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Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.

California’s Historic and Ongoing Pursuit of Balance

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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


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