JAMES FLAGG doesn't notice the rainwater puddling around his feet. And he doesn't care that a storm is raging outside the giant tent pitched next to Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria. The president of Valencia-based Ocean Park Hotels is absorbed in a panel discussion about the genetic history of a particular strain of Pinot Noir vine. He's having fun.
OK, it's not laugh-out-loud fun, but Flagg is a Pinot Noir fanatic. And at last week's World of Pinot Noir festival in Shell Beach, one thing was abundantly clear: Pinot Noir lovers aren't like other wine enthusiasts. Chardonnay lovers might quaff, Cab cultists might collect, but tossing around the latest thinking about esoteric winemaking practices is what rocks the Pinot sphere. The thin line between hobby and obsession? Pinot lovers joke that they cross it with their first good glass of Pinot.
But it's no fun to "geek out" by yourself, they say. So Pinot fanatics craving connections with others who share their passion, as well as with the winemakers they revere, flock to the dozen -- count 'em, 12 -- major Pinot Noir festivals around the world. Although this is more wine festivals than for any other varietal -- the runner-up would be Syrah, with a mere two festivals -- each new Pinot festival has quickly established itself; long-running festivals continue to sell out.
"You get hooked on Pinot Noir," says Peter Palmer, sommelier at San Francisco's Farallon and creator of the restaurant's PinotFest, where top producers spend the day talking with a gathering of 300 Pinot enthusiasts. "The more festivals there are, it just increases the interest. There seems to be an insatiable demand."
WINEMAKERS came up with the idea of Pinot festivals as a way to generate interest in their wines. To their surprise, fans raced to attend, hoping to learn something new that would help in their hunt for Pinot treasures. Today the Pinot cognoscenti are devoted festival groupies. The World of Pinot Noir attracted 800 Pinot lovers over the weekend. Now in its sixth year, this Central Coast festival has been a sell-out event since 2002, with tickets snapped up faster each year. Many of the participants know each other from other festivals on the Pinot circuit.
Wine festivals are ubiquitous these days, but they rarely celebrate just one kind of wine. While Paso Robles celebrates its Rhone-style wines, and Australia honors its Shiraz, this kind of thing is just not done for Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay or any other varietals. They've neither needed the extra attention to spur sales nor generated the devotion to inspire a fan club.
"Pinot fans have always been a minority," says Merry Edwards, a Pinot Noir winemaker in Sonoma with her own label. "They first started gathering together out of a sense of isolation. The festivals proliferated because every region wants to showcase its wines. There are so many Pinot Noir events now, I'm getting overwhelmed," she says.
Says Jancis Robinson, one of a handful of internationally acclaimed wine critics, "Pinot Noir is the underdog. And Pinot lovers have always felt that they belonged to a special social subgroup -- one that understands Burgundy, for a start, which is no mean feat."
Pinot Noir is a single variety red wine from Burgundy, but there is nothing "hearty" about it. Perhaps more than any other wine, it reflects terroir. The soil it grows in, the weather and the touch of the winemaker are all in the glass, according to Allen Meadows, America's foremost authority on Burgundy.
"It is its sense of originality, of each wine's uniqueness that makes Pinot Noir distinct from other wines," says Meadows.
That also makes it difficult to find a great bottle. Fans call it an ethereal wine and wax on about the expansive array of red fruits, spices and herbs they taste in the glass.
But it's an unforgiving wine, and an unsuccessful version can unleash harsh flavors of unripe vegetables or heavy gobs of cooked fruit. It's a wine that can cost $200 a bottle and still be a disappointment.
Pinot "freaks," a term considered endearing among true believers, call the process of trying to find a great Pinot a "treasure hunt."
Though the popularity of the 2004 film "Sideways" has been credited with sending Pinot Noir sales soaring -- in 2005, grocery stores sold twice as many cases of Pinot Noir as they sold two years earlier -- the festivals took off long before malcontent Miles gave a face to Pinot freaks.
The granddaddy of Pinot festivals is the Hospices de Beaune, Burgundy's nearly 150-year-old food and wine celebration. But the proliferation of events is a global phenomenon. Oregon winemakers organized the first of the modern festivals 20 years ago to try to gin up a little excitement for their fledgling wine industry.
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 so 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.
"Most consumers just crave an intimacy with the winemakers. They want a closeness with the romance of making wine, hoping that the romance rubs off on them," says Edwards. "The real geeks want to one day produce their own Pinot Noir."
That description fits Flagg, who bought 10 acres in the Edna Valley eight years ago and ever since has dreamed of planting a Pinot Noir vineyard there. "It's the challenge of growing the vines and making the wine, the endless variations," he says.
