pinot noir

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

A Pitch-Perfect Passion For Pinot

A Pitch-Perfect Passion For Pinot

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 8th, 2013

PinotFest Founder, Peter Palmer

PinotFest Founder, Peter Palmer

While tasting rooms and wine bars have traditionally been the best way to experience new wines, today’s oenophiles have a variety of tasting opportunities. Massive tastings have become commonplace, and are often presented in large spaces, hosted by organizations designed to promote a variety or region. While fun and often educational, the central purpose of these events is to encourage greater consumer interest in the labels being poured.

Not all tastings, however, are based on naked commerce. A number of wine events really are born from the sheer gusto of an individual – someone in the business who wants to share their passion with a wider audience. Just like tastings hosted by larger entities, the efforts of an individual wine enthusiast to convey his message can be showcased anywhere – from a big conference room to a small parlor. But such individualized tastings create a unique platform where one can experience an array of personally selected wines, each of which provides an insight into the mind of the host. A good example can be found in New York, where Paul Grieco saw his Summer of Riesling tastings (at his intimate Terroir Wine Bar) transform into an international phenomenon. Fortunately for us west-coasters at JJ Buckley, the Bay Area has its own similarly ardent oenophile. (more…)

No 3-Trick Pony: Champagne’s Indigenous Varieties

No 3-Trick Pony: Champagne’s Indigenous Varieties

Post by Chuck Hayward | December 20th, 2012

GrapesJJ Buckley’s latest Champagne Report has just been released with new articles along with new winery profiles and updated reviews. Click here to download a copy. To give you a taste of this edition, today’s post is based on an article that looks at Champagne’s lost varieties which are currently undergoing a renaissance.

If there is anything that wine enthusiasts have committed to their memories, it’s that chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, in varying proportions, are the three grapes used to make Champagne. Like many other details about the wine and the region, that’s just a bit of the actual truth. Because as wine geeks and aspiring MS and MW students know, seven grapes are legally allowed to be used in the production of Champagne. All of a sudden, Champagne drinkers are hearing about grapes such as arbane and pinot blanc vrai, fromenteau and petit meslier in their bubblies. What’s going on and how did this happen? (more…)

From Cloudy to Grey: It’s clear skies for NZ winemaker Kevin Judd

From Cloudy to Grey: It’s clear skies for NZ winemaker Kevin Judd

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 17th, 2012

JJ Buckley is proud to be the first retailer in America to sell the wines from Kevin Judd, the founding winemaker from Cloudy Bay. Named after a local soil type, Greywacke (pronounced gray-wack-y) represents Kevin’s effort to get back to the hands on, intuitive and personal approach to winemaking that had become difficult to pursue as the success of Cloudy Bay grew exponentially. Founded just three years ago, the wines have already received significant international acclaim for being some of the top produced in New Zealand.

In spite of the heaping critical praise and excellent ratings, Kevin was unable to secure an American importer…until now! Connecting with Old

Kevin Judd (c) with his dog and cellar assistant

Kevin Judd (c) with his dog Dixie and cellar assistant Fin

Bridge Cellars (known for their high-end Australian portfolio, including such wineries as d’Arenberg and John Duval Wines), Greywacke has become the first New Zealand wine in their portfolio. Thanks to our relationship with Kevin and Old Bridge, JJ Buckley has been selected to introduce his wines to the American market.

Greywacke’s portfolio resembles the wines he made at Cloudy Bay and, indeed, Kevin is working with particular blocks from the growers he came to prefer in his former job. The wines are made at Dog Point Vineyard, owned by best mates and Cloudy Bay alums, James Healy and Ivan Sutherland. During the time when he could not find an American importer, word about the quality of Kevin’s new venture washed ashore here in America, and a rare opportunity to taste a few sips of his sauvignon blanc a few years ago left me wanting more. Accordingly, I took the opportunity on a recent visit to NZ to catch up with Kevin and taste through his portfolio. It was clear to me that he has raised his game and is now well on the way to establishing one of Marlborough’s top wineries. (more…)

No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noirs

No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noir

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 2nd, 2011

New Zealand is a relative newcomer to the wine scene in the United States. Though the arrival of the 2011 vintage will mark my 20th year working with Kiwi wines, their real growth in America has only occurred over the past decade. Given that New Zealand is a Johnny-come-lately to our shores, there aren’t many chances for a retrospective look at older vintages of any wine. Unless someone in the States actually saves multiple vintages of the wine (how would I find them?) or a winery pulls them from their cellar and ships them over (an expensive proposition), the only option is to cross the date line and taste them in New Zealand (even more expensive).

