A Look Inside IPNC with MW’s Cortney Lease

Cortney Lease, Western Regional Sales Manager for Martine’s Wines, is a regular attendee of the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, OR. Following this year’s festivities–which concluded just over one week ago–we asked Cortney to reflect on her experiences at this one-of-a-kind event. Enjoy!

My voice is hoarse and my feet hurt, not-so-subtle reminders that I have just worked the IPNC. Across four days, I may have slept 14 hours in all, and I know I look like a rangy mouse the cat dragged in. But I’m so happy right now…this is the best kind of tired!

Every year I look forward to this event—it is summer camp, and I get to see my wine family. I’m a wine geek, and I don’t have to camouflage my colors at IPNC. Every person there has a deep and personal love of Pinot, and of wine in general, for that matter. They’re not afraid to connect with the grape, soil and history, and therefore connect with their neighbors and table-mates who possess an equal fervor.

There are three days of activities, and I definitely have a favorite. Attendees can choose from wine seminars with the top winemakers of their respective regions, lunches with creative and acclaimed chefs, vineyard tour lunches, and the Salmon Bake (read as “big wine party with fire and fish on sticks”). However, I love to work the Grand Dinner.

This would be the closest thing to a formal event offered by IPNC, and everyone brings their A game. It is a sit-down, coursed meal where each dish is prepared by a different chef. The wines served come from the deep cellars of IPNC, where Burgundies and boutique wines have been carefully stored from over 30 years of events. It is a wonderful combination of wine shared by customers who have chosen to open up their personal stash, and wines provided by the passionate organizers of IPNC.

The Grand Dinner this year was no exception. After a pre-shift call at 7:30 AM, followed by service at a Vineyard Lunch Tour, I had a 50-minute “break” to get ready for the big event at 5:30 PM. I’ll admit I was dragging a bit, and not quite mentally prepared for service. However, after seeing people lined up throughout the Linfield College campus in 90 plus-degree heat, pumped to make new friends, I was jolted out of my malaise. Excitement is contagious, and I started to feel my adrenaline build before the gates opened.

At the Grand Dinner, each table is hosted by a winemaker, and these winemakers generously donate their wines to the event. There is no telling which winemaker will be assigned to which table, so guests get a surprise when they sit down. My favorite part is getting to know my tables—finding out what they like, what they’re hoping to taste, and then finding these wines and some new ones throughout the evening.

At this event, all the big boys come out—1er Cru and Grand Cru aged Burgundies, fantastic California and Oregon Pinots, as well as many other interesting wines from around the world. I am lucky enough to introduce new wines to tables and help guests relax. I truly enjoy taking care of them and earning their trust. By the end of the night, through several courses, I was able to pour dozens of wines to guests from all over North America and abroad. Learning how people found their way to IPNC, where they come from, what drew them—even seeing groups continue to meet and travel outside of this event—these are the joys of IPNC.

The most gratifying experiences in the service industry are when your guests palpably want to connect—to let you in and share their world for a few hours. You make friends and create a bridge in a genuine and spontaneous way. IPNC generates this aura, where people are prepared for new sensations and want you to shepherd their experience. It is a level of trust I take very seriously, and I have always walked away feeling the warmth of new friendships. Even better, each sommelier selected to work these events is deeply in love with hospitality, and it is clear to see in their care of all guests—regulars and newbies—who come across their floor.

After the Grand Dinner, all the somms, winemakers and friends of IPNC congregate on the lawn for an inspired and wildly informal celebration. I always bring my geekiest wines to these events, because it is filled with people who embrace the odd. Native varietals from the Canary Islands? Sounds good! 20-year-old Arinto from Portugal? Yum. There is an eagerness that is omnipresent, infectious, and inclusive of everyone. There is always way too much and never enough all at the same time. You pour out more great wine at these events than you’ll try all year, and everyone is bringing something thoughtful.

I ended that day around 2 AM, and I was one of the more responsible revelers—the first wave to fall headfirst into our dorm beds. Next day alarm was set for 6:30 AM, and who needs more than 4 hours of sleep?

Back to the real world.