“Wine can be a better teacher than ink, and banter is often better than books.”

Stephen Fry

Earlier this month, hundreds of Pinot Noir enthusiasts descended upon the Ritz-Carlton Bacara resort perched on the Goleta coastline of California’s Santa Barbara. They were there to taste and learn about Pinots from around the world: Chile, France, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, and the United States. Now in its 23rd year, The World of Pinot Noir (or WOPN – pronounced whoppin’ – as it’s more commonly known) continues to be one of the most popular wine events in California, well-attended by wine fans and industry insiders alike.

If being surrounded by hundreds of wine lovers for a long weekend seems exhausting to you, you’re probably in the wine business. Wine producers attending WOPN gear up for a physically taxing three days when they agree to participate. In addition to chatting with customers old and new, the wine media, distributors, retailers, and restauranteurs all weekend long, the winemakers, winery owners and their staffs also have to man tables where they pour wine for hundreds of people for hours at a time.

I’ve attended WOPN before, but this time I thought it would be fun to shadow a winemaker to get a sense of how they experience this bustling weekend. I phoned up winemaker Matt Brady of Santa Barbara’s Samsara Winery and asked if he minded if I tagged along. About six years ago, I was briefly a consultant on the Samsara project, when owners Joan and Dave Szkutak acquired the brand from founder and former owner Chad Melville. It was a brief contract and I lost touch with the brand, though Brady and I remained friends and would occasionally run into each other, catching up on music and live shows, our mutual obsession.

We met early Friday morning, the first official day of WOPN, and attended the “Giant Steps + Brewer-Clifton” seminar together. Led by the inimitable Ray Isle, the seminar featured winemaker Greg Brewer and Master Sommelier Nick Hetzel. Isle, who is perhaps best known for his appearances on the Today Show and his work as Executive Wine Editor for Food & Wine Magazine, led a lively, often humorous session with Brewer and Hetzel, who spoke of the ephemeral connections between the wines of Giant Steps (Yarra Valley, Australia) and Brewer-Clifton (Santa Barbara County). I’m embarrassed to say I expected the Giant Steps wines to be impossibly saturated and big. Instead, they were a revelation of balance and elegance and mirrored the storied Brewer-Clifton wines in many aspects, ranging from aromatics to texture to structure. It was a great way to start the morning, as Brady and I both shared an affection for the wines poured. We sat next to James Robinson, a Pinot Noir fan from San Diego who was attending WOPN for the first time. He seemed excited to be there, and the three of us toasted to our good fortune at drinking fine Pinot Noir in such a lovely setting.

By midday, we were hungry. While I headed to a lunch at the Bacara’s Angel Oak, an eatery that sits atop a cliff wall above the ocean, Brady instead had to assume his position behind a table at the same eatery, pouring wine for lunchgoers. The Angel Oak repast featured wines from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County, and at the restaurant I ran into Santa Barbara legends Gray Hartley (winemaker, Hitching Post Wines) and Kathy Joseph (winemaker, Fiddlehead Cellars).

Gray Hartley and Kathy Joseph

There are two large grand tastings during the WOPN weekend, one held on Friday and one on Saturday, each running from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Anticipating that I’d be on my feet for quite a while, I stepped away from the proceedings momentarily, claiming a seat under the sun with a clear view of the Pacific. After about 30 minutes of meditation and quiet, I headed into the grand tasting.

Brady was already there, setting up the Samsara table. I stopped by and tasted through the four Pinot Noirs he and the Szkutaks chose to share. I was enchanted by the Samsara 2019 Rancho La Vina Pinot Noir. “It’s on the far west end of Santa Rosa Road,” Brady told me. “Vineyards in that part of Sta. Rita Hills are darker, more concentrated, higher in acid. It’s a hard place to be a grape, because the climate is more challenging. Foggier, windier. Out of those challenging sites, you get better fruit. Because it has a rich core, it supports whole cluster a bit better. Stems integrate better.” It’s an electric, precise wine with friction and beauty. Though I wanted to pick his brain about it a bit more, I was holding up the line, as attendees had start to line up behind me, some of them extending their wine glasses forward, looking a little impatient.  I moved along.

Since I taste a lot of Pinots from California’s Central Coast, I made a beeline to the Oregon section of the grand ballroom, where I met Elaina Spring Eden of Woven Wineworks. Eden’s family vineyard, the Covey Ridge Vineyard, is located in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, in the Tualatin Hills sub-AVA. Eden’s enthusiasm and good cheer were contagious, and she seemed genuinely thrilled to be pouring her sparkling rosé of Pinot Noir for attendees, sharing family photos and tales along the way. Meeting Eden was a warm and memorable experience, and I made a mental note to find my way to the Willamette before too long.

