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Field Notes From the In Pursuit of Balance Tasting

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Eater SF's house sommelier Courtney Cochran, author of the Hip Tastes book and blog, checks in with another boozy installment of The Swill.

[Photos: Courtesy IPOB]

An earnest group of wine personalities—producers, buyers, somms and journalists —gathered Monday at SOMA's Bluxome Street Winery for what's become one of the hottest tasting tickets of the year: In Pursuit of Balance. But IPOB is more of a rallying cry for a bigger movement than just a tasting event. Led by founders Jasmine Hirsch (Hirsch Vineyards) and Rajat Parr (Mina Group), the point of IPOB is to throw the spotlight on lighter, leaner, and more complex Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California.

Of course, now that IPOB and its balanced-wine brethren are the poster kids for nouveau cool amongst the wine cognoscenti, they've drawn their fair share of (mostly good-natured) jabs. They've also inspired acolytes to rise up against the so-called bombastic wine overlords many believe initially led California wines into the thickets of flabbiness and blowzy alcohol levels. When it comes to what's in your glass, we're in the midst of a full-blown revolution.

Between sips of pretty incredible Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from Wind Gap, Sta. Rita Hills Chard from Liquid Farm, and Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from Peay I polled somms and producers about their thoughts on IPOB and the revolution taking shape in California wine. I reached out to other tastemakers beyond the event for remarks, too. Their pearls of wisdom follow.

In Pursuit of Skinny Jeans?
While the atmosphere at Bluxome Monday was outwardly warm—quite literally, as the recent soaring temperatures caused many a somm to sport beads of sweat on their brows—some snark lingered beneath the surface. @UnicornSomm, a perennially grumpy Twitter persona, made sure to toss off a snide remark about the fresh-faced crowd:

Searching for Balance
First, let's attempt to clarify what IPOBers are talking about when referring to "balance." In the event's official literature, IPOB devotee Wolfgang Weber submits that balance is "the foundation of all fine wine…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."

In other words, the structural building blocks of a wine must be in harmony to be balanced. But does a balanced wine necessarily equate to a good wine? How does flavor factor in this equation? And, most importantly, what do consumers make of all this, i.e., do they give a shit?

Here are takes from some gurus in our ever-changing wine community.

Mr. Lynch: Prius Wines FTW
For his part, St. Vincent's David Lynch is a fan of balanced wine and predicts the movement towards lighter wines will continue to pick up speed. "We'll see more of the 7%, that is, all the 'lesser,' light grapes that comprise just 7% of California vineyard plantings. Stuff like Carignane, Vermentino. That's where the value is, the wines are increasingly legit, and the Jon Bonné The New California Wine book freight train continues to gain momentum."

"Everything's getting lighter, brighter, fresher. Your Arbois, your Chianti Classicos, your Albarinos, your Muscadets. Everyone's trading in their SUV for a Prius, so to speak." The problem, he opines, is the relatively high cost of Cailfornia wines—a factor driven by the high cost of inputs. "[Where French wines go] you can go nuts all day long, or you can write a whole wine list at $40 from Italy. You cannot write that list with American wines—you'd have like three wines on there." Break out your Google Wallets, folks - you're going to need some coin.

Mr. Licklider: Big Chardonnay Jumps the Shark
Matt Licklider of Lioco Wines, in his remarks in the IPOB tasting handbook, says the dangerously overblown quality of Cali Chardonnay in the past provided an incentive for producers to get their act together and craft more subtle wines: "The varietal found broader commercial appeal [in the '80s and '90s] by pushing the limits on ripeness and oak."

This "bigger is better" approach naturally led to a backlash—the Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) movement, a phenomenon Licklider says is done. "The ABC Movement has had its day, and to be fair, it served a purpose…Chardonnay is back." Ahem.

Mr. Chanin: Bombastic Wines So Yesterday
The precocious Gavin Chanin of Santa Barbara County's Chanin Wine Company puts it this way: "I am very happy that California is moving away from bombastic wines." He dismisses the idea that IPOB adherents are just following a fleeting trend, pointing out that it's almost impossible for winemakers to follow trends given the protracted winemaking cycle.

"Our wines take almost two years to make so it would be impossible to follow the latest and greatest trends even if we wanted to. Of course, it is a great thing for my winery that 'balanced' wines are becoming more and more popular. My hope is that the pendulum stops swinging back and forth so wildly and that winemakers really commit themselves [to] their own style and philosophy and stick with it regardless of market trends."

Mr. Ha: Curves Ahead
Celebrated benu somm Yoon Ha chimes in with a more complicated, consumer-driven perspective. "As someone who sells wine to guests in a restaurant every day, I have found that 'balance' means different things to different people…We should be honest about what we like," he says. As an Asian-American, Ha says he is more open to sweetness in wines—something the vinguard often dismisses as pedestrian.

