Out and About

In Pursuit of Balance: The Hand of Man or the Hand of the Land?

Jason Drew of Drew Family Cellars

Jason Drew of Drew Family Cellars

The annual In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) tastings have quickly found a place as one of the wine industry’s most important events. Initially organized by Raj Parr of the Michael Mina restaraunt group as a one-off event in San Francisco back in 2011, Raj was joined by Jasmine Hirsch, whose family owns the acclaimed Sonoma Coast vineyard named after her father, to organize the seminars and tastings. Starting in 2012, the IPOB conclaves have become a bi-coastal affair conducted in New York and San Francisco.

Most wine trade and consumer tastings are organized around something concrete, something that one can hold onto. It could be an event, like the release of a new vintage, while others might be focused on a grape (like ZAP’s annual party) or a winegrowing region. What makes the IPOB tastings so unique is that the purpose of the event is to focus attention on an idea: “to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay” as they note on their website. It’s clear that the IPOB tastings have struck a chord that resonates among passionate consumers and interested members of the trade because their events are one of the few that generates debate long after the spit buckets have been dumped and the glasses cleaned.

Following the success of the first event, Raj and Jasmine added a few industry stalwarts (including the SF Chronicle’s Jon Bonne and Failla winemaker Ehren Jordan) to help craft a portfolio of wineries that “share a commitment to seeking balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay”. The selected wineries present their wines at the trade and consumer tastings following a few educational seminars and mostly include “small, independent, family-run operations” that are usually sold direct to consumers and/or select restaurants. For many consumers and members of the trade, the IPOB tastings represent a rare chance to taste these wines.

The concept of balanced wines has become a lightning rod for the debate about lower alcohol in wines. Whether it’s in wine focused blogposts on the internet or more mainstream wine publications, the issue has gained traction in the press and polarized many in the wine community. And by that I mean winemakers and critics because the voice of consumers seems to be lost in all the noise.

Catalogs from the last In Pursuit of Balance tasting in San Francisco

Catalogs from the last In Pursuit of Balance tasting in San Francisco

But if you look at some statistics on the wines that have been poured at IPOB tastings, it seems that where the grapes are grown plays a greater role and a larger impact on making balanced wines, as least among the wines selected by the IPOB tasting panel. Over the past 4 years, wineries have poured about 400 wines from 17 different AVAs and these three appellations below are the most popular.

Sonoma Coast                                     38.4%
Anderson Valley/Mendocino                12%
Santa Cruz Mountains                          10%

It’s important to note that popular wine regions that have developed strong reputations for making quality pinot noirs like Monterey, Carneros and Russian River have been virtually excluded from the IPOB tastings. Over the past 4 years of San Francisco tastings, only 8.8% of the wines presented came from these three appellations.

The clear implication from this data is that the influence of the land is stronger than that of the winemaker’s hand in making balanced wines, and that certain regions are more likely to produce balanced wines than others. This is in sharp contrast to the notion that winemakers have control over a wine’s balance.

Happy greetings from Ehren Jordan of Failla Wines

Happy greetings from Ehren Jordan of Failla Wines

The tastings so far have probably raised more questions than have been answered (and that should be expected and encouraged). There are some very interesting topics that deserve to be addressed at future IPOB events which have so far only focused on chardonnay and pinot noir. For example, the concept of finding balance is something that could also extend to other varietals like syrah or cabernet. And what are we to make of regions that seem to be unable to make balanced wines? What will make wines from Carneros or Russian River more present at the IPOB in the future? Whatever the answers, you can be sure that IPOB events will create a healthy and vigorous dialogue in the future!!

