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Partying with wine pros makes heads spin

I attended a conference where we watered the lawn with priceless wine.

People also rid themselves of excess pinot noir by spitting it into buckets incorporated into centerpieces at dinners, where vichyssoise and rabbit fricassee were served on fine china. What's more, the keynote speaker, menacingly good-looking actor Kyle MacLachlan, didn't show up, and no one cared.

Want more jaw-dropping facts about the International Pinot Noir Celebration, a three-day academic bacchanal in which winemakers, sommeliers and vino appreciators go crazy over that fickle, flavorful grape that put Oregon on the map?

Well, OK. As a first-timer to the pinot party that's a quarter of a century old, I noticed that IPNC has an interesting set of protocols.

Even though there are temperature-controlled trucks stuffed with 250 different pinot noirs from France, Chile, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, California and, of course, Oregon, and everyone can drink as much of it as they like at the breakfast-time seminars, triple-course lunches, afternoon cheese tastings, late-afternoon wine tastings and boundless dinners where Fred Flintstone-sized portions of fire-roasted chinook salmon, juicy bavette steak and tender pork loin are served under darkening skies "… (stop a minute to breathe) "… people bring extra bottles of wine. It's not unusual for wine producers to crack open a very special magnum and start sharing it with everyone as if they were firemen with a water hose.

The words "excess indulgence on the scale of Versailles" understate this event. Days begin with cheerful chef Katy Millard of Portland's Coquine Supper Club offering butter she made that morning to go with your fig-stuffed rolls, or bubbly Kristen Young, a wine captain at Michael Mina's RN74 in Seattle, eagerly waiting to show you how to chop the head off a Champagne bottle with a saber.

Another IPNC protocol: As classy as the guests are — after all, they are paying almost $1,000 to drink some of the world's finest reds, whites and roses paired with Dungeness crab Louis and olive-oil teacakes served by tuxedo-clad sommeliers — they will proudly fill the spit buckets to the brim. Although I always thought women were disadvantaged in this activity because it's mainly men who have practiced shooting liquid past their teeth since they were small and cute, I now know that chicks can spit.

And finally: Winemakers and sommeliers know how to party more than any young rock star or fading movie star. These people have the ability to not only drink gallons of wine throughout the day, but to remember the distinctive characters of each notable glass. They are my new heroes.

The wine appreciators hold their own, too. Despite the early mornings, the late nights, countless horizontal bottles being emptied into thousands of Riedel glasses and the legendary after-parties at downtown McMinnville bars where beer, whiskey or tequila were used as chasers, no one seemed to get even tipsy. I buttonholed IPNC Board President Bill Stoller on the last day, right before the sparking-wine brunch, and accused him of blanketing the entire Linfield College Campus with fairy air that made us all clear-headed and happy. He backed away slowly.

Truly, IPNC is an unabashed bath in pinot noir. Michael Donovan of RoxyAnn Winery in Medford and the chairman of the Oregon Wine Board served as a volunteer sommelier for six years. He likens his experiences to a summer camp with unlimited wine (sheesh, where did he grow up?), and he quietly confessed that on any given day, pinot noir is his personal favorite.

"It's finicky, fickle, hard to grown, hard to make, but when it's done right, it has seductive, feminine qualities. It's elegant with many beautiful facets," he told me with such devotion and emphasis that his words singed my hair a little bit even though we were talking over the phone.

Got it, Michael. But you and I both know that Oregon is popular for more than pinot noir. We also have Imax theater-worthy scenery and a humongous fungus thought to be the world's largest organism along with my stomach. And since our many soils and climates can grow a diversity of grapes, especially in the southern part of the state, we also have WOW: Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival (worldofwinefestival.com).

This is the 10th year southy wine producers have gathered into a big tent for a "grand tasting" where wine appreciators zing around tables like BBs in a barrel, trying to taste 120 different wines made from more grapes than even Robert Parker can tick off his wine-stained fingers: albarino, cabernet franc, malbec, viognier.

This year, festival events at the Bigham Knoll campus in Jacksonville run Aug. 22-25 and also include sensory classes and a cleverly named Gold Rush Dinner featuring the gold-medal-winning wines. It's a mini-IPNC, if you will, but for drop-in-the-spit-bucket prices ($30 for a class, $75 for the Grand Tasting, $125 for the five-course dinner).

I always have enjoyed WOW because the winemakers are happy, the food servers are showing off and the wine appreciators are quickly figuring out what they like or dislike. Sometimes it only takes one sip. Or one spit.

EVENT: Southern Oregon Historical Society is hosting a series of dinners called Origins that honor the people, food and wines that thrive here. The nonprofit group plans four-course, wine-paired dinners ($55) Sept. 1 and Sept. 29 at Hanley Farm, 1053 Hanley Road between Central Point and Jacksonville. For reservations call 541-773-6536, ext. 1002, or see www.sohs.org.

TASTED: After quaffing immeasurable amounts of pinot noirs from all over the world, I admit I have a prejudicial, provincial palate. I really like the pinots derived from Fortmiller Vineyard near Talent. Thank-you, Don and Traute Moore and family for figuring out so long ago where grapes like to grow in our valley.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email jeastman@mailtribune.com.