A Wine Enthusiast Sees the Opportunity to Showcase Pinot Noir to the World
In 1996 wine enthusiasts gathered on two opposite coasts to simultaneously taste Pinot Noir wines together in the first live-stream dual tasting in the United States. Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, California hosted the event with a group of sommeliers in Arroyo Grande, California. Stephen D. Tanzer, editor and publisher of the bimonthly International Wine Cellar newspaper since 1985, hosted a group of sommeliers in the New York area. Both groups tasted Central Coast Pinot Noirs, filmed during the tasting for the simulcast.
Founder of the Central Coast Wine Classic and avid wine enthusiast, Archie McLaren, attended the live-stream dual tasting event. Pinot Noir was one of Archie’s favorite wines and the only wine he ever produced. Archie McLaren (1942-2018) is a legend for promoting the talented winemakers and world-class wines produced in San Luis Obispo County during a variety of wine events and fundraising auctions held at the annual Central Coast Wine Classic from 1985 to 2017.
McLaren saw the opportunity to establish a world-class Pinot Noir event and introduce the Pinot Noir wines of the Central Coast to a worldwide audience. McLaren met with Brian Talley many times to develop the event now celebrated as The World of Pinot Noir (WOPN). In the spring of 2000, Archie McLaren reached out to Brian Talley. “During that conversation, it was Archie that told me it was time to host a world-class Pinot Noir event. I agreed, and together we called a meeting together on Memorial Day of 2000. You know everyone is committed when they show up on a holiday,” says Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards. Co-founders Archie McLaren and Brian Talley organized a group of supporters. Archie handled the promotion and ticket sales, Larry Shupnick provided the venue location at the Cliffs Hotel, while Brian was responsible for the organization of the event. He planned the event with local producers on the Central Coast.
The First World of Pinot Noir
Michele Good, the Tasting Room Manager at Talley Vineyards, was asked by Brian to take the lead in planning and organizing the first World of Pinot Noir event. Everyone involved agreed that they wanted to invite Pinot Noir producers from around the world to attend.
The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) was established in the mid-1980s in Oregon’s wine country, southwest of Portland. Most of the seminars and tastings are held annually in July on the campus of Linfield College. IPNC was helpful as a model for organizing the WOPN event with seminars, tastings, winery tours, and fine food for wine lovers and industry members to experience Pinot Noir produced from around the world.
The World of Pinot Noir (WOPN) event was designed to attract visitors to San Luis Obispo County to taste the Pinot Noir produced on the Central Coast; the winemakers were sourcing fruit and making wine in Arroyo Grande, the Edna Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley and coastal vineyards within both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. Each terroir was unique and distinctive. This small group listed below participated in the first WOPN event:
- Ken Brown (Ken Brown Wines)
- David Block (Byron Vineyard & Winery)
- Jenny and Dick Dorḗ (Foxen Canyon)
- Kathy Joseph (Fiddlehead)
- Chuck Ortman (Meridian)
- Frank Ostini (Hitching Post)
- Mike Sinor (Domaine Alfred)
- Brian Talley (Talley Vineyards)
- Kenneth Volk (Wild Horse)
Funding was key to the success of the event. Farm Credit West, a local business bank for the wine and agricultural community, provided a donation of $10,000 and was named a founding sponsor, supporting the event annually for the past 20 years.
Michele Good, in consultation with local board members, began soliciting Pinot Noir producers to join the WOPN event. The International Pinot Noir Celebration was supportive of WOPN. “There was a good contingent from Oregon, and we created a reciprocal relationship between IPNC and WOPN. But we knew we couldn’t stop there; we needed to build the credibility of the event and invite world-class Pinot Noir producers. That’s when our board reached out to Burgundy, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, and New Zealand. We wanted the event to be all-inclusive,” said Brian. The World of Pinot Noir board members knew they needed the French involved, and Burgundy’s Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay, considered by critics to be one of the top Burgundy producers, signed on to bring wines to World of Pinot Noir. For the first year’s event, there were 55 Pinot Noir producers from across the globe.
A Crab Lunch with Fred Dame Turned the Tide
In the interview with Brian Talley about those attending the first year of WOPN scheduled for 2001, he described it as a grassroots effort to get the word out to the masses. “We had plenty of interest from wineries to participate, but it was much harder than we imagined to sell tickets to the public. It was definitely an industry-centric type of event. We pitched it to consumers as a way to come and meet/mingle with winemakers and sommeliers,” said Brian.