Flagg was at World of Pinot Noir's seminar on clonal diversity to consider what vines he might plant in his imagined vineyard. Although Pinot Noir is a single variety wine, various vine stocks have developed individual characteristics over time.
As the winemaker panelists talk about their preferences for clone 115 versus the Swan or Pommard clones, Flagg carefully sniffs and tastes the array of samples before him. "I haven't planted anything yet. I'm still searching for the right clones," he says.
He may never find them, according to Greg Brewer, the winemaker at Melville Vineyards and Winery and Brewer-Clifton in Santa Rita Hills. No one can be completely certain what Pinot Noir clones they have in their vineyards, he tells the 100 people shivering on folding chairs on this stormy March morning. There are no genetic tests for individual clones.
And, even if they did know, vines change over the years to reflect the vineyard where they are growing, he says. There is no telling what the fruit will taste like in 10 years. "It's important to be aware of the forest, not just the trees," says Brewer.
Which is to say, even Pinot Noir fanatics need to know when to step back. At least until the next festival.
For the love of Noir, celebrations toast this compelling grape
What is it about Pinot Noir that makes getting together irresistible? Call it a festival or call it a celebration, but whatever you call it, people will come. Here's a list of the major Pinot Noir festivals throughout the world, from oldest to most recently created.
Hospices de Beaune, Beaune, France (Les Trois Glorieuses Burgundy Wine Festival). This festival has evolved from a quiet charity wine auction begun in 1859 into a three-day celebration of Burgundy's food and wines. Thousands gather from around the world to attend the winery dinners and tastings. Next festival: Nov. 17 to 19. For information, go to www.hospices-de-beaune.com/fr/hospices/index.php
International Pinot Noir Celebration, McMinnville, Ore. Since 1986, a limit of 600 people each year attend what has been called "summer camp" for Pinot Noir lovers. Next festival: July 28 to 30. For information, go to www.ipnc.org.
Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, Philo, Calif. This local festival dating back to 1998 is focused solely on Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley AVA. It is expected to attract 450 people when it is next held May 19 to 21. For information, go to www.avwines.com.
Central Otago Pinot Noir Festival, Queenstown, New Zealand. More of a party than a symposium, 200 people attend this festival. Begun in 1999, it is now held every three out of four years, alternating with the country's more educational Pinot Noir festival in Wellington. The next festival is Jan. 27 to 29, 2008. For more information, go to www.pinotcelebration.co.nz.
PinotFest at Farallon Restaurant, San Francisco. A classy tasting supported by top California Pinot Noir producers since it began in 1999, the restaurant event limited to 300 people sells out each year. The next PinotFest is Nov. 17 and 18. For more information, go to www.farallonrestaurant.com.
World of Pinot Noir, Shell Beach, Calif. A symposium and tasting begun in 2000 to compare Central Coast Pinot Noirs with wines from Burgundy and the rest of the world, last weekend's festival sold out quickly with 800 people attending one or several events. For more information go to www.wopn.com.
PinotNoir2007, Wellington, New Zealand. An effort begun in 2001 to bring an international crowd of Pinot Noir winemakers and enthusiasts to that country, it is expected to attract 500 attendees when it is next held Jan. 29 to Feb. 2, 2007. Go to www.pinotnoir2007.co.nz.
Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Festival, Melbourne, Australia. This local festival begun in 2003 has attracted as many as 150 people to celebrate Pinot Noirs from around the world. The next festival will be held March 4 to 13, 2007. For more information, go to www.mpva.com.au.
Pinot on the River, Sebastopol, Calif. The three-day symposium begun in 2004 features technical seminars and food pairing clinics. It attracted 85 attendees last year. The next one is scheduled for Oct. 27 to 29. For more information, go to www.pinotfestival.com.
Hospices of Sonoma Barrel Auction, Sebastopol, Calif. A fundraiser created in 2004 in the spirit of Hospices de Beaune, the event attracted 400 people last year. It will be held again May 19 to 21. For more information, go to www.hospicesofsonoma.org.
Pinot Days, San Francisco. A sprawling tasting open to Pinot Noir winemakers from around the world, it attracted 1,500 people in 2005, its first year. The next one will be held June 24 to 25. For more information, go to www.pinotdays.com.
Pinot Paradise, Santa Cruz Mountains, Saratoga, Calif. This seminar and tasting showcasing local Pinot Noirs began last year with 800 people attending. The next festival will be held March 25 and 26. For more information, go to www.scmwa.com.
-- Corie Brown