It’s called The Big Sort. Early in July, over 5000 bottles of wine arrive in McMinnville Oregon, representing 75 wineries from 8 countries, that will be served at the three days of tastings, seminars, Grand Dinner and Salmon Bake that make up this year’s 33rd annual International Pinot Noir Celebration. They are arranged onto pallets for the individual events, then placed on two refrigerated trucks, that will ferry them across the Linfield College campus throughout the weekend.
Clifford Robben is Vice President of this year’s IPNC. He and his wife Candace are both in the wine industry, and are raising two daughters in McMinnville. As he describes the role, “my duties are to fill in when the President can’t be there. Usually, to introduce a chef. So if there’s a chef to introduce, and the President can’t do it, I introduce the chef. It’s the same importance as an actual Vice President.”
For attendees, it’s Robben’s other role that makes him the important hookup — running the wine trucks that deliver all the bottles. At the Friday night Grand Dinner and the Saturday Salmon Bake, wines are placed on tables democratically, but if you’re looking for a particular bottle, or want a good recommendation, it doesn’t hurt to have his cel number. “We open and taste every bottle before the sommeliers grab them from us,” says Robben.
The wine truck crew has its own dinner on Sunday, and if they’re lucky, they can open some rare gems for themselves. “We hold over wine from different years, and digging through the library we may find a six pack of Jadot from the 70s or some Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. We’ll send those to some events, but if there’s enough we’ll hang onto a bottle as well.”
Not all the best bottles at IPNC come from the wine truck — traditionally guests bring their own prized wines to share at the tables. A few years ago, I’m at the Grand Dinner, seated next to Alison Sokol Blosser — whose parents are one of the founding families of the region’s wine industry — when a man placed two bottles on the table. “I was blown away. He pulled out some of our first vintages of Pinot Noir,” says Sokol Blosser. “That was so special because we don’t have our own library of wines. We didn’t do a good job of keeping things.”
Sokol Blosser’s mother, Susan Sokol, was one of the first executive directors of IPNC. “I used to stuff all the invitation envelopes as a kid. And lick the stamps. My reward was getting ice cream and getting to go swimming after. Then I remember being able to go to the Salmon Bake, and there was music and I got to dance under the oak trees with my mom and dad.”
David Adelsheim is another of Oregon pioneering winemakers, and this year his namesake winery is shut out of IPNC — a victim of his own success. So many wineries want to participate now, they have to rotate in and out different years. That doesn’t mean he’ll be absent completely. Like many other wineries, Adelsheim will be hosting one of the Thursday night dinners, that guests can pay extra to attend. This year he’s doing The President’s Dinner, with honored guest Steven Spurrier (who staged the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting) as well as IPNC President Matt Berson — who, presumedly, will be introducing the chef, Michael Kessler of Toro Bravo.
Adelsheim, and his current partner Eugenia Keegan, cemented their relationship 21 years ago at IPNC — another success from the Salmon Bake dance floor. He’s proud of what IPNC has accomplished — “this is the OG of single varietal events” — but also has a vision of what needs to come next. “The year before, I sat down next to a woman who told me that attending IPNC had been on her bucket list. And then we addressed another issue; she was a woman of color, and there were not many people of color at the event. Our industry needs to work harder at being inclusive. These celebrations mark great pride for our region and we need to attract all people who love wine to come. This is an amazing communal event, and from the outside it may look exclusive, that only certain people come, that only knowledgable people are allowed — but there’s no classes here, everyone is the same, whether it’s your first time or thirtieth.”
One of the local wineries that will be featured this year is Brooks Wine. Their winemaker, Chris Williams, grew up interested in fashion design, then wound up joining the U.S. Navy Search & Rescue — “you’d be surprised what people interested in fashion wind up doing,” he says. Years later, he was divorced with two small children and 42 motorcycles, when he began selling engine parts on eBay to a young winemaker, Jimi Brooks, and a friendship ensued. Brooks passed away right before his first harvest, and in true Oregon spirit twelve other wineries took over harvest duties, and convinced Jimi’s sister, Janie Brooks Hueck, to keep the winery going. During last year’s IPNC, Janie gathered many of those winemakers for dinner at the winery, and toasted to Williams, who went from pouring wine at events with Jimi, to making the wine that still honors his friend. Visibly moved, he thanked everyone there for “giving me a home.”
IPNC is bittersweet for Janie Brooks Hueck as well. “I was visiting Oregon and my brother Jimi told me about this great event, how he was going to be on a panel and had tickets to the Salmon Bake, but I decided to go home early and skip it, not understanding at all how important it was to him,” she says. “He stopped talking to me for a month. I was sister outcast. When he did finally call me, we made up, and then he died the next Saturday. For that reason it’s always been important for me to support IPNC. We’re always involved one way or another.”
Last year, I am waiting for the Salmon Bake to start, talking to attendees about what brings them to IPNC. A retired couple from California sums up best the answer I hear most often. “We love all the wine and the food, but this is one place we get to spend time with our favorite winemakers, like we’re friends. The seminars and tastings are fun, but we love the dinners with them”
On Sunday morning, July 28th, 2019, IPNC will end with a Champagne Brunch, after which the reign of Clifford Robben, 34th President, will begin. There was no election, he automatically rotates up into the position. “It’s fun, you have a fair amount of authority” he says. “I guess I could fire somebody, but that’s unlikely.” Later that evening, one assumes, the wine truck crew will open something special to toast one of their own.
The 33rd International Pinot Noir Celebration takes places in McMinnville, Oregon from July 26-28.