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Total Immersion: Learning the Language of ‘Pinot Noir’

Just as language instruction is done best by jumping right in to the culture, so is learning about a specific wine varietal

The best way to learn a foreign language is probably through “total immersion,” e.g., studying grammar and structure in the morning, and then being surrounded by the language — on the street, in the market, at a restaurant — where it is spoken as a native tongue. It not only gives you an intellectual understanding of the language, but also a visceral understanding of the cultural implications. You see how natives use words like “OK” and slang like “wassup?” You learn nonverbal hand signals that are important when speaking a language.

The same is true when learning about a specific wine varietal. You can learn about Pinot Noir by reading the many books about it or even by watching Sideways. You can learn by trying a different producer each night for dinner. Those aren’t bad ways, but they’re not the equivalent of total immersion. For that, you should attend The World of Pinot Noir in Pismo Beach.

The World of Pinot Noir, or WOPN, is a two-full-day immersion into Pinot Noir. This year it started with a seminar that served as a guide, presenting the schedule as well as giving a 150-year history of the varietal. There were seminars each day — analogous to the academic part of learning a language or a varietal — on farming techniques and color. Seminars on Pinot from Austria, New Zealand, Santa Cruz and Burgundy each included tastings, so you could hear winemakers from those regions, and then taste their wines. (Particularly interesting since Pinot Noir — more than most black grapes — reflects the soil in which it’s grown.) One seminar involved a blind tasting with winemaker panelists and a food/wine pairing challenge.

Each evening, a Gala Reception & Dinner put Pinot in a culinary context. The dinners are “casually elegant but definitely not black tie” with Pinot Noir-friendly food, of course. This is an opportunity to practice your new “language.” How do the Pinots differ? How do they pair with each dish?

Between the seminars and dinner, though, are the Tastings on the Bluffs. These two afternoon tastings are like diving into a sea of Pinot. They are an overwhelmingly Pinot Noir experience in an incredibly beautiful setting. There are three large tents on the bluffs of the Cliffs Resort, on the edge of the Pacific. About 100 producers pour their wines each afternoon, so you have three hours to taste about 300 wines. Impossible, you say? Yes. But just standing in the middle of one of the tents, inhaling deeply, gives you an intimate understanding of the differences between a Pommard clone and a Dijonaisse clone 115.

Richard Sanford shows off his latest Alma Rosa pinot noir.
Richard Sanford shows off his latest Alma Rosa pinot noir. (Bob Dickey photo)

Not really.

But the tastings do provide a great opportunity to understand this marvelous varietal. From what you’ve learned in the seminars, you might want to focuson a particular region, a clone or specific producers. You might want to go from table to table until you’ve tasted so many examples of Pinot Noir that you simply get it. You know Pinot Noir not just a book-learned knowledge, not just from having heard about it, but from having actually experienced it. You know Pinot Noir through total immersion.

Gregory S. Walter, editor & publisher of PinotReport, expressed it well: “There’s no question in my mind that if you’re serious about Pinot Noir you need to attend this event.”

Click here for images from Bob Dickey’s 2009 World of PinotNoir album.

Noozhawk contributor Bob Dickey is a local photojournalist with Wine & Dine magazine. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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