subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Postmortem: Putting IPOB into Perspective



I’ve been hard on the Republican Party for being such ideological purists that they can’t compromise with Democrats (or anyone else) on anything. So in my guise as the F.F.W.C. (former famous wine critic), along the same lines I have a few observances about In Pursuit of Balance.

IPOB, as many of you know, was the non-profit organization formed in California for the purpose of promoting the production of Pinot Noirs that are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than some, or many, other Pinot Noirs, especially those produced around the time of IPOB”s founding, in 2010.

In that year, the Pinots emerging onto the market were of the 2008 vintage, or possibly 2007—two warm vintages that produced ripe, lush, soft, full-bodied wines. IPOB’s precise goal, however, was never entirely clear. Their website says it was to promote dialogue around the meaning of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay,” but certainly, the public and the wine media perceived it as more than the mere promotion of dialogue. Most people saw it prescriptively. In the popular mind (and IPOB did nothing to dissuade people from thinking this), IPOB was saying that Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) should be below 14% in alcohol.

It’s true that Raj Parr, IPOB’s most visible representative, never came right out and said so, at least in my presence. In fact I heard him once welcome us to an IPOB tasting (at RN74) by stating that he was emphatically not referring to specific alcohol levels. But if there was no specific recommendation along those lines, people were scratching their heads and wondering just what else “balance” could mean that was not merely an arbitrary quality in the eyes of the beholder.

I sure wondered