The wines below are some of the wines poured at the San Francisco In Pursuit of Balance tastings and are available at JJ Buckley:

2011 Calera Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard

2012 Failla Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast

2011 Sandhi Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict

2012 Calera Chardonnay Central Coast

2012 Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast

2011 Sandhi Chardonnay Rita’s Crown

JJ Buckley at the Grand Jours de Bourgogne: Update from Burgundy’s Fringe

JoursFollowing a busy day tasting the wines of the Cotes de Nuits, Jeff Loo, JJ Buckley’s man in Beaune spent the next few days attending sessions focusing on the so-called “lesser” appellations of Burgundy. While the villages of the Cote d’Or get most of the attention, the Grand Jours de Bourgogne tastings really open your eyes to the diversity of wines made throughout the region. Whether it’s sparkling wines, beaujolais and even high-octane brandies, Burgundy is so much more than pinot noir and chardonnay.

While not as glamorous, areas like the Maconnais and Burgundy are becoming increasingly important to the region’s economic well-being. The price of land in the Cote d’Or is becoming frighteningly expensive making it difficult for families to hold onto their properties. With such high prices today, only banks and multinational conglomerates have the wherewithal to purchase these expensive vineyards. With that comes a loss of the traditions passed down from generation to generation of winemakers and farmers, a blow to the region’s cultural heritage.

For years now, many large family owned negociants have traveled south to purchase vineyards in Beaujolais and the Macon to ensure they have consistent availability of fruit for the more affordable wines in their portfolio. The rise in quality of cru Beaujolais and site-specific Pouilly-Fuisses over the past decade are evidence that quality wines can be made outside of the Cote d’Or and at affordable prices.

Jeff Loo had this to say after his tasting sessions:

“As I tasted my way through the wines of the Macon region, there were plenty of examples that were simply meant for everyday drinking but I also found some stunning discoveries that would give wines from Chablis and Beanue a run for their money. 2012 is a super vintage here. The wines are expressive with great fruit profiles as well as weight and acidity. I get the feeling the best examples will easily age for a decade. Yet the quality is so good, it will be hard to keep them in the cellar.

Tasting through the wines of almost 100 producers was a thrilling experience. The winemakers I met are all fiercely proud of their regions and their wines. There’s a sense of pride to be found here and the top estates are making thought provoking wines that will please even the most jaded palates. To be clear, these are incredible values and it will be a big mistake if you overlook them. St Veran gets my nod as best of the bunch in 2012.”

Coming up is Jeff’s final report from the Burgundy’s most important trade event as he travels south to taste through the wines of the Cote de Beaune.

Click here to read our blogpost about the 2012 wines from Chablis presented at the Grand Jours. And here for Jeff’s updates from the Cote de Nuits.

Can’t make it to the Grand Jours de Bourgogne? These wines are great introductions to the “other” Burgundy.

2010 Vincent Girardin Domaine de la Tour du Bief Moulin a Vent “Clos de la Tour”

2010 Louis Jadot Chateau des Jacques Moulin a Vent Clos de Rochegres

2010 Georges Duboeuf Brouilly Flower Label

JJ Buckley at the Grand Jours de Bourgogne: Update from Chablis

Grand JoursThe Grand Jours de Bourgogne tastings began a few days ago with the traditional start to the event held in the northern region of Chablis. While our preferred focus was on the famed chardonnays of this famous region, one can easily be immersed (or most likely distracted) by the diversity of wines that come from the northern reaches of Burgundy.

Consumers and the trade are guilty of thinking that chardonnay and pinot noir represent the entirety of what is produced there. But there are intriguing subregions in the north including the Grand Auxerrois that sees minerally and racy sauvignon blancs emanating from the chalk soils of Saint-Bris, aligote wines that are more frequently found further south in the Cotes Chalonnaise and even some sturdy pinot noirs from the cold area of Irancy.

We just received an update from JJ Buckley’s Burgundy specialist Jeff Loo who is our man on the scene at this year’s Grand Jours tastings. He will compile tasting notes for the top wines of each commune while offering commentary on how each village fared with the 2012 vintage. The best of his on-the-scene reporting will be summarized along with his notes in a JJ Buckley report on the 2012 Burgundies to be published shortly after his return.

In the meantime here are a few observations from Jeff on his visit to Chablis:

“In 2012, it’s not just the grand cru or premier cru bottlings to look for. In this vintage, the village level wines and the lesser appellations found amazing success. The 12’s are very good compared to the 2010’s. They have an incredible roundness to them as though they already had enough bottle age to develop that ‘fatness’ that comes out in white Burgundies with age. Many winemakers considered the 2012’s as a combination of the styles found in 2009 and 2010 Chablis melding the fineness and acidity from ’10 and the richly textured fruit from 2009.  There really wasn’t a dog at this day’s tastings.”

The Tuesday tastings will be one of Jeff’s toughest days of the Grand Jours as he shuttles between four communes in the northern Cotes d’Or. He’ll be jostling and fighting for tastes of the crus of Vosne Romanee at the historic chateau of Clos Vougeot and then running up north to Marsannay to sample the wines from the commune of Gevrey Chambertin. In between he has tastings of wines from Nuits St. Georges, Morey St. Denis, Chambolle Musigny and more. Wow, I’m just tired writing about it.

Stay tuned!!

Drink with Jeff by enjoying these tasty Chablis:

2011 Domaine Louis Michel Chablis “Grenouilles”

2009 Domaine Laroche Chablis “Blanchots”

2007 La Chablisienne Chablis “Bougros”

The World of ZAP Changes, The Vintage Insights Remain the Same

zin 1If there’s one thing that the wine industry can once in a while guarantee, it’s a bit of consistency. The vines wake up in the spring, champagne sells like crazy as the holidays approach and the annual ZAP tasting is held during the end of January. In fact, ZAP has traditionally occupied the weekend before the Super Bowl just so zin enthusiasts don’t have to sacrifice football to enjoy their favorite wine.

After more than 20 years of the same tasting format, ZAP undertook some radical changes in the structure of this year’s event. Instead of the “Grand Tasting”, which has usually been held at the pavilions at Fort Mason in San Francisco, the day’s festivities were spread amongst three nearby buildings. Re-branded as the “Zinfandel Experience”, ZAP created three themed tasting sessions which lasted two hours with each session held three times over the course of the day.

Most importantly, “this revolutionary new format” was also significantly downsized with each of the nine tasting sessions allowing only 350 people. Compare this with the almost 9000 people who showed up each year under the old format and we are talking a big reduction in the number of people who can attend.

A lineup of Bedrock zinfandels

A lineup of Bedrock zinfandels

Not only was there a decrease in the number of attendees (and the long lines waiting for the tasting to start) but there was a significant decline in the number of wineries who poured their wines. This slimmed down tasting had about 30% fewer wineries sharing their wines and even fewer available for the trade portion tasting a few days earlier. It’s pretty clear that the ZAP of old is changing.

In addition to providing consumers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the pleasures of zinfandel, ZAP’s traditional January date has also allowed some folks in the trade to gain a look into the latest vintage coming to market, in this case, the wines from 2012. While zinfandel and cabernet don’t have much in common in the vineyard or the glass, over the years, the ZAP tasting has provided an insight about the style of the soon-to-be released California cabs. Generally, the basic qualities of a zinfandel’s bouquet and palate are a good indicator of what can be expected in cabernets from Napa and Sonoma from the same vintage.

The hype surrounding California’s 2012 vintage has been building since the grapes were crushed. Following a dismal 2011 harvest, winemakers were keen to have some good news to tell the trade and the drumbeat has been fairly insistent ever since. Not only was the quality deemed exceptional but there was going to be plenty of it.

Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars

Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars

With that background, I was looking forward to tasting as many 2012s at ZAP’s trade tasting as possible and was ready to be impressed. Maybe I arrived with high expectations but there was clearly nothing among the zinfandels I tasted that made the 2012s stand up and be noticed. The bouquets were moderately intense with soft expressions of pure fruit. There wasn’t much complexity to be found aromatically but that can be expected at this early point in their development. The palates of the best 2012s mimicked the aromatics with medium bodied flavors of dark red fruits. While pleasant, there was something missing, that wow factor that separates the best vintages from the rest.

