SF Wine Blog

Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.


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California’s Historic and Ongoing Pursuit of Balance

Now in its fifth year, In Pursuit of Balance sets sail for Japan later this week, expanding the geographic scope of its efforts to “promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance” in California wine. I’ve been an unabashed fan of this event since it first launched in 2011, and am interested to see how critics and consumers will receive the wines featured at IPOB. More to the point, I wonder how IPOB and the discussion of “balance” fit within the global definition and understanding of California wines.

Critics of IPOB seem to view the event and it’s focus on “balance” as a counter cultural set of wines embraced by young winemakers and hipster big-city sommeliers out of touch with the rich, fruit driven, powerful wines that seem to be championed in wine publications and (some argue) favored by consumers.

But balanced wine — specifically, the pursuit of growing and making balanced wine — is central to California’s wine history.

Up through 1966, fortified wines outsold still wines in the U.S. , and that year, California wineries produced 86 million gallons of fortified wine and only 55 million gallons of table wine. Warren Winiarski became the founding winemaker for Napa’s Robert Mondavi winery that same year.

Fast forward 10 years. California produces 300 million gallons of table wine, and only 14 million gallons of fortified wine, and Winiarski’s inaugural 1973 vintage of his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon beat out a number of French wines in winning the Judgment of Paris tasting.   In the early 1990s— well before IPOB was launched — Winiarski discussed the wine that helped California wine garner international prestige:

[T]here are certain wines which are regional, and their excellence is understood as an expression of the region, and that would have been the wines that many people in California were trying to make then which were wines that had very rich, very powerful, very ripe fruit characteristics, and possessed great abundance of varietal character. There are also some others that we didn’t often make then, which possess the characteristics of “restraint, which I call the third “r.” There are two “r’s,” “richness’ and ripeness,” and there’s another one which might be called “restraint” or moderation, and my goal with the 1973 fruit was to give it this quality of moderation. The Paris Tasting showed what California grapes, with all their richness and ripeness, could attain if the wines also were styled to embody a certain restraint. These would not be wines noted for the most massive expression of ripe fruit but would be wines expressing our regional abundance, balanced by moderation and restraint. That is to say that the level of fruit character would be moderated to the point required for a wine to qualify for the name “classic.” (emphasis in original transcript).

Winiarski went on to discuss alcohol as a component of balance:

To a certain extent we were dazzled by our own potential. The richness that our fruit was capable of was simply dazzling – the high alcohol, the powerful extractives, the tanning, the rich and powerful fruit, the heady aromas. All of these things are impressive in themselves, but they do tend to fatigue. You cannot have a wonderful aesthetic experience where you are at the edge of fatigue every moment, engrossed. So I think that element of restraint was very important, and it still is important. … You had all these 14-percent-alcohol and highly extracted wines, these late-harvest Zinfandels, the Cabernets to end all Cabernets, the Chardonnays to end all Chardonnays. The most powerful, authoritative statement seemed to many to be a statement of beauty, but beauty doesn’t need excess.

While the definition or perception of balance may have shifted over time, it is impossible to deny that winemakers like Winiarski that embraced restraint and balance helped bring California wines international acclaim in the 1970s.

Given this context, I hope that people attending IPOB for the first time will understand that the pursuit of balance is not simply a fad, but instead has deep roots in California’s winemaking history.

Winiarski quotes are from Warren Winiarski, “Creating Classic Wines in the Napa Valley,” an oral history conducted in 1991, 1993 by Ruth Teiser, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1994, available at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/projects/food_wine/wine.html

Warren Winiarski, interviewed in early 1990s, talkin' 'bout #balance. #IPOB OG

A photo posted by John Trinidad (@sfwineblog) on

 


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Parker, Bloggers, and Fair Use

Lawyers for The Wine Advocate, the publication made famous by Robert Parker, recently fired off a letter to wine writer Tyler Coleman, demanding that he “immediately remove content on [his blog] http://www.drvino.com that was copied from eRobertParker.com,” claiming that Coleman’s use of this material “blatantly infringes upon [The Wine Advocate’s] copyright protected content.” Under federal copyright law, Coleman’s use of that material may be protected by the “fair use” doctrine.  

Click here for the full article on LexVini.com

 


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Arlequin Beaujolais Bash – This Thursday

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A wine retail friend of mine recently told me about a customer who was a bit wary about accepting her recommendation that he should add a bottle of Jean Foillard’s Morgon Cote du Py to his shopping cart. The conversation went something like this:

“Do you think I’ll like it?”

