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Attending Oregon Pinot Camp: At Last!

Attending Oregon Pinot Camp: At Last!
For four years I’ve been trying to go to Oregon Pinot Camp (OPC), an annual event hosted by wineries in the Willamette Valley. They invite 270 wine buyers and industry people to come up and spend a few days getting to know them and what they do a little better. I think of it as a vacation-plus-educational research-plus-brainwashing booze fest for those of us connected to the wine industry, and thanks to the wonderful people at Elk Cove Vineyards 2012 was my year.
I have to admit that as excited as I was to finally get into OPC, I was really looking forward to visiting Scott Neal at Coeur de Terre in McMinville. I’ve been a fan of Scott’s wine since I tried them a few years ago and have been pouring his McMinville Pinot Noir by the glass at George’s for a while. After landing in Portland and getting my rental car, I met up with Scott at the McMinville airport (a couple of hangars and a landing strip), and a few minutes later we were flying over the AVA’s of Willamette. It was great to see all the places I’d been, was going to and had only read about. Like a little kid, I found my face pressed against the window to take it all in.
After the aerial tour of the regions I followed Scott back to Coeur de Terre, where I toured the gorgeous, tranquil property and tasted through the wines Scott is currently making as well as some of his older vintage stuff. From Scott’s I was off to Sokol Blosser to check in for camp. Standing outside with the cool breeze watching the sun set over the vineyards with a glass of pinot is how Oregon Pinot Camp starts, and it’s a great feeling.
After leaving Sokol Blosser I went to check in at Pinot Quarters, a cool little two-bedroom apartment that was totally over the top for my needs (shower, bed, outlet to charge my phone). If you’re ever going to visit McMinnville, I highly recommend a stay there. Since it was only 9:00 p.m. I wandered into downtown McMinnville to check out the restaurants and bars. McMenamins (say that after you’ve been drinking), also known as the Hotel Oregon, has a really neat rustic vibe to it. I tried a couple of local beers and tried to tolerate the live music.  
Getting up early is not easy for us industry people. Don’t get me wrong, I have to get out of bed bright and early all the time with my kids, especially during the school year. But rising at 6:45 a.m. to get on a bus with an energetic camp counselor just seemed wrong. You shouldn’t be that happy (or loud) while the clock is still in single digits, but Trish from R. Stuart was clearly a morning person! We were assigned to THE PURPLE BUS and given “OPC 2012” bandanas and instructed to wear them with our badges so they could keep track of us. Of course Trish has been stuck with the duty of herding what was clearly a bus full of characters (and derelicts), but she got us all moving and, best of all, started the day off with sparkling wine with pomegranate juice...because it’s purple. (Note, our bus was not actually purple.)
We started the day at Evergreen Aviation Museum, having breakfast while we meandered around to look at things like the Spirit of St. Louis and walk inside the Spruce Goose. We were then herded into the auditorium to watch a short film on the history of Oregon’s wine culture and get an introduction to the winemakers and owners of the wineries that were hosting us. Over the next two days we bounced around on our bus moving to various workshops and having the chance to talk with winemakers and some legendary people in the industry about the hows, the whys and any other curiosities. 
We did a workshop covering the personalities of Oregon pinot noir that gave us the opportunity to see how different winemaking styles can drastically change the way the grape expresses itself in the glass. We did another workshop on winemaking where we walked through a winery and got to see all of the tools of the trade, from the vibrating sorting tables to the mobile bottling set-up used by most. The highlight of this trip was watching Maria Ponzi interact with everyone. She is April Johnson, our general manager/partner. A lot of the wine families’ second generation made jokes about getting in trouble with Auntie Ponzi, and during the time we were at this workshop we got to see that side of her personality as she kept things moving along.
We had a lot of fun at Firesteed during a class on white wines. We sat down to blind taste through six wines at a time – mostly rieslings, pinot gris and chardonnays produced alongside the pinots noirs – to try and figure out who made which. We spent time at Domaine Drouhin walking through the vineyards and talking to some vineyard managers and winemakers from several of the wineries to gain a better understanding of why they plant in the places that they do and what struggles they have with making wine in that climate. This workshop and one we did at Bethel Heights gave us a lot of clarity on the most basic aspects of winemaking. After arriving at Bethel Heights we were able to taste through a few flights of wines and see how wines from different areas and soil types taste drastically different. After tasting, we went into the vineyard where they had just dug trenches that morning to allow us to see the soil composition. It was really interesting to see how the Jory soils closer to the winery contrasted with the sedimentary soils that were maybe 50 yards away. 
 
Bethel Heights
Everyone who attends OPC looks forward to the end of the second day, a dinner and tasting event. We went to Stoller Family Estate where there were tasting tents set up and appetizers being passed. The sunset lit up the winery and trees surrounding the tents. There was a band playing while we all stood around the fire outside where salmon was roasting on wooden staves. Mt. Hood was visible in the distance and somehow did not look real. We had some amazing wines from several of the producers there with dinner. The highlight for me was sharing a glass of 1997 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir with Jason Lett. The wine was the last vintage that his father David Lett made; David Lett produced the first pinot noir in Oregon and the first pinot gris in the U.S. The man was a visionary and an integral part of wine history not only for Oregon but for the U.S. After eating and enjoying the salmon with amazing wines from all across the Willamette Valley, the band got louder and everyone wandered outside to make s’mores on the fire. At that point it almost felt like a family reunion. 
 
Stoller Sunset / 1997 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir / Stoller Salmon Bake
I tried a ridiculous amount of Oregon wine while I was there, and getting to see the nuances and variances from region to region was great. But truth be told, what made the trip so different and eye-opening for me was the interaction of all of these wineries, owners and winemakers. They basically decided in the beginning that they were all going to stick together to be able to make it, and that mentality has been shared with newcomers and passed on to the second generation in a way you almost have to see to believe. I had the opportunity to talk to Jesse Lange, who is a second generation winemaker at Lange Estate Winery, and I asked him if this is the way it always is for them. Do they play nice for a week before we arrive and then go back to business? He told me it really is like a big family there. The foundation laid by Lett and the rest of the rebels that went to plant grapes where they were told good wine could ever be made has allowed them to become one of the best regions in the world for pinot in less than half a century, which is the blink of an eye in wine years.  
On the last morning of OPC you are on your own for transportation, so I drove up to Winderlea Vineyard for a blending class. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and do wine blending before but it has always been Bordeaux varietals where you have a preconceived notion of what you should blend because you are used to drinking the wine and are familiar with the normal percentages. But blending pinot noir when you have five barrel samples of four different clones it is a little different. After about five attempts our group came up with a pinot we were happy with. We had to create a label, come up with a back story and marketing plan, and present our wine during lunch. That honor went to me, so I stood up in front of 40 people and gave it a go. At the end of the day, our pinots were tasted by the official judges – the wives of the winemakers we worked with. Our pinot took second place. We got first place for presentation...and last for label art. 
It’s hard to sum up all that I got to do briefly and without giving information that would be completely boring to anyone other than a wine guy. But I can honestly say that after being in that environment and getting the OPC brainwash, I am even more proud to have an Oregon section on the wine list at George’s. It feels incredibly rewarding to support good people who are doing great things.