Jon Bonne

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

ZAPping the Zinfandel Debate

ZAPping the Zinfandel Debate

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 26th, 2011

In the wine industry, controversies come and controversies go, but one that seems to have stuck around a while revolves around zinfandel. And there’s no better place to dredge up the old debate than at the annual ZAP Grand Tasting held each January in San Francisco. This year marked the event’s 20th anniversary, and the question of what zinfandel is and what it should be gained even more traction than in years past.

The debate on zinfandel was probably best encapsulated by the SF Chronicle’s Jon Bonné’s Thirst column. Rather than go over it in detail, there are a few observations I think bear relevance. For one, it is very easy to project your ideas and philosophies onto a grape like zinfandel. It has a populist appeal which speaks to a broader segment of the market and grates the grits of those who take wine more seriously. Yet when one starts to dig deeper and learn about the old zin vineyards that populate California’s North Coast region, complaints arise that the prices are too high and that it drives away everyday drinkers.

ZAP: Is this the line for Turley?

There can be no doubt that the “zin-fanatics” are a unique bunch of wine enthusiasts and they can certainly rile those who take their wine more seriously, including many who are in the industry. Thing is, those are often the same people who complain that we need more consumers at wine events. Apparently, the 8-10,000 zin fans lining up at Fort Mason don’t count because they are “that type” of consumer. (more…)

Musar Musings

Musar Musings

Post by Chuck Hayward | October 20th, 2010

One of the most incredible stories in today’s wine world is that of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. With vineyards first planted in the Bekaa Valley in 1930, Serge Hochar and his family have made wine continuously through times of both peace and strife in his war-torn home. Any winemaker will tell you that harvest is a stressful, difficult labor of love under ideal circumstances. But with the added complication of bullets, mortars, and armed checkpoints, Serge has passionately persisted with an unparalleled dedication to his craft. Only twice in his decades-long career was he unable to complete harvest. In 1984, Decanter Magazine made Serge its first “Man of the Year” for his single-minded devotion to winemaking through such incredible conditions.

Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar with Boo Mahmoud of Broadbent Importers

A recent invitation to a Chateau Musar tasting prompted me to clear my schedule—when you get the opportunity to meet with Serge personally, you go. Tasting with him is less a presentation centered on tastes and aromas, soil types or vineyard aspects related to his wines, than it is a discussion of deeper subjects—philosophy, life and wine’s inextricable role in those areas. As he said, “I am not as interested in talking about the world of wine as I am about wine’s place in the world.” Questions from our group served as launching points for Serge to talk about a variety of topics ranging from history to art and back to wine, sprinkled throughout with glimpses of his impish humor. Tasting with Serge is a graduate-school experience and at times I felt transported back to my days at LSU, albeit with much better refreshments. (more…)