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Live from the front lines of Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance

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Lots of buzz at Monday’s In Pursuit of Balance seminar and tasting in San Francisco, held at the Bluxome Street Winery, in the far South of Market and just west of AT&T Park. Moderator Jamie Goode choose the seminar topic: Defining ripeness in Pinot Noir. “Too much alcohol [in Pinot Noir] is a huge problem,” Jamie said in his opening remarks; “it masks aromatic expression,” he noted, adding that alcohol can also create a “distinct mouthfeel [of] sweetness,” which robs Pinot Noir of its essential Pinot Noir-ness.

Here are my brief remarks on the wines we tasted: The two Tylers [2011 Sanford & Benedict, 13.4% and 2011 Bien Nacido Old Vine, 13.6%] both were delicate and lovely, with the Bien Nacido more powerful, the Sanford & Benedict more elegant, yet both fresh and keen in red fruits.

The two Caleras, both barrel samples from 2013 [Mills Vineyard Lot A, 12.9% and Mills Lot B, 13.8%] were perhaps the most controversial of the tasting. Jamie asked for a vote of preference and 90% of the crowd liked Lot B, which in fact was a bigger, warmer, more generous wine. Jamie preferred Lot A. Both of the wines had been made with whole cluster fermentation, which made them darker, spicier and more tannic than the other wines. More on the Caleras in a minute.

The two LaRues [2012, 12.6% and 2010 Rice-Spivak Vineyard, 13.2%] more closely resembled the Tylers than the Caleras. They were translucent in color and bright in acidity, with sour cherry candy and cranberry tartness; the 2010 was just starting to unravel. Both showed their unmistakable coastal terroir [the vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills].

The two Copains [2007 and 2010 Kiser En Bas, from Anderson Valley] both showed an exciting tension of tartness and ripeness. I like that nervous edge that a fine Pinot can tread, but the 2007 was starting to show its grey hairs, picking up a distinct mushroom aroma. To my sensibilities, it’s going downhill–but then, it’s nearing seven years of age.

Jamie returned to the subject matter, ripeness, asking the panelists how they decide when to pick. Several referred to their techniques: by sight, by taste, by laboratory analysis, but as LaRue’s owner-winemaker Katy Wilson remarked, picking decisions tend to be predicated on the schedules of the pickers, not on some arbitrary preference on the winemaker’s part. This led to the question, Can you pick too early? This is not an entirely superfluous inquiry. The rise of IPOB and its low-alcohol adherents may well have forced vintners to harvest sooner than they would normally like to, in order to satisfy the under-14% crowd. Jamie expressed this concern, that picking too early results in a Pinot than can be lean and green. Someone asked Josh Jensen about the low alcohol [12.9%] on his Mills Lot A, and with his disarming grin Josh replied that he had perhaps “jumped the gun” on that one, harvesting the grapes before he should have. He himself did not care for Lot A, he implied. Pressed, Josh explained, “But I’d rather jump the gun by picking too early than too late.”

Afterwards, I told Josh that I found his Caleras the outliers of the tasting. At first he was dismayed, thinking I’d disrespected them. But then I explained that, at the end of the tasting, I found that the only two glasses I’d completely drained were his two Caleras. Josh’s face softened as I added, “They were like food groups rather than particular flavors, wholesome and nourishing.” Josh enjoyed hearing that.

Balance is, of course, an impossible term to define, and different tasters will disagree concerning any particular wine. Raj Parr himself, IPOB’s co-founder, seemed to concede as much, during some very brief welcoming remarks he made, when he said (I paraphrase), “Some people think that In Pursuit of Balance seeks only wines below 14%, but that’s not true.” I’m glad Raj cleared that up, because I too was one of those who was mistaken about that. I’ve written for years that any wine can be balanced, even a Pinot Noir with alcohol well into the 14s; it all depends. So it’s no longer clear to me what In Pursuit of Balance’s mission is, except that under its auspices it brings together interesting wines and engaging winemakers with writers and sommeliers, for a fun time of chit chat and information exchange. Surely that in itself is enough of a rationale to celebrate IPOB, and anything else wine-related, for that matter.

  1. Regarding the preference for picking too early than picking too late, I personally beg to differ.
    You can work with overripe grapes with a variety of methods, it’s not optimal, but it is doable.
    Conversely, under ripe grapes cannot be “fixed” in the mix, as Ted Lemon recently pointed out, (on Jim Laube’s Blog) ” if the grapes aren’t ripe when they’re picked, the wine is doomed. ”
    He’s right.

    Eric-
    Roadhouse Winery

  2. Stephen Schmitz says:

    Thanks for the recap Steve, wish I could’ve made this event. I’m glad Josh admitted that he picked too early.

    A decade ago, California wine probably swung too far to one side of the ripeness scale, but I can’t help but get the feeling we are now drifting too far the opposite way. We’re not there yet, but it’s not unfathomable that in a year or two or three we might be.

  3. Eric, that’s precisely the point: Not everyone agrees where the line is between ripe and unripe. I’ve had Pinots that Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman would probably love–but I found them thin and boring. Chacun a son gout!

  4. Steve,

    I was reading another blogpost today where they mentioned that another winemaker really dug the lower alcohol wine. This brought up the whole discussion of which was ‘better’.

    Well, unfortunately, you and I both know that looking one time at two examples of grapes picked from the same block at different times brings up a number of other potential ‘variables’ that can affect what we’re tasting, NOT just alcohol levels.

    Therefore, it’s impossible to extrapolate anything from comparing those two wines about what the higher alcohol did for it. Perhaps the lower alcohol wine had a microbial issue; perhaps it was punched down or pumped over one more time; perhaps its fermentation temperature was different than the other one; the oak barrels used were not identical and this could lead to differences.

    I was kind of bummed that they didn’t have a real outlier in the mix during the seminar – and I’m talking something well over 15%, perhaps labeled as Burgundy :-) Just to see how folks would react.

    Cheers!

  5. Larry, perhaps after Raj’s experience at WOPN a few years ago, they’ve increased security on checking alcohol levels!

  6. To paraphrase the supreme court, “I can’t describe a balanced wine, but I know it when I taste it”

  7. Matt Mauldin says:

    I sympathize with the sentiment behind IPOB and tend to favor that style of producer when it comes to California Pinot Noir, but the whole thing in my eyes has become a dogma and reeks of hipster elitism. And balance is about more than alcohol. I tasted an IPOB producer at World of Pinot Noir whose 2012’s were completely out of balance IMO, but stems were the culprit instead of alcohol!

  8. I was able to watch the panel (recorded) through the IPOB website. It was interesting. One of the most amazing claims was made by the moderator, Jamie Goode, supposedly with a science background, to the effect that vineyards farmed biodynamically achieved ripeness at lower sugar levels than vineyards farmed conventionally. No rationale was put forward as to why this would be the case. Another think that stood out to me was that the winemakers on the panel were (perhaps understandably) less dogmatic and less prone to sweeping generalizations than the two non-winemakers on the panel. I wish I could remember Clark Smith’s quote in his new book, Postmodern Winemaking, but it was something to the effect that it is easy to be ideological about winemaking when you are not actually responsible for making wine.

    Also, I’ve yet to meet a winemaker who wasn’t “in pursuit of balance,” at least by their standards.

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