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.
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.”
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.”
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: