A Noble Pursuit
‘In Pursuit of Balance’ is not just a movement but the actual name of an organization of some movers and shakers at the super-premium end of the wine business, and they are starting to bring some balance back to the ‘style debate’.
The group even has a ‘Manifesto of Balance’. Wine Geek has been around a long time now; long enough to remember many milestones and trends in the wine industry. Things that shifted wine drinking trends and we in the trade dramatically—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse: the general trend to varietal labeling of American wines; the 60 Minutes ‘French Paradox’ show which made Americans realize drinking wine can be good; the subsequent embrace of the ‘new’ American wines by new American wine drinkers; the emergence of ‘fighting varietals’; our brief flirtation with ‘light wines’; the ‘ABC’ era (anything but Chardonnay); the 100 point scale/Robert Parker is Oz era; which led to the ‘the bigger, the better’ (and the more points for your wine) era. Now we are at the beginning stages of this ‘in pursuit of balance’ era, a movement not foisted on us by marketers, but instead a sea-change in how many in the industry feel about winemaking, ‘authenticity’ and wine’s place at the table.
For the past few years—swimming against the tide—a handful of voices, from somms to writers to some wine producers themselves, have decried the overdone, manipulated head-turners favoring wines with grace, finesse, and a sense of place.
The most famous of the opening salvos of this movement was when celebrity somm Raj Parr (corporate somm for Michael Mina restaurants, as well as a writer and winery owner) famously declared ‘I will no longer carry any Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in our restaurants that is over 14% alcohol’ (more on this later). Somms at large have been decrying the elevated alcohol levels in wines during the past few years—alcohol is usually the ‘whipping boy’ for these somms when finding fault with many American/New World wines. Around this same time a book called ‘The New American Wine’ by talented writer Jon Bonne hit the scene to much acclaim, (its subtitle is ‘a Revolution in Taste’) and which too points out that to many modern wine drinkers (i.e. Gen-Xers and Millennials), the old preference for over-extracted, over-oaked, alcoholic, manipulated wines has given way to balanced, authentic wines, especially unique wines (look for a Yolo County Ribolla Gialla coming to a retailer near you soon).
And it turns out that many people are tired of those tiring wines: 15.5% alcohol Cabernets; Chardonnays that have so much oak-as-makeup on them as to be called ‘drag queen’ Chardonnay by one of our favorite local somms; thick, dark Pinot Noirs that Wine Geek refers to as ‘Pinot Syrah’ are just some examples. When Wine Geek was just a little Wine Geek, California Cabernet was usually 12% to 12.5% alcohol; once in a while you’d see a label that declared 13.5% and one would think ‘this must be a doozy’. To this day, the best new world Cabernet Sauvignon ever enjoyed by Geek was a 1968 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, and it clocked in at 13%… and we assure you, it was not a wimpy wine.
The proponents and participants of this ‘new’ mindset, aren’t just the new kids on the block however. Although the group was founded by Mr. Parr and Jasmine Hirsch (sales manager at her family’s Hirsch Vineyards on the true Sonoma Coast) other wineries that have declared their allegiance to this school of thought include the thoughtful winemakers of a previous generation: Ted Lemon of Littorai, Jeff Patterson of Mount Eden Vineyards, Josh Jensen of Calera to name a few. Of course, the hottest up-and-comers are there too: Anthill Farms, Liquid Farm, Knez, Sandhi and Domaine de La Cote to name some of the best. Some of the best news about this is that these IPOB proponents usually make Chardonnay—really, really good Chardonnay typically. Geek could never understand this ABC stance in the first place: the same folks that bashed Chardonnay lusted for white Burgundy, and typically Chardonnay was the biggest seller in most restaurants at the time (usually still is). So this was tantamount to the old Yogi Berra-ism ‘nobody goes to that place anymore… it’s too busy’. The mantra should have been ABBC ‘anything but bad Chardonnay’; who wouldn’t want to drink Chardonnay from Littorai, Mount Eden Vineyards, Liquid Farm or Domaine de La Cote?!
Balance, by the way, comes in many shapes and sizes: those ‘Pinot Syrahs’ referred to above are typically awkward, alcoholic, over-oaked wines that share some DNA with Pinot Noir, but not much else; great Pinot shows grace and elegance, albeit on a (sometimes) rigid frame. Barossa Shiraz on the other hand, is more ‘big-boned’ or ‘husky’ to use my mother’s metaphors; to make an 11% Barossa Shiraz, you’d likely need to add water. We’ve had many, many such Barossa Shiraz or maybe a Bierzo that show their beautiful, balanced best at 15% alcohol. It’s a sliding scale, so to speak. Indeed, the story above about Mr. Parr sending that opening salvo with his declaration that all Chardonnay/Pinot Noir must be under 14% had a funny ending. As part of a panel (at a Pinot conference) with numerous winemakers discussing alcohol and balance, Mr. Parr expressed to the audience his preference for one of two Pinots—one 13.6% and the other 15.2%–and of course, he liked the 13.6% bottling. But guess what happened next? The vintner took the microphone and announced he had switched the labels on the two wines: Mr. Parr actually preferred the wine with higher alcohol. So it’s NOT just the alcohol, it’s the balance.
Remember to be balanced yourself when assessing wines; you might discover a whole world of cool things you wouldn’t have tried when Robert Parker was the Wizard.
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