A vertical tasting of Mt. Difficulty arranged horizontally

So when I heard Mt. Difficulty was going to host a vertical tasting of seven vintages of their estate wine, I cleared the calendar. Sourcing fruit from their vineyards located in the Bannockburn subregion of Central Otago, Mt. Difficulty is one of the region’s leading pinot noir producers. Their estate pinots show the rich and concentrated, yet soft, style that comes from that particular appellation. One of the few New Zealand wineries with a long-term history in the United States, sales date back to the 1998, their first-ever release. (more…)

Winery Spotlight:Dry River Wines

Winery Spotlight:Dry River Wines

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 22th, 2010

Dry River is widely acknowledged to be one of New Zealand’s most monumental wineries. Without a doubt, Neil McCallum and his staff produce world-class wines across the board that represent the pinnacle of what’s coming out of the country. The wines from this property have always been scarce, as the 3000 case production is mainly sold to mailing list customers and fine restaurants, with only the most passionate promoters of New Zealand wines seeing any of their output.

map of New Zealand

map of New Zealand

Founded in 1979 during the beginnings of New Zealand’s modern wine industry, Neil McCallum set about planting pinot noir in the Martinborough area located about an hour east of Wellington, the country’s capital. Along with Clive Patton of Ata Rangi, Larry McKenna of Martinbourough Vineyards (and now at Escarpment) and Stan Chifney of the now defunct Chifney Estate, the four winemakers are credited with being amongst the first to make serious attempts towards the production of quality pinot noir in New Zealand. While pinot remains the core of Dry River’s production and its concurrent fame, the winery also excels in other varieties including riesling, syrah and gewurztraminer… with a total of 8-10 different wines produced each year.

Neil came to winemaking from a background in botany, in which he received a doctorate from Oxford. His scientific background led him to be an articulate spokesman on topics regarding the intersection of wine, terroir and viticulture. Nowhere does that fact appear so clearly as on the winery website which contains numerous essays by Neil that delve into these themes (e.g. “Where does the expression of terroir end and that of winemaking begin?,” “Tannins, palate structure and longevity in pinot noir,” or “Musings: The Brain is a blunt instrument.”  Click here to read these and more). They are more direct, detailed and serious writings compared to the sly humor often found in similar jottings from Randall Graham of Bonny Doon.

Dry River Vineyard

Dry River Vineyard

Pinot Noir makes up a majority of Dry River’s production (about a third of the total production) and given Neil’s passionate opinions about winemaking, his style is a personal one. Accordingly, Dry River pinots have become quite controversial compared to the classic burgundian model. As Neil Martin of Parker’s site declares about McCallum’s approach: “It is beautifully crafted in a style that is contradictory to what I believe pinot noir should be.”  The pinot noir of Dry River is devoted to finding the optimal colors and flavors that can be derived from its site. The gravelly soils of Martinborough, along with viticultural innovations from Neil, such as reflective mulch, have created pinots that are intensely dark and opaque in color with a similar density of fruit on the palate. He is devoted to understanding what New Zealand pinot noir is capable of becoming.  He knows, however, “it will take some time before the new styles are completely accepted because Burgundy has been centre stage for so long.”

Where Dry River’s pinot elicits much debate and discussion, the rest of the portfolio seems to garner more universal praise by the wine world. The aromatics (riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot gris) all share pure varietal expression with an initial sense of youthful restraint. It is with brief time in the cellar that the power of the wine reveals itself. Neil’s stickies are rare releases but always have a combination of pristine fruit flavors with botrytis. Meanwhile, the peppery syrah showcases why the grape is poised to become New Zealand’s new wine star.

Dry River Post

Dry River Post

I have been fortunate enough to have sold more than 10 vintages of Dry River pinot noir and have never been less than blown away by the intensity of this wine as well as its impact on those customers lucky enough to have tried it. But as is so often the case with wineries that make more than one iconic wine that captivates critics and consumers, it is tasting Dry River’s entire portfolio that makes one realize the strength of vision Neil McCallum has enshrined within his wines. His commitment to wines that require cellaring– the chance for them to unwind over time– is rare to find in a world of instant gratification. The ability to balance a wine’s flavors on a pinpoint shared equally between power and lightness is a rare skill in the wine world, and Dry River has done that again and again.