SF Wine Blog

Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.


On Balance: A Recap of IPOB

To say that California Pinot Noir has suffered an identity crisis as of late would be an understatement. Some winemakers claim that California Pinot should embrace the ripe, rich fruit forward profile that the state’s warm climate makes possible. Others believe this noble varietal is best expressed through a more restrained style, one which reins in the fruit and alcohol levels that have become emblematic of California wines. This debate has been exacerbated by an attempt to meet the market demand for more Pinot after a certain Hollywood movie made Pinot the “it” varietal a few years back. The resulting increase in production quantity, however, did not necessarily coincide with higher quality wines being consumed.

March 28, 2011 IPOB Panel and Tasting

This provides at least some of the backdrop for the recent “In Pursuit if Balance” (“IPOB”) panel and tasting in San Francisco. Organized by one of the country’s best known sommeliers, Raj Parr of RN74 and the Michael Mina Group restaurants, and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, IPOB brought together a group of like-minded producers who strive to create “balanced wines.”

But what does that term mean? As Ray Isle (Wine Editor for Food & Wine Magazine) noted, balance is a concept that, perhaps, falls into the “you know it when you see it” category. Nevertheless, the organizers posited the following description of balance:

“[A] wine is in balance when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed. The genius of Pinot Noir is found in subtlety and poise, in its graceful and transparent expression of the soils and climate in which it is grown. Balance in Pinot Noir enables these characteristics to reach their highest expression in a complete wine where no single element dominates the whole.”

If only restrained wine can be balanced (as the organizers suggest by focusing on subtlety and poise), then the richer-style Pinots are necessarily unbalanced. “Balance” has, therefore, become a loaded term in the wine industry, and some have taken offense at the suggestion that their winemaking style inevitably results in unbalanced wines. Indeed, IPOB has had its critics: one Edna Valley enologist derided IPOB as “a cabal of elitists furthering their agenda” even before the event started.

Part of the problem is that balance is hard to define and even more difficult to evaluate objectively in a wine. Moreover, the subjective nature of the term makes it difficult for consumers to effectively use it as a descriptor. If you order a “balanced Pinot” at a restaurant, you may not be happy with the bottle that shows up at your table, as the sommelier’s sense of balance may differ from yours.

Case in point: Even though the IPOB producers were hand picked because of their emphasis on balance, I found some of the wines to be too bold and fruit forward for my personal taste. This is not meant as a slight against the organizers, both of whom have far more experienced palates than mine. Instead, I mean it as a complement — IPOB forced me to consider not only what I was tasting at the moment, but what it is that I ideally want out of a California Pinot Noir.

The event kicked off with a panel discussion featuring winemakers who source from some of the primary Pinot producing regions in California: Vanessa Wong (Peay Vineyards (Sonoma Coast)), Wells Guthrie (Copain (Anderson Valley)), Jeffrey Patterson (Mount Eden Vineyards (Santa Cruz Mountains)), and Sashi Moorman (Evening Land Vineyards (Central Coast)). The panelists discussed their personal winemaking philosophies, which was best summarized by Ms. Wong when she declared, “I’m not into wine that has a lot of shock value.”

Raj Parr and IPOB Panel

Wong was preaching to the choir. The gaggle of professional wine writers in attendance included many who have long derided the rich, opulent, muscular style of Pinot that has become pervasive. As Bloomberg reporter Elin McCoy noted prior to the event:

“I’ve had it with prune-colored California pinots that taste like over-oaked top-heavy syrahs. I give them a sniff, two sips just to be fair, then a groan and a thumbs-down score.”

If IPOB were simply limited to those in the conference room, it would have amounted to nothing more than a navel gazing exercise for industry insiders. Thankfully, one of the core missions of the event was to extend beyond the traditional industry press, and to reach out directly to wine consumers — “to open a dialogue between producers and consumers about the nature of balanced Pinot Noir….” To facilitate that interaction, the panel discussion was broadcast live over the Internet, and viewers had the opportunity to submit questions.

The organizers also invited the general public to attend a tasting later in the day at RN74, and the $45 entry fee was an incredible bargain given the quality and limited production of the wines being poured.

While there was some grumbling at both the trade and public tasting that the event was too crowded, consumers who attended were largely thrilled–even giddy–about IPOB. And for good reason: some of the most sought-after California Pinots were there for the taking (including Littorai, Calera, Peay, and Hirsch Vineyards, for example). As one friend put it: “The real highlight was the sheer awesomeness of the wine quality on the whole.”

