Weighing in on balance
“Balance” in Pinot Noir has been on everyone’s lips lately in California. It’s the Justin Bieber–or is it the Libya?–of wine social commentary, the subject of every column, article, conversation and fulmination. The roots of this go deep, too deep to analyze here, except to say the boil was lanced at the World of Pinot Noir during the famous Asimov seminar that was, essentially, a smackdown between Adam Lee and Jim Clendenen (and which Alder Yarrow covered so well at Vinography, thereby providing a great service to those of us who were elsewhere). Mr. Rajat Parr was at the center of that brouhaha, as he was at yesterday’s “In Pursuit of Balance,” which consisted of two events, a small tasting and panel discussion at a downtown San Francisco Hotel, followed by a larger walkaround tasting at RN74.
I report; you decide. The panel discussion starred Sashi Moorman (Evening Land), Wells Guthrie (Copain), Vanessa Wong (Peay), Jeffrey Patterson (Mount Eden) and, the only non-winemaker, Geoff Kruth, MS, who’s director of operations for the Guild of Sommeliers. Among the celebrities present were Alder himself (ferociously tweeting), Jon Bonné, Mr. Clendenen, Karen MacNeil, Laurie Daniel, Raj, David and Jasmine Hirsch, Larry Stone, Jim Gordon and my wonderful colleague, Virginie Boone. The topic, as I say, was “balance” in Pinot Noir: what is it? Can it be achieved “through corrections in the winery or it is the result of natural processes…?” (in the words of the handbook provided us for tasting notes).
The discussions became very technical. (The event was webcast, or podcast, whatever it’s called, and someone from the Internet asked a question about soil pH, which seemed to baffle even the panelists.) There were roundabouts on stem inclusion and the American palate and terroir, but nothing really seemed to be accomplished. Mr. Clendenen once again heard the sound of his voice. After all the condemnations of manipulation of alcohol levels, for which Satan himself must be responsible, I innocently raised my hand to ask my one and only question: if adding sugar to a must or wine can result in balance. My point being, of course, that if alcohol reduction is a sin, then why is alcohol elevation (in a wine that Mother Nature did not permit to become ripe) a glory? Everyone harrumphed, and Mr. Clendenen pronounced any comparison between reducing alcohol and Chaptalisation “an absurdity.” His reasoning: In Burgundy the window of ripening is so narrow, you can’t blame winemakers for wanting to push the wine just over the finish line with a bag or two of sugar. Whereas in California If a winemaker chooses to go three weeks past ripeness and then reduce alcohol, he is an imbecile whose wines cannot possibly be balanced.
There was an element of Groundhog Day to the discussion, I have to admit. At times it reminded me of rabbis arguing over obscure points in the Talmud. There’s a formula to these things: get some famous name winemakers on the panel (who are there, after all, to market their wine) to deliver their by-now well-known spiels. Have it moderated by a famous name writer whose reputation is thus burnished. Invite the usual suspects: the wine media, other winemakers, somms. Toss out the topic du jour, in this case “balance,” and hope that something interesting happens (as it did at Asimov’s event). If nothing happens, well, no one’s the worse. At least you’ve seen old friends and made new ones and tasted some wines, and are able to write off your day’s expenses as work-related.
At RN74 the place was jammed. So many famous wineries came: Flowers, ABC, Calera, Copain, Failla (Ehren Jordan, Virginie and I walked to RN74 from the hotel, together with a somm from New York whose name I didn’t get), Freestone, Hirsch, Lioco, Littorai, Miura, Peay, Tyler, Wind Gap, and others I never heard of, such as Chanin, owned by young Gavin Chanin who evidently is a Clendenen protégé. This was the crême de la crême, a very exciting gathering. We owe a debt of gratitude to Raj Parr for making it happen, as probably only he could. And we owe a debt of gratitude to the crazy, mad, insane, inspired winemakers who pursue this impossible grape, Pinot Noir, giving so much physical and intellectual delight to the rest of us, even if their seminars are sometimes snoozefests.