Pinot-Palooza: Major Wine Event Makes Move to Santa Barbara

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Bob Dickey, 
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press 2/13/14)

One of the most significant wine events in the state has just made a strategic move: it’s coming to the South Coast.

The World of Pinot Noir – or WOPN for short – has been drawing an impressive roster of wine experts, and a growing number of consumers, for the last 13 years.  But drawing them to Shell Beach, a lovely coastal stretch in San Luis Obispo County.  And while the region is well known for producing world class wines, including pinot noir, “it was time for a change,” says winemaker Norm Yost.

Yost is this year’s elected President of the WOPN Board, and a remarkable pinot producer in his own right.  His Flying Goat Cellars label, based in Lompoc, produces some 2500 cases of sell-out pinot noir a year; pinot from the Santa Maria Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills also feature prominently in some of his sparkling wines, like the Goat Bubbles Rosé and the Goat Bubbles Blanc de Noir. 

The thirsty crowd at WOPN
Like hundreds of people from Santa Barbara County, and from counties to the south, Yost has always made the yearly pinot pilgrimage to Shell Beach eagerly.  But 2014 required WOPN, which represents producers in both SLO and Santa Barbara Counties, to be “new and different,” Yost told me this week.  “There are multiple events we need to compete with now, which means we needed to shake things up a bit.  Plus, our demographic is further south, so being closer to L.A., and being closer to a bigger airport, made sense.  And hey: it’s the 10-year anniversary of Sideways, so we thought, ‘Let’s take it to Santa Barbara!’”

WOPN descends on the deluxe Bacara Resort & Spa in just over two weeks – February 28th and March 1st – with the intent to highlight pinot noir’s personality and potential through seminars, tastings and exclusive dinners. The Bacara pick was strategic and smart; it is, easily, one of the most desirable event venues in the county, with its ample space, modern amenities and sweeping ocean views (something that’s already become synonymous with the WOPN wine tasting experience).  It also allows a critical customer base from markets like Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to make the logistical decision to attend much more easily.

To be sure, the Bacara move paid off quickly.  “For the first time, we offered a few VIP packages early on – with full access, like the Platinum Pass at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival -- and they went over huge, sold out right away,” says Yost. 

Legendary pinot noir maker Richard Sanford at WOPN
Many of the weekend’s high-profile events are already sold out, too, like a seminar dubbed “Parallels of the 47th Parallel,” comparing pinots from two regions that share a latitude – Oregon and Burgundy – but that are made a world apart.  Tickets to a pair of VIP dinners inside Bacara’s Miro Restaurant wine cellar – one pouring stars from Burgundy and one showcasing Santa Barbara County’s cultish Sea Smoke Cellars – are also gone.

But a handful of experiences still have openings, including the Grand Tastings on Friday and Saturday, which are a must for any WOPN newbie.  These sprawling affairs will feature more than 100 pinot producers from around the world, and a totally different lineup of pourers each day.  This is an unprecedented chance to taste some of the very best pinots in the world – celebrated renditions from our own backyard, of course – wineries like Presqu’ile, Sawyer-Lindquist, Bien Nacido, Au Bon Climat, Hitching Post, Paul Lato, Foxen – as well as from regions like British Columbia, New York’s Finger Lakes, New Zealand, Spain and Chile.  Both afternoon tastings will take over Bacara’s Grand Ballroom and sea-view terraces, and tickets are $110; an extra $15 gets you early admission, which does allow for better one-on-one with the winemakers.

There are also a few seats left for the “Hollywood & the Vine” Seminar, a four-hour experience slated for 10am Saturday that will explore pinot’s starring role on the silver screen.  High-profile industry hits like Oscar-winning Sideways and the recent SOMM documentary will be discussed by panelists led by Sunset Magazine wine editor Sara Schneider.  A multi-course luncheon by Chef (and renowned pinot noir maker) Frank Ostini from Buellton’s Hitching Post II  -- a veritable set for many memorable Sideways scenes – will follow.  Ticket are $130.

(By the way: guests of either Grand Tasting will have free access to Bacara’s high-tech, 211-seat Screening Room, which will be playing Sideways and SOMM back to back throughout the weekend – a chance to step back from the crowd for all or just a few minutes of each film.)

The seminars usually sell out at WOPN

For an expert take on the marriage between pinot noir and food, the Gala Dinner on Saturday night will kick off with a bounty of pinot-driven sparkling wine producers and then feature myriad gourmet food stations paired with classic pinot noir from around the world.  Guests will mingle with local chefs and winemakers from producers like Babcock Winery, Miner Wines, Saintsbury, Hahn Estate and New Zealand Winegrowers.  This feast starts at 7pm and tickets are $165.

Of course, WOPN’s new venue this year will allow a lot of us – for the first time – to make the decision to attend just one, or a couple, or all of the featured events.  And transportation to and from Bacara has gotten extra attention this year, too, with a handful of Goleta hotels offering shuttle service and the new app-based car pickup service, Uber, offering a $25 discount on your first ride (you’ll need to register with the promo code “pinot” at uber.

For more information, a full lineup of participants and tickets, log on to WOPN.


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