IPOB Public Tasting at RN74

Equally as impressive was the number of smaller up-and-coming wineries that shared the stage. These producers held their own standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of California’s most storied wineries. During my post-IPOB dinner with friends who attended the public tasting, we excitedly exchanged notes about our newly discovered favorite winemakers. (See below for a few names to look out for).

I left IPOB with a deeper appreciation for the standard bearers who have consistently championed balanced wines, an excitement about the next generation of winemakers who strive for nuance and complexity, and a renewed interest in California Pinot overall.

Here are some additional thoughts and reflections on IPOB.

Finding Balance at a Reasonable Price

Balanced wines don’t come cheap. Indeed, many of the wines poured at the IPOB tasting carry a $50+ price tag. If the goal is to have consumers’ preference for wines shift from large, overly fruity, bulky Pinots, then more balanced wines need to be offered at a more accessible price point.

Thankfully, some of the wineries in attendance at IPOB have lower cost options. For example, Hirsch makes a $30 wine, The Bohan Dillon, from a blend of Hirsch’s younger vineyards and some non-estate fruit. Cep, a second label from Peay Vineyards, offers great value Sonoma Coast Pinot at around $26 (Cep also makes a great Rosé which you should keep an eye out for with summer right around the corner). And Copain’s entry-level Tous Ensemble line also comes in at a sub-$30 price point.

Now, if any of these producers could find a way to get a wine that can retail for closer to $20, we might see more consumers flocking to balanced Pinot and an end to the “bigger is better” market mentality.

Overcoming the Sideways effect: Central Coast Pinot

I hate Sideways, and think Miles (the movie’s protagonist) may be the biggest douche in film history. [There. I said it. Felt good. A bit cathartic.]. After watching that movie, I wanted nothing to do with him or his favorite wines, so for the longest time I avoided Central Coast wines all together. And I felt vindicated by the fact that the few Central Coast Pinots I tried were overly ripe bruisers.

But to prove that one should approach tastings with an open mind, I came away from IPOB with a much more positive opinion of Pinot coming from our southern neighbors. Josh Jensen of Calera and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat have been making highly touted Pinot Noir out of California’s Central Coast for many years, and (as discussed below) these two luminaries have been joined by a new crop of very promising winemakers. Indeed, two of my first post-IPOB Pinot purchases were from Santa Maria Valley (both from Chanin Wines). While my heart is still in the extreme Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley, I’m looking forward to continue exploring wines from the Central Coast, thanks in large part to the IPOB tasting.

A Bright Future for Pinot in California

There was a lot of star power at IPOB. Icons like David Hirsch, Clendenen and Jensen were pouring their wines and mingling with guests. But what caught my attention, and the attention of my friends who attended the public tasting, was the new crop of young winemakers ready and able to carry the torch for balanced wines. In addition to Vanessa Wong of Peay and Wells Guthrie of Copain, I was particularly impressed with the wines from Kevin Kelley (LIOCO), Ross Cobb (Cobb Wines and Hirsch Vineyards), Jamie Kutch (Kutch Wines), and Gavin Chanin (Chanin Wine Co.). This well-stocked stable of California winemaking talent bodes well for the future of balanced Pinot.


SHOUT OUTS: Here are some of my favorite wines from the tasting, in no particular order. There were many other wines that I enjoyed at IPOB, but in the interest of brevity, limited this list to a handful of wines.

  • 2008 Chanin Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley)
  • 2007 Cobb Wines Emmaline Vineyard (Sonoma Coast)
  • 2008 Cobb Wines Diane Cobb: Coastlands Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) [I tasted the Cobb wines again a few weeks later, and they still resonated with me.]
  • 2009 Copain Monument Tree (Anderson Valley)
  • 2009 Hirsch Vineyards Reserve (Sonoma Coast) (barrel sample)
  • 2009 Kutch McDougal Ranch (Sonoma Coast)
  • 2009 LIOCO Hirsch Vineyard (Sonoma Coast)
  • 2007 Littorai Wines Savoy Vineyard (Anderson Valley) [Hard to pick just one of the Littorai wines — all of them were excellent.]
  • 2009 Peay Vineyards Pomarium Estate (Sonoma coast)
  • 2009 Windgap Woodruff Vineyard (Santa Cruz Mountains)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Admittedly, this article is biased because of my own taste preferences, and the wines I’ve listed above may not be to everyone’s liking. To steal a line from Wells Guthrie, I’m looking for a Pinot with “less power,” but “more electricity.”