Winemaker Ian Burch of Oregon’s Archery Summit, from the Dundee Hills appellation of the Willamette Valley, poured some of the most balanced and beautiful Pinot Noirs I’ve had in some time. Gregarious and articulate, he discussed each wine with such unbridled enthusiasm that I wondered how he’d sustain such high levels of energy throughout the weekend. Yet, when I crossed paths with him again hours later, he was still vibrant, lucid, on point. Perhaps seasoned winemakers learn how to pace themselves at these large-scale events.

Ian Burch of Archery Summit

Another region I’m somewhat unfamiliar with is the Anderson Valley appellation. Though I used to frequent it quite often when I was younger, I’ve not been for years, so my tasting with winemaker Sarah Green of Fel was nothing short of a revelation. One of my favorite discoveries of the weekend, the 2019 Fel Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir was breathtaking, a Pinot Noir comfortable with contradictions. Impossibly deep and profound, it was light on its feet, pulsing with tension and length. Generously aromatic, yet still withholding in its youth. Green, well-spoken and thoughtful, provided such a compelling primer on the region that I’m currently in the process of arranging a trip there.

Winery owner Raghni Naidu of Naidu Wines poured her 2021 Naidu Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Born in Punjab, India, Naidu was pouring at WOPN for the first time, and her Pinot Noir, from the Sebastopol Hills and featuring clone 23 from Marshall Ranch, was pretty and well-made. Naidu explained that visitors to the estate can book a stay at the Naidu retreat on the Sonoma Coast, where she hopes they’ll enjoy the full measure of the Sonoma Coast terroir.

Raghni Naidu

Though I spit out all the wine I tasted, I was still exhausted by the end of each day. There are plenty of spit buckets at all the seminars and grand tastings, but if you don’t like to spit into a bucket that’s already full of spit and wine from strangers, I highly recommend bringing along a Solo cup. Spitting into one of those and then simply pouring it out into a larger dump bucket is a great way to go.

Popular industry personality David Phinney debuted his L’Usine Pinot Noir line at WOPN, although he was not in attendance. Phinney is known for launching and then selling popular wine brands like The Prisoner. His new Pinot Noir-centric line should do well. The labels inspired by Warhol possess a modern sensibility, and the wines, though not in my personal wheelhouse, will probably find broad appeal with fans of bigger, more concentrated Pinots like those produced by Meomi.

After tasting over 50 Pinots in one afternoon, I stopped back by Brady’s table, where there was still a long line. He looked tired but clear-eyed and lifted his chin in greeting, continuing to pour unflaggingly. Samsara owner Dave Szkutak told me, “This is extremely important for a small winery like ours, which is not as well-known as many larger brands. Also, WOPN provides a chance for us to compare our wines to many established and newer producers, which is a great benchmark opportunity for us to understand current trends in style and quality.”

I bowed out of a large, Pinot-centric dinner later that evening and opted instead for a cold beer and an early night in.

The highlight of the weekend for me was the “Translating Terroir Through Bubbles” seminar on Saturday morning, hosted by the talented and prolific writer Esther Mobley, Senior Wine Critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Mobley is one of the few wine writers I read for pleasure as a wine customer myself, so I made sure to secure a pass in advance to her seminar, and I’m glad I did, as it was the only WOPN seminar that sold out.

It’s widely accepted that Pinot Noir is an especially transparent grape, an ideal emissary of terroir. Yet, we don’t often talk about terroir when we talk about Champagne or sparkling wines made using Méthode Champenoise. Mobley did just this, leading the panel in a riveting discussion. Zak Miller, winemaker at Domaine Carneros, Nicole Bertotti Pope, owner and winemaker at Haliotide, Nicole Hitchcock, head winemaker at J Vineyards and Winery, Chris Fladwood, winemaker at Soter Vineyards, Mark Davidson, head of Education Development for Wine Australia, Laura Roach, winemaker and owner, Loubud Wines, and Valerie McDaniel, US Brand Director (West Coast) for Bollinger, provided the audience with user-friendly, often wildly entertaining information about what was once a drink solely for celebrations. Bollinger’s McDaniel proved to be magnetic and funny, the only speaker receiving a loud and long round of applause after her presentation.

Note to self: Beginning Saturday mornings with a glass of good Champagne is not a bad idea.

I ran into Robinson again, the Pinot Noir fan from San Diego I’d met Friday morning, strolling around the Bacara, glass of Pinot Noir in hand. A 48-year-old biostatistician, he told me his biggest highlight was “the opportunity to meet and converse with so many talented winemakers in one forum. The entire experience made me feel a part of the wine industry community, which was special to me and my passion for wine and especially Pinot Noir.”


By R.H. Drexel
Contributing Writer
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