But as the event drew near, ticket sales were not meeting expectations. “We almost canceled the event the first year as we didn’t have the critical mass leading up to it,” Brian Talley recalled. At the end of the day, it was Master Sommelier Fred Dame who turned the tide. Over a crab lunch in San Francisco, Brian pitched the event to Fred Dame. Fred loved the concept and purchased ten tickets to World of Pinot Noir that afternoon. “I credit him for saving the event,” stated Brian.
Pinot Noir by the Storming Sea
The event, now remembered nostalgically as “Pinot Noir by the Sea,” faced serious storm warnings. As the tents went up Thursday afternoon, a major storm was blowing toward the Pacific Coast.
The event kicked off on Friday, February 9, and continued on Saturday, February 10, 2001, at the Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach, California, with a host of seminars and events throughout the weekend. There were several satellite events at nearby wineries including a seminar at Talley Vineyards. A technical symposium for winemakers was added; Mike Sinor (Domaine Alfred) and Clay Brock (Zaca Mesa) organized a series of tech tastings, to educate winemakers on multiple regions and terroirs where Pinot Noir is grown and produced.
Fortunately, the event weathered the storm, and just as attendees arrived back from a seminar at Talley Vineyards and headed to the Grand Tasting, the clouds parted and the sun emerged. David Addlestine, the founder of the International Pinot Noir Celebration, stood on the lawn overlooking the Pacific and said to Brian Talley, “This is incredible, you guys did it.”
In a post-event interview with local wine and food critic Kathy Marks-Hardesty, winemaker Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat was asked about his impression of the first World of Pinot Noir. “I liked it very much. There’s no question we can get as many wineries here as we want. This will become a major classic event.”
Domaine de la Romanée Conti visits San Luis Obispo County
The board of WOPN immediately began planning their second event for March 8 and 9, 2002, once again at the Cliffs Hotel. The initial fundraising was successful and Larry Shupnick provided the hotel space for the second year. The board took an important strategic step by inviting Domaine de la Romanée Conti (DRC) which is considered “the most prestigious wine estate in Burgundy” according to author Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine. DRC agreed to participate. Domaine de la Romanée Conti was a major draw for the event; tickets for the Burgundy seminar sold out within just days. “We had to purchase all the wine for the Burgundy seminar and we flew the winemaking team here,” said Brian Talley. Every dollar spent by WOPN for this seminar was well worth it.
As the ticket sales for the event increased, Patti Rogers was brought on staff as the event coordinator just six weeks before opening. She was known for her skills in managing hospitality and focusing on the intricacies of relationships between participants and guests. Patti was provided with a desk at the Talley Vineyards offices. “Having DRC at the event really raised the level of the weekend,” says Patti Rogers. “The guests were of a high caliber, and World of Pinot Noir became the ‘it’ thing to go to. We wanted to show global producers that it was an event worth attending.”
The addition of DRC at World of Pinot Noir also caught the attention of wine critics and writers from across the United States. Dan Berger (LA Times) and Laurie Daniel (Bay Area Newsgroup), were selected as panelists for the Burgundy seminar with wine critic Karen McNeil (author of The Wine Bible) moderating. “Domaine de la Romanée Conti and owner Albery de Villane offered a reverence around the event…the entire weekend was elevated. There were only 72 tickets, and almost all the attendees at the seminar were winemakers. It was a really big deal,” says event manager Patti Rogers.
A Decade of Fine-Tuning
Over the next few years, WOPN added additional seminars, local wine excursions, and dinners prepared by well-known chefs from across the country. As the event grew in popularity, many more Pinot Noir producers asked to attend the event. “We just didn’t have the space to bring everyone to the Pinot Noir by the Sea Grand Tasting event on Saturday,” says Patti Rogers. In 2004, WOPN decided to expand the Grand Tasting and offer it for two days. Additional event space was made available at the Cliffs Resort. The Friday afternoon event was called the Friday Focus Tasting with space to host over 100 producers. The Grand Tasting was held on Saturday afternoon as in the past. Attendance increased as did the prestige of the event.
Another draw for Pinot Noir aficionados was the addition of Alan Meadows in 2004, who published the Burghound, an online and printed publication covering Burgundies. He lent credibility to the event and was instrumental in gaining access to up-and-coming producers.
In 2005 Chad Melville became the Board President. Chad brought new ideas and a unique perspective to the World of Pinot Noir. “We did a seminar at Melville Winery and we had co-chairs, Ken Volk and Jenne Dore. The personality of the different chairmen brought a new feel and style to the event,” says Patti Rogers.
New Leadership Emerges as Patti Rogers Retires
It was in 2012 when Damon Miele was hired as Executive Director of World of Pinot Noir. “The World of Pinot Noir board wanted an event professional with the desire to learn about wine on the international scale,” says Damon. Damon had a background in event management, having worked for Ralph Brennen in New Orleans and for Max Hansen Catering in Philadelphia. Locally, Damon managed catering events for Chef Maegan Loring of the Park Restaurant.
