Every year, over the last weekend in July, some of the biggest names in pinot noir--this year both Merry Edwards (one of California's first female winemakers) and the president and winemaker of Maison Louis Jadot were in town--spend a weekend in McMinnville. This year marked the 16th anniversary of the International Pinot Noir Celebration, a gathering of winemakers, wine sellers and wine lovers from around the world.

For two-and-a-half days, attendants descend on the campus of Linfield College to drink wine, talk about wine and drink some more. Throw in copious good food, a few late nights of drinking beer after the wine tasting is done, set it all under the July sun, and it's a top-dollar summer camp for winos.

Despite a hefty price tag ($795, without lodging), IPNC has never had any trouble selling out its 600 tickets. In fact, it's such a hot item there's a lottery in place to ensure some parity in the distribution of tickets. Why should you care about an event that costs as much as a trip to France? Consider this: The 170 winemakers in the Willamette Valley have spent the past 25 years building a reputation for both excellent wines and gracious tendencies. Add the fact that, unlike many wine events filled with poseurs and snoots, this gathering epitomizes the down-to-earth, welcoming vibe that defines Oregon. David Adelsheim, one of the most established Willamette Valley vintners and a former member of the IPNC board, says a lot of this event's popularity has to do with the celebration aspect that was key in its creation. "All ideas of competition and judging were thrown out," he says. "The idea was to focus on the resonance of pinot noir."

Adelshiem also stresses the importance of the IPNC's origins, "This event was something created out of nothing by the wineries themselves, not by a bunch of critics or journalists who were dictating what people should think about wine and the wine industry," he says.

Despite a certain dose of exclusivity (good wine can be expensive, after all) the event has a genuinely accessible mood to it. Winemakers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland and all over the U.S. are everywhere, and you can walk up and talk to them. You're just as likely to sit across from a 28-year-old engineer from Intel as a 58-year-old wine collector from Texas, as I did one night.

For me, it was a chance to try dozens of wines that I might otherwise have had to wait years to taste. For your average wine enthusiast, the opportunity to be around 200 pinot noirs doesn't come along all that often. Many of the wines being poured are from Oregon and are available to taste simply by driving south and picking a winery. However, the chance to sample the older wines that the producers bring is beyond a treat. Most of these wines are difficult to find, let alone afford. For someone who loves pinot, the chance to taste a young wine from New Zealand, followed by a recent vintage from Oregon, followed by an old Burgundy, is a small wonder. In addition, seminars on pairing both food and cheese with pinot noir were offered, and the session on matching pinot and albacore tuna, whose hosts included Portland chefs Cathy Whims (Genoa) and Caprial and John Pence, revealed the beauties of this less heralded combination.

The highlight of the weekend was the presentation and tasting by Maison Louis Jadot. President Pierre-Henry Gagey and winemaker Jacques Lardière gave such impassioned, eloquent talks about the importance of place in winemaking that I found myself almost getting choked up. "All wines tell a story," said Gagey, whose French accent makes everything sound poetic, "and the stories I like to listen to are not about scoring a 98, but about butterflies fighting in the vineyard and the arc of the sun across the valley." And the wines! The six vintages we tasted of Grand Cru Bonnes-Mares were all gorgeous examples of the classic Burgundian mantra of balance--integrated layers of berries, spice and bright acidity.

I thought I would find someone who would tell me that the event just isn't what it used to be, that the spirit wasn't the same--but it didn't happen. What I got was the opposite. For Doug Tunnel, of Brick House, who attended his first IPNC in 1990, the event reminds him of why he's in business at all. "If it weren't for IPNC, I'm not sure I'd be doing what I'm doing," he says, citing the camaraderie of area producers and the spirit of working with the notoriously difficult pinot grapes as vital factors in his decision to buy land and commit to making wine here.

With its combination of the globe's best producers of pinot noir and the world's most committed wine lovers, IPNC brings together some of the most passionate people in the wine world for an unrivaled weekend of pinot appreciation. Press pass or not, I'll be there next year.

If $800 is too steep for you, or if your number doesn't come up in the lottery next year, tickets are available to the public for the Sunday - afternoon tasting, where all the featured wines are poured and a large lunch is served. The cost is $125.

For information on next year's IPNC and how to get a lottery number, visit www.ipnc.org