drinking an $18 Martini in Bacara’s bar while watching employees polish the fancy wood and stainless steel fixtures. The day will ultimately end while I wait an hour to pay the valet $20 to get my car.
    The huge wineries will eventually pay and muscle their way into the elegance of World of Pinot Noir at Bacara. Micro, quality producers of Pinot Noir are already positioning to stage an Pinot Noir event in the future that will be what mirror what World of Pinot Noir used to be. Stay tuned.

  7. Avila bound: Harsh! I hope your predictions are not true.

  8. I knew it! I’m wine bi-polar as I make both Pinot and Cab!??!

  9. Avila bound says:

    Steve. Bacara is a great location for a lot of things. I am grateful to have done business with them. I attend wine tasting events there. It is the ideal location for large, corporate wineries and events. It is manufactured and polished. Attendees walking around in suits checking each other out.
    Being you have been to the event in Shell Beach, you noticed it had an organic and relaxed feel whereas the attendees and wineries were relaxed and dressed casually. The event matched the location and vice versa.
    I wish the event well, but they sold out. Big money, big production can improve alot of things-however the event was successful because of the wineries and the venue.

  10. CAwinediva says:

    I can hardly wait for the HB to come out. In the 70′s it started us on our wine path that’s taken us all over the world. We bought it at the base PX for $2 a gallon. It was great! A few years ago I was invited to the Gallo winery in Sonoma for lunch and tour of the amazing facility. Where the tour person was talking about the great grapes that went into the HB blend. Great memories.

  11. Karen,

    You’re not “bi-polar” . . . just “bi-popular.”

    (Will you be tasting us on your Pinot at Family Winemakers in So Cal?)

    ~~ Bob

    Steve,

    As the “official blogger of World of Pinot Noir,” will you be continuing your reporting on the mold/mildew afflicting the domestic 2011 Pinots? Interviews with winery owners/winemakers on how they plan to “sell through” the product would be interesting.

    ~~ Bob

  12. I am looking forward to it! See you and Gus there Steve!

  13. I won’t make the trip to WOPN anymore. I enjoyed staying at the Hot Springs in Avila (back when I filed expense reports)… Shell Beach is at the far horizon of what I would consider for a two day road trip (plus it is usually the week after PNV). I plan on an extended visit to SB in April around the futures tasting. I am very happy that event is back!

  14. Steve,

    I look forward to seeing you at WOPN next month. I will be there with my Sonoma Mountain Pinot and hope the event will be great! I tried to get in last year but was wait-listed for either being too late or too insignificant to get in.

    Your recollection of the Ernest Gallo’s comments at Beaulieu’s Centennial are very good but I just want to add Bob Mondavi’s comments because I was very grateful for what he said.

    We had just finished tasting the first flight of Georges DeLatour Cabernets from the 40′s & 50′s and when I asked the audience for comments, Ernest Gallo stood up and said, “These wines are all over the hill. I don’t know why anyone would ever drink these wines!” So, at that point I’m thinking to myself, what do I say in response? Do I tell Ernest Gallo he doesn’t know what he is talking about? I don’t think so.

    In the meantime, Bob Mondavi asked his wife, Margaret, what Mr. Gallo had said (Bob’s hearing was not very good at the time). Once she told him, he stood up and said, “Ernie, you’ve been drinking too much Hearty Burgundy. These wines are great!” Bob totally saved the day for me and the rest of the event was wonderful. It was truly an honor to be leading a tasting with such an esteemed audience.

  15. Your mention of Gallo Hearty Burgundy brought back a flood of memories. My friends and I worked through many bottles working out the Grateful Dead songbook in the hallway of our dorm (Anacapa) at UCSB in the late 70′s. I also remember a Sebastiani wine (Mountain Burgundy?) was also popular. The beginning of my wine journey! Thanks.

  16. Thanks Joel Aiken for weighing in. Memories diverge, but the point remains the same.

  17. Fred Reed says:

    Karen: You make a very good Merlot, too. I had a glass at Industrial Eats last night!

  18. Bill Haydon says:

    A lot of dancing around the issue of Ernest Gallo. In my eyes, he comes off as a completely classless asshole who should have been escorted out of the room. Perhaps if he had actually heard that a few times, it might have sunk in.

  19. David Sharp says:

    In the fall of 1978 I was fresh out of Fresno States school of winemaking and working for Gallo’s main competitor at the time – Heublein. They were making Italian Swiss Colony and Petri jug wines in Madera, CA.

    I worked in the “new products” department and I was assigned the job of creating a red and white blend similar to Hearty Burgundy and Chablis Blanc. I had the use of almost all of the red and white base wines the winery had.

    But, they did not have any Petite Sirah and therein was the problem. No matter how I blended wines there was just never enough richness and body to really match up to Hearty Burgundy.

    Two months later they shelved the project and I moved on to other things.

  20. Christopher O'Gorman says:

    Great Ernest Gallo anecdotes! Thanks Steve & Joel.

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