“I didn’t know wine at that time. I remember being on the phone with Fred Dame. He had an MS after his name, but I didn’t know what it stood for. We were planning a vintage Burgundy dinner, and I didn’t realize who I was talking with. He was the coolest, and he knew I only had 1% of wine knowledge, but the conversations were never about that. It was always about service and meeting the expectations of the guests attending the dinner. Once I finally realized what a Master Sommelier was, a whole new level and the reality of who I was talking with set in.”
With Damon’s planning, more venues were added to increase winery participation and bring in more customers. There were several breakout seminars added, including an event sponsored by the Rhone Rangers, which featured Rhone producers experimenting with Pinot Noir. “The idea came about when I was at Tablas Creek tasting, and the associate said ‘we have a Pinot Noir.’ Jason Haas’s father was an importer of Burgundy wines, and I floated the idea of this seminar with him. It was thinking out of the box,” says Damon.
The World of Pinot Noir’s Annual Celebration Moves to Santa Barbara
WOPN had outgrown the Cliffs Resort as a venue. In 2008, Jenny Dore and Brian Talley scouted the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara as a possible venue for the expanding event. The board considered the possibility but was not ready to move the venue. By the end of 2013, the WOPN board of directors again explored Santa Barbara venues and voted to move the event to Santa Barbara. This presented new challenges that were taken on by the board with new energy. “There was definitely concern about what wineries would attend and how ticket sales would fare,” says Damon. But the fact that Santa Barbara County has a major airport and that Los Angeles was only 100 miles away provided the new potential to bring more producers and customers to the event.
Marking World of Pinot Noir’s 15th Anniversary with Jancis Robinson
It was during the planning for the 15th Anniversary that the team at World of Pinot Noir landed a major draw, wine writer and critic Jancis Robinson. Karen Stienwacks (Buttonwood Farm Winery) met with Jancis Robinson who agreed to moderate a panel for a seminar focusing on wines produced worldwide. This seminar sold out almost immediately. “She is so well-respected for what she has done in the industry,” says Damon. “Having her at the event was, in my mind was the best decision…it created a huge buzz.”
Jancis Robinson arrived at the World of Pinot Noir event early on Wednesday evening. Damon recalls this phone call: “I was called to the front desk service desk, The concierge staff explained that winemakers were asking staff to deliver their wines to Jancis Robinson’s room.” There were at least 5 or 6 cases of wine waiting to be delivered to her; the service staff was puzzled because they assumed the wine was needed at the World of Pinot Noir event. “I had to explain that the reason all these wines were being dropped off was because the Bacara was hosting one of the most popular wine luminaries in the world, and every winemaker wanted to get their wines into her hands,” reported Damon.
Damon Miele recalled another highlight of the 15th Anniversary: “We hosted a seminar, Sideways vs. SOMM, which was a blind tasting of wines. Chris Burroughs, tasting room manager at Sanford Winery, and Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post, represented the film Sideways. DLynn Proctor, a well-known sommelier featured in the internationally acclaimed wine documentary, SOMM, with actor Brian McClintic, who is known for appearing on Tasting Talk and in the trilogy of SOMM films, represented SOMM.” Damon describes the highlight of the seminar: “There was one wine, it was Frank Ostini’s Hitching Post Pinot Noir, which was more than 10 years old. Bryan McClintic used the deductive tasting method which was new to many people outside of the sommelier world at the time. Bryan was so confident about identifying the wine in his glass, he even called the vintage. Frank Ostini sat in awe at the end of the table. He aced the wine in a blind tasting, and everyone was blown away.”
During the 15th anniversary dinner at the Bacara Resort, Brian Talley approached Damon with his own compliments about the event. “This is about as perfect as you can get. You should be pretty proud of this one.” Damon acknowledged the impact of those words, “I realized it wasn’t just me enjoying this event in my own event bubble, truly other people were also experiencing the event in the same way it was meant to be felt.”
Damon retired from his position with World of Pinot Noir in 2016. Solterra Strategies was hired to manage the world-class wine event. The tradition of bringing world-class Pinot Noir to the Central Coast continues with educational seminars, dinners, and grand tasting events In Santa Barbara throughout the first weekend of March. The 20th Anniversary was celebrated this year in 2020. The Wine History Project designed an exhibit for the event and sold copies of their first book celebrating one of the founders of WOPN, Archie McLaren. The biography is titled, Archie McLaren: The Journey from Memphis Blues to the Central Coast Wine Revolution. It is available on our website: https://winehistoryproject.org/books.
By Libbie Agran and Heather Muran