"Having said this, this movement towards wines with less alcohol, more purity and precision are yielding some spectacular results and it is a very exciting time for California wines…I think the dining public are in full embrace of this movement." But he cautions that vintage variation will become more of a factor for producers. "The winemakers are now navigating through a china shop in which the aisles have narrowed considerably, so their decisions in the vineyard and the winery will be more transparent in the wine than ever before."

Mr. Mallory: Dropping Acid
TBD beverage maven Don Mallory is also on the fence about a concrete definition of balance. "I think balance isn't as much about the technical specifications of a wine as I once thought. When I first started buying wine, say, five years ago, I found myself giving unnecessary thought to the stated ABV. I find I rarely look at the [alcohol by volume] percentage now until after I've made my conclusions about a wine's harmony."

He thinks the element of acid in a wine's structure—something IPOB adherents hold up as often essential in high levels to achieve balance—can be of marginal importance. "Acid is definitely an important factor for me, but even then, it's not always the key. I've been able to find pleasure in of aged bottles of higher-alcohol California Syrah (some of the 'riper' Pax [Mahle] bottlings, for instance) even though they weren't driven by acid, per se."

Ms. Wilson & Mr. Willett: Selling On "Balance" Iffy Subject
LaRue vintner Katy Wilson, who also consults for Banshee and spoke on a pre-IPOB tasting panel Monday, says the movement hasn't greatly impacted the way she outwardly presents her wines. "As far as marketing goes, I like to let my wine speak for itself. I don't tend to use 'balance' as a primary selling point, although I do use the word 'balance' in my descriptors."

Producer Justin Willett of Tyler Winery—whose Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills pours were a big hit with sommeliers at IPOB—is also of the mind that embracing labels isn't appealing. He rocks the philosophy of IPOB without officially positioning himself as anything in particular. "I just keep doing things how I see best and don't worry about trying to market myself as a 'balanced' producer. That said, I do make a point of advocating things I think are important, like picking fruit at lower potential alcohol levels and with more natural acidity."

Ms. Brennan: Bad Weather a Balanced Wine May Make
Hotel Biron wine director and negociant Laura Brennan points out that the paradigm for good wine among sommeliers has long been European wines, which largely hail from cooler climates with more marginal weather. Marginal climates necessitate winegrowing practices that often result in higher-acid wines. For example, she points out, in France's Loire Valley "if you don't pick your fruit earlier, the likelihood of it being decimated by [autumn] rain is pretty darn high. California is ideal, because we can play with all of this a little more; we are now finding where we stand."

In other words, we can approximate a cooler climate model by planting in more marginal sites and picking early. If the buzz surrounding IPOB is any indication, it appears we're beginning to get into the swing of things.

Flavor Out of Favor?
And yet: with all due respect to those who submitted comments and to the entire IPOB crew—I'm struck by the absence of a discussion of flavor in all of these remarks. California's strength as a wine region comes from our combination of cool climate influence from the Pacific and abundant sunshine. It seems to me that sunshine, and its impact on delivering vibrant flavor in our wines, is getting short shrifted here.

I think its absence in a dialogue speaks volumes about where we are in the balance/new California wine movement (for the record, the wines at IPOB Monday were generally excellent and lively, with focused, crystalline flavors). So long as we continue to excessively focus on one element of the equation—bringing balance back into our wines—while throwing less emphasis behind our wines' brilliant transmission not just of place and balance but also of flavor, we have more work to do. It's kind of like we're mired in a mini ABC (Anything But Chardonnay/Cabernet) resurgence—ABF? OK, I kid, mostly.

Actually, given the fervent support of many a savvy oenophile for the IPOB movement—and the upswell of revolutionary rhetoric and activity surrounding the trend—it looks like this additional focus on flavor will arrive in due course. After all, ripeness-driven flavor is, IMHO as well as that of some oenophiles you may recognize, in our DNA.

Crushing It at St. Vincent
Bringing us full circle for this conversation, I'd like to shine the light on another @UnicornSomm Tweet from this week. Effusing over David Lynch's superb balance-driven wine program, @UnicornSomm—Twitter bio: "Crushing it since 2013"—chimed in aprés IPOB from Lynch's Mission eatery:

To which I say: Who needs somms who spell good when you've got a rad movement afoot and great wines to tweet about? Just as long as they've got a-c-i-d, b-a-l-a-n-c-e and f-l-a-v-o-r down pat, we're gonna be okay in the Golden State. Or, you might say: #grammarisforoverblownchardfans #keepthegoodshitcoming #IPOBFTW

· In Pursuit of Balance [Official website]
· All The Swill columns [~ ESF ~]

Bluxome Street Winery

53 Bluxome St, San Francisco, CA 94107