ADDITIONAL READING: Other posts regarding IPOB:

  • Jon Bonné (SF Chronicle’s Wine Editor) via Inside Scoop SF
  • Alder Yarrow of Vinography
  • Patrick Comiskey (Senior Contributor, Wine & Spirits Magazine) via Zester Daily
  • Also, please see my earlier post regarding In Pursuit of Balance which includes a full list of wineries that attended.

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Weekly Events: Week of March 14

Wednesday is looking like wine-a-palooza right now:  an amazing array of events to get over hump day.  Rock on!


Wed., Mar. 16:  Littorai Tasting @ FPWM (Financial Dist.)

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants
The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA

4:30pm – 7:30pm ($32 for flight)

One of the country’s most esteemed winemakers, Ted Lemon, will be pouring his wines at FPWM this Wednesday.  Littorai is well known for his elegant pinots and chardonnay, which should be know surprise since Ted was the first American to work as a winemaker in Burgundy.  Here’s what the Chronicle had to say about Ted in naming him winemaker of the year this past December:

“Littorai wines are among the purest, most long-lasting expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the New World. They have earned Lemon a reputation not as a Burgundian interpreter of California, but as a true American master. ” – Article here.


Wed., Mar. 16:  Littorai Dinner @ Saison (Mission)

2124 Folsom
San Francisco, CA

7:30pm – 9:30pm (call restaurant for details – 415-828-7990)

In case you missed the FPWM event, and you’re up for a bit more of a spendy night, head over to one of SF’s hottest restaurants to see Ted’s wines where they really belong:  at the dinner table.


K&L Wine Merchants

Wed., Mar. 16:  Domaine Rouge Bleu Tasting @ K&L (SoMa)

K&L Wine
638 4th Street
San Francisco, CA

5:00pm – 6:30pm ($5)

Natural wines from a blog-savvy Rhone producer.  Winemaker Jean-Marc Espinasse will also be there, adding a personal touch to this tasting event.  You’ve only got to look at the pics of the vineyard to get me on board to try out these wines.  Here’s an old K&L interview with the winemaker.


Wed., Mar. 16:  Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Tasting @ Biondivino (Russian Hill)

1415 Green Street
San Francisco, CA

6:00pm – 8:00pm (5 wines- $10)

I am extremely excited about this tasting.  There’s been a lot of focus on the volcanic soils of Sicily’s Mt. Etna, and you’ll see why when you taste these wines.  Check out this WSJ piece.  The owner, Marco de Grazie, can answer them at the tasting.  More details here.


Sat., Mar. 19:  Bordeaux Tasting at K&L (SoMa)

K&L Wine
638 4th Street
San Francisco, CA

12:00pm – 3:00pm ($20)

K&L hasn’t announced what exactly they’ll be pouring, but word on the street is that some 2007 and 2008s will be part of the mix.


Sat., Mar. 19:  Auslese Party @ Solano Cellars Vintage Berkeley (East Bay)

Solano Cellars
1580 Solano Ave.
Albany, CA


Vintage Berkeley, 2949 College Ave, Berkeley

Details not out yet, but word on the street is that the crew over at Solano Cellars (which hosts a ton of educational and fun tastings) is putting together a S-I-C-K Auslese (select / late harvest) party for Saturday.  Keep an eye out on our twitter feed and Facebook page for more details.

UPDATE – party starts at 8pm and will be at Solano Cellars’ sister store, Vintage Berkeley.


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Wine Events: Week of Feb. 28

Exciting news this week.  First, we have launched a Facebook Page to keep you up to date on additional events and news that may come up between our weekly blog posts.  Click on this link and “like” the page to stay in touch.  Also,  later this week we’ll be announcing a contest to win a ticket to the Rhone Rangers San Francisco Grand Tasting on March 27.