“Do you kick puppies?”

“No.”

“OK. You’ll like it.”

Because seriously people: how can you not love Cru Beaujolais / Bro-jo / Bo-jo / Gam-gam or whatever pet nickname you’ve adopted for one of the happiest wines on the planet. It is pure pleasure.

And there really is no better way to enjoy Beaujolais then being surrounded by friends, which is why for the past few years, I’ve done my darndest to get down to Arlequin Wine Merchants for their annual Beaujolais Bash. It takes place on Thursday, from 6-8pm ($35). Don’t miss it!

Here’s what is on tap for the tasting:

Guy Breton Regnie

Marcel Lapierre Morgon

Jean Foillard Morgon, Fleurie & Nouveau

Cheateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly

Chanrion Cote de Brouilly

Diochon Moulin-a-Vent

Julien Sunier Fleurie, Morgon & Regnie

PUR Regnie, Village & Nouveau

Dupueble Nouveau

Bruno de Bize 3 separate Beaujolais cuvees

Terres Dorees/Jean-Paul Brun Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie &Morgon

George Descombes Brouilly & Morgon

Champier Brouilly & Villages

Clos de la Roilette Fleurie


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Less tasting, more drinking. Less descriptors, more emotion.

There are few things I dislike more in the wine world than the infatuation with tasting notes. It seems like every aspiring wine fan wants to sniff, swirl, taste their way to identifying “hints of cassis,” “leather,” or “barnyard” in their glass. Take for example this article in the New York Times, where the writer (a self-described wine novice) notes that by the end of his time in Napa, he was “sensing cherry, and a note of cinnamon” in his wine and described that as “progress.”

My dislike of tasting notes isn’t just limited to the obscure references to “stewed figs,” which my friend David White excoriated in a recent post. It’s the overall fascination new wine drinkers have with the parlor game of spewing out descriptors every time they pick up a glass of wine.

My advice to folks interested in learning more about wine: stop glorifying the need to identify what part of the produce section you can identify in a wine, and focus on identifying and seeking out wines that excite you.

Now, I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I can see why wine aficionados use tasting notes to differentiate between wines so they can remember what they had or to be able to exchange ideas about different wines, different regions, etc. I even understand why avid cooks might find these types of tasting notes helpful so they can be thoughtful about food and wine pairings. So yes –there’s a time and a place for the traditional tasting note.

But even the most experienced drinker, even the wine professional, when drinking wine, has an emotional reaction to it, and that is more relevant in some ways than a lengthy list of descriptors.

Before I delve into that theory, I want to point out why I emphasized “drinking” in the last paragraph. My fourth grade teacher was fond of saying, “There’s a time for work, and there’s a time for play.” Tasting is work. It involves sipping and analyzing. Drinking is different. Drinking is play. It’s pleasure. It’s sitting back, pulling the cork, and maybe pulling a few more just ‘cause. And, while I have absolutely no data to back up this claim, I would venture to guess that the vast majority of wines consumed (whether it be your supermarket wine or the trophy bottles) are drunk, not tasted.

So let’s get back to the emotional reaction to wine. Even the most studied wine professional enjoys wine at a very base, emotional level. You can see it in their facial expression when they take a sip. You might even notice some certain head movements, a slight lifting of the chin or raising of an eyebrow, to signal that the wine surprised them in some way.

The more animated drinkers might have a more obvious physical reaction to wine. During a trip through France in 2012, Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts from Arnot-Roberts picked up the “side fist pump” as a signal for wines they enjoyed. This sign language caught on in certain circles.

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Hardy Wallace, who tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve, has a certain little chicken wing thing he does when he has an exciting wine, which sometimes evolves into a full-out running man/cabbage patch hybrid.

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(photo from DirtySouth Wine Flickr Page).

Peoples’ reaction to great wine can sometimes be surprising. Earlier this year, I had a group of friends over for dinner, all folks involved in the production or sale of wine. There were at least two bottles per person open on the table by the time we moved on to the main course. Let’s just say we were all “happy,” conversation was flowing, and the decibel level rising. My friend Max breaks out a bottle of 1990 Peter Lauer Riesling Sekt, and we each pour ourselves out a glass, raise a toast, take a sip, and fall silent. The wine was that spectacular. There were no words.

We all have our little thing we do that’s just a pure, emotional reaction to something we enjoy. Embrace that. Make that your tasting note. Focus on identifying and seeking out what wines bring that out in you. That (more than the number or creativity of the descriptors you can spit out) shows you truly can appreciate wine.