It’s important to remember that this is just a small window on what the 2012 vintage has to offer. It’s interesting to note that similar observations have been made about the 2012s that were recently poured at the Premiere Napa Valley Auction. There will be opportunities to taste 2012 cabernets will be coming soon during the next few months. Check in with JJ Buckley’s blog to get the latest on the vintage!

Host your own ZAP tasting with these zinfandels from JJ Buckley!!

2012 Brown Estate Zinfandel

2011 Ridge “Ponzo Vineyard” Zinfandel

2010 Tofanelli Family Zinfandel

Where to Wine & Dine: Paris

Where to Wine & Dine: Paris

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 25th, 2013

Restaurant

Au Passage Restaurant Exterior

Here at JJ Buckley, January brings with it thoughts of Bordeaux, as the Union des Grand Crus travels the country pouring the latest releases while we make plans for attending the en primeur tastings in France. And with Bordeaux on the brain, it’s not too hard to start dreaming of Paris, the city where we land before traveling south, and where I always make sure to get in an extra day to check out the latest and greatest culinary pit-stops.

Like almost every major city these days, Paris is undergoing another seismic shift in their dining scene. With strong influences from American cuisine (including the arrival of many expat chefs), the plates arriving on today’s Parisian tables highlight bold colors, fresh ingredients and light-handed cooking techniques. In short, they are quite different from the requirements of haute cuisine, which dominated French cooking for decades. Traditional French dining once meant maintaining a large staff and paying rent in pricey neighborhoods. All of the required overhead kept prices too high at a time when diners started tightening their wallets and eating out less. At the same time, the strong traditions surrounding French cuisine and service left little room for younger chefs to innovate in the kitchen and promote a relaxed environment in the dining room. Paris was ready for change and (thankfully) that change has arrived. (more…)

Trial by Jury: Aged ‘Value’ Bordeaux

Trial by Jury: Aged ‘Value’ Bordeaux

Post by Chuck Hayward | December 1st, 2011

To drink, one must pull corks

Over the course of the past few months, evidence has been put forth that Bordeaux, as Rodney Dangerfield might say, “ain’t got no respect”. It’s an observation that Matt Kramer made in a recent Wine Spectator piece as well as by Eric Asimov in the The New York Times. These articles attempt to discern the “whys” of it all. For instance, why is it that Bordeaux doesn’t get much love these days? But we aren’t asking that question at JJ Buckley, as our third annual tribute to Bordeaux sold out in record time, once again.

Each year, our tasting highlights one of Bordeaux’s frequently forgotten attributes—they are wines of incredible value. And this year, we decided to investigate another important quality of Bordeaux—the capacity of Bordeaux’s flavors and aromas to be transformed with time in the cellar. Spanning vintages from 1998-2003, with prices ranging from $25-$45 per bottle, this tasting was a great opportunity to examine the evidence firsthand.

The verdict? (more…)

Burgundy Brigade

Burgundy Brigade

Post by Chuck Hayward | October 11th, 2010

Getting wind of a Burgundy tasting sends most of us in the wine trade into a vinous tizzy. And so it was last week that we jumped across the bay to

Some '06 Burgs, ready to taste

RN74, San Francisco’s shrine to Burgundy and location for a tasting of assorted releases from the Vineyard Brands portfolio. Founded in 1971 by Robert Haas, a former New York City retailer, Vineyard Brands quickly became one of the country’s top importers of quality Burgundy and we looked forward to exploring their collection of estates.

Rather than the new releases we were expecting, we were fortunate that Vineyard Brands had decided to give us another look at reds and whites from 2006. Four years after vintage, it was an ideal time to assess the development of these wines and get a feel for where they are headed. Upon release, Stephen Tanzer observed that the ’06 whites were “rich, powerful wines, often high in alcohol. Their glycerol textures and often exotic tropical fruit character give them great early sex appeal.” At the same time, Bruce Sanderson noted in the Wine Spectator  that “the young Pinots also amazed me, with their immediate charm, seduction and balance.” (more…)