And last but not least, I wanted to give you a sneak peek at upcoming events which may sell out quickly, so please sign up soon if you’re interested:

  • March 10:  The NPA Release Party @ Barbacco – Natural wines in Kleen Canteens paired w/ Barbacco’s delicious Italian fare.  The always entertaining Hardy Wallace will be on hand, along with winemaker Kevin Kelley.  Call ahead for reservations.  415-955-1919.
  • March 11:  Unusual Pairings – Chinese Food and Wine @18 Reasons – Trac Le pulls steps up to the challenge of picking wines to pair with Chinese dishes.  Tickets available here.
  • March 16:  Littorai Wine Dinner with Ted Lemon @ Saison – Ted Lemon crafts balanced and nuanced California Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, and is a semifinalist for a James Beard Award this year.  These food friendly wines will pair well with Chef Joshua Skenes’ inspired menu.  Call the restaurant for reservations  415.828.7990.

And now, this week’s picks!


Tues., Mar. 1:  Austrian Wine Tasting @ Biondivino (Russian Hill)

1415 Green Street
San Francisco, CA

6:00pm – 8:00pm ($10)

Yet another opportunity to expand your palate brought to you by Biondivino, this time reaching out to the land of the Sound of Music (think dry whites such as Grüner Veltliner and Riesling).  They’ll be pouring the following Austrian wine:


Wed., Mar. 2:  Dashe Cellars @ FPWM (Financial District)

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants
The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA

4:30pm – 7:30pm ($25 for flight)

Oakland’s Dashe Cellars is crossing the Bay Bridge this Wednesday and joining the crowd at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants.  Dashe has gained a fair amount of acclaim for making single vineyard zins, but has a much broader portfolio.  If you miss ’em this week, you can always check out their tasting room (a few blocks form Jack London Square in Oakland)

  • 2009 Dashe Cellars Riesling, Potter Valley, Mendocino
  • 2009 Dashe Cellars Grenache L’Enfant Terrible, Dry Creek Valley
  • 2009 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley
  • 2008 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel, Todd Brothers Ranch, Alexander Valley
  • 2006 Dashe Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley


Wed., Mar. 2:  Weird White Wine Tasting @ Solano Cellars (East Bay)

Solano Cellars
1580 Solano Ave
Albany, CA

6:30pm – 8:00pm ($32)

Gotta love the name of this event (and if you’ve read my taste profile, you know this is just the type of event i love to attend).  Solano’s Kirsten Jackson will be selecting a funky fresh list of “esoteric” and “unusual” whites.


Thurs., Mar. 3:   Patrick Piuze at Arlequin (Hayes Valley)

Arlequin Wine Merchants
384 Hayes Street
San Francisco, CA

6:00pm – 8:00pm ($15)

Psst. Want to get in on the ground floor of an exciting new Chablis producer?  Join the Arlequin peeps in welcoming Patrick Piuze (former winemaker for Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard) and his first vintage under his own label.  [SIDE NOTE:  I admire people who strike out on their own and are willing to put their name on a product.  Takes guts.  Congrats Patrick!]


Fri., Mar. 4 – Sun. Mar. 6 (and Fri., Mar 11 – Sun., Mar. 13):  Russian River Valley Barrel Tasting (Sonoma)

Various Locations

$20 In Advance – $30 At The Door (Price Is Per Person, Per Weekend)

NOTE – Reidel Tasting Seminar (at the Fountaingrove Inn Hotel & Conference Center):  March 5, 2011 ~ 10am – 11am. ($90 includes glassware to take home)

Every year, the RRV wineries open up their doors to consumers to come in and taste the next year’s vintage straight from the barrel.  The event runs over the course of two weekends, and different wineries are featured each weekend.  This year, there will also be a Reidel Tasting Seminar — try out some fancy glassware, and determine for yourself if drinking out of the right stemware makes a difference.


Sat., Mar. 5:  A Donkey and Goat Spring Release Party (Berkeley)

2323 B 4th Street
Berkeley, CA

12:30pm – 4:30pm ($18 in advance, $25 at the door  – tix here)

I love this little urban winery, which is getting a lot of attention in SF and NYC for making elegant, restrained, natural wines, including killer white and red Rhone varietals.  Food will be provided by Berkeley’s Gather Restaurant, and bites are paired with each wine.  Here’s what they’ll be releasing out into the wild:

  • 2009 The Prospector Mourvedre (El Dorado)
  • 2009 Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay (Chalone)
  • 2009 Four Thirteen Red Blend (Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache
    & Counoise) (El Dorado)
  • 2010 Isabel’s Cuvee Grenache Rose
  • 2008 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah (El Dorado)