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From Kapalua, Two Pinot Panels, and a Parsing of “In Pursuit of Balance”



Saturday’s two wine panels at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival were both on Pinot Noir. The first, “In Pursuit of Balance,” was about a newer generation of winemakers: Rajat Parr (Sandhi), Pax Mahle (Wind Gap), Jamie Kutch (Kutch) and Gavin Chanin (Chanin). The theory, I think, was that these are all wines of lower alcohol (although we weren’t told what the ABV was, so I’m only guessing. The only winemaker to tell us the alcohol level on one of his wines was Kutch, who said it was 12.8% on his 2011 Sonoma Coast).

Here are my very abbreviated notes:

Wind Gap 2011 Gap Crown (Sonoma Coast). Vibrant, delicate, ripe. Cola, cherry pie, cranberry sauce.

Wind Gap 2010 Gap Crown. Keen acidity, similar to but less advanced than the ’11 despite being a year older. The ’10 was made in concrete while the ’11 was in neutral French oak.

Kutch 2011 Sonoma Coast. Blend of 3 vineyards: Annapolis, Petaluma Gap, Sebastopol. A pretty wine, ripe and savory. Root beer, cherry pie.

Kutch 2011 McDougall Ranch. The vineyard is in the Fort Ross area and the wine showed that distinctly feral, foresty quality I always get from there. A brooding wine, tannic. 50% whole cluster gave lots of dark spice. Needs plenty of time.

Chanin 2011 Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County). From this unappellated region between Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. Bit of mushrooms, sweet red fruit, complex and lovely.

Chanin 2011 Bien Nacido. Much tougher and more tannic, lots of spice. Needs plenty of time, as BNV Pinot always does.

Sandhi 2011 Sta. Rita Hills. Vinous, sappy, rich and sweet in baked cherry pie. Villages-style,  young, but will make a sound bottle in a year or two.

Sandhi 2011 Sanford & Benedict. Really classic S&B. Spicy, earthy, red fruit, minerally, dry, complex. Needs plenty of time.

A remark about In Pursuit of Balance (the organization): In response to a question from the audience, Raj seemed to feel the need to defend the group, which perhaps has come under some criticism for the perception that IPOB claims that low alcohol Pinots are “better” than those over, say, 14.0%. To the extent this was the public’s perception (it certainly was mine), it cannot have gone over well with many of Raj’s (or Jasmine Hirsch’s) friends and colleagues. So Raj explained that this is not what they’re saying–although if it’s not, then it’s hard to know just what IPOB’s message is, beyond a vague “We’re trying to make the most balanced wines we can.” Well, who isn’t? I do think IPOB at first gave the impression of being an Old Boy’s (and Girl’s) network, an exclusive club of friends to which outsiders need not apply. They now have a “committee of wine professionals” (from their website) that decides who’s in and who’s out; that committee consists of Ehren Jordan (Failla, whose wines I’ve praised to the utmost for years), Jon Bonné (wine editor, San Francisco Chronicle, who’s been on something of an anti-high alcohol crusade himself), Raj Parr and Wolfgang Weber (an editor at Wine & Spirits, whom I do not know anything about). This selection committee certainly wouldn’t inspire me to ask to join IPOB if I were, say, Rochioli or Williams Selyem, two wineries (among many I could mention) I would hope we can agree make outstanding, balanced, ageworthy Pinot Noirs even though they dare to occasionally sneak over the 14.2% line and even approach —gasp!–14.5%.

The second Pinot Noir panel was named “Heroes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay” and was meant to counter-balance the first by featuring an older generation of famous winemakers: Fred Scherrer (Scherrer), Gary Pisoni (Pisoni), Michael Browne (Kosta Browne) and Geoff Labitzke (Kistler’s sales and marketing director, representing Steve Kistler).

These noteworthy names grabbed the audience’s attention; mine, too. Here are some very brief remarks. I found the 2 Kistlers (2011 Stone Flat Chardonnay and 2011 Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir) to be the most classic in the lineup, in the sense that they showed everything you want in Sonoma County wines: acidity, depth, length, dryness, varietal typicity, complexity, ageability,  intellectual stimulation and no particular eccentricities.

Fred Scherrer (what a lovely man) chose an older Chardonnay, 2007 Scherrer Vineyard (Alexander Valley) which didn’t do much for me at first. In fact I thought it was too old, although I loved his 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir. But after 45 minutes that old Chardonnay emerged from its tomb like Lazarus, alive and vital and remarkable, and I told Fred so. He said, “That wine never shows well right out of the bottle. It needs time” despite its age. California Chardonnay that ages well is so rare; that was one I’ll remember years from now.

Kosta Browne showed 2011 “One Sixteen” Chardonnay and 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir. I have never particularly been a fan of KB’s wines, suspecting that their popularity is due to the lemming-like tendency of consumers to believe anything some reviewers say (and then to find in the wines what they expected to find, in a gorgeous proof of the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy). The ’11 Chardonnay was, I wrote, “over the top.” I did find the Pinot more interesting, “flashy” in fact, and in need of age.

Gary Pisoni’s 2011 Lucia Chardonnay was, in a word, dee-lish. I had formally reviewed it earlier for Wine Enthusiast and, while it wasn’t in the same league as Lucia’s ’11 Soberanes Chard (not included in this tasting), it was close, and also ten bucks less. Gary’s 2010 Estate Pinot Noir is a young, vinous, serious Pinot with vast tastes of the earth. It is  just beginning to throw off its cloak and show some flesh. It needs lots of time.

I’ll report another time on my “Pritchard Hill Gang” seminar, which was the last of the festival.

  1. Why would one pursue balance if it wasn’t a virtue more important than others? I think the vast majority of wine lovers would easily agree that a balanced wine is better than an unbalanced wine. I see IPOB as an organization that believes its currently important to overcome a LACK of balance in many wines.

    Interestingly, I don’t think an organization called “In Pursuit of Flavor” would imply other wineries aren’t interested in pursuing flavor.

  2. Tom, sure it could. I’m sure you’ve heard if the term,”anti-flavor elite.” That being said, flavors and balance vary by palate.

  3. I worked with Wolfgang Weber when I lived in San Francisco. He is smart as a whip, and has a fantastic palate. I don’t have a comment on IPOB, but I would drink any wine that Wolfgang recommended. You both live in the bay area, so you should try to cross paths with him. It would make for a great blog post…

  4. Steve – Love that you latched on to Fred’s older Chardonnay. Our relationship with Fred started when he poured a 1998 for us in 2005 – same 7 years of age.

    We’ve worked with Fred since then and I worked with him at the winery in 2006 when the Chard was coming in. That experience started a series of videos he and I have made about anything and everything I can think to ask him about winemaking. Here is one we did in regards to botrytis in Chard from that 2006 harvest.


  5. Drew DiMatteo says:

    Everything I have read from the people involved with In Pursuit of Balance has not given me the impression they are claiming that lower alcohol Pinot Noir is better. My perception is that they want to offer an alternative to the many great Pinot Noir wines being produced from this region today.

    Drew DiMatteo

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