Wine and dine: If an event like the International Pinot Noir Conference makes it sound as though these things are getting a little too specialized, well, it could be worse. At least I didn't have to go to the International Pickle Fest in Atkins, Arkansas, last month.
Instead, I found myself at last week's IPNC in McMinnville, Oregon, which is forty minutes away from Portland and, unlike Vail, about forty million years away from turning into a cheesy capitalist caricature of itself. With the Baptist Linfield College (its grounds were turned over to the IPNC for wine consumption, which made Jesus and his barrels of water look positively meager) making up a large part of the population and more thrift stores and car dealerships than bars and churches, McMinnville may not have offered much in the way of gourmet outside the event, but the local dry cleaner also sold used cars for $199 and up, and you could drive through the downtown area in about four minutes.
Not to mention that McMinnville is in the heart of the Willamette Valley, home of serious pinot producers. And while only a handful of the tiny town's restaurants were worth checking out, the truly great thing about the IPNC is that nearly every meal was included. I have to admit that I consumed a greater share of good food than good wines, although that was more a result of heavy competition for the better bottles than a lack of them altogether.
The three-day event involved seminars packed tightly between gluttonous meals and prodigious pinot pouring. But where some such events set up buffets and expect black-tied folks to eat standing up, the IPNC crew--supported by one of the largest, most efficient volunteer staffs I've ever seen--hosted mostly sit-down meals, and even when they were buffet, there were plenty of tables. Unlike many of these deals, this was not a swell place to pick up guys, nor was it a shrine to the latest fashion trends, since just about everyone wore a pale-blue denim shirt, khaki pants and bad shoes. It was like being in Maine, but with no L.L. Bean outlets.
Pinot is the great equalizer in a social sense as well as a food one--I've always thought of it as the ultimate bridge-gapper for groups who are ordering fish and steak in a restaurant--and thus many people became very good friends by the time it was all over. We were all so sated, how could we not? Discussions revolved primarily around the food; most of it was prepared by well-known chefs from Oregon, California and Washington, and they gave us plenty to talk about.
For instance, I'd go to the Pickle Fest in Arkansas if I could get ahold of the recipe for the drop-dead-stunning candy-cap-mushroom cheesecake served during lunch at the Eola Hills Winery. The meal was part of Saturday's schedule, which involved all 600 participants being divided up among vineyards and then being bused out. After the lunch and wine tastings, we were handed the means with which to mix our own bottle of wine to label, cork and take home. Nice touch.
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Actually, details--such as being handed an ice-cold organic sorbet bar as we hoisted our tired tuchises off the bus and the stationing of friendly coffee-pourers everywhere--are crucial to the success of the IPNC, as is the fact that they limit the number of attendees by holding a lottery for the $650 tickets. Those tickets include two "continental" breakfasts of the finest pastries and the most beautiful fruit Oregon has to offer; two lunches; two dinners, one of which was a fabulous salmon roast complete with dancing; and the finale brunch, which featured all-you-can-eat sushi and sparkling pinots. Then there was the wine, of which I managed to sample 46 different bottles.
No wine-ing: It turns out that there is wine, as well as beer, available at Phoenicia Grill (727 Colorado Boulevard), but they don't seem to have that information on the menu or anywhere else I could find when I visited. I'd reported that the place was dry, like many Middle Eastern eateries, but that is not the case. So go there and enjoy a killer hummus with a glass of wine, please.
And also in the interest of full disclosure, after last week's deadline had passed, I did get restaurateur Kevin Taylor on the phone. In answer to my query, Taylor said the reason he's covering up those gorgeous marble floors in Brasserie Z (815 17th Street) when he turns it into a reworked Zenith is that "the number-one complaint I got about the place was that it was too noisy. The place was so popular with the business crowd, and people kept telling me that they could hear everything that was going on in the kitchen. I like those floors, too, but I think a lot of the restaurants in town that decided to go with the new trend of big, wide-open spaces and high ceilings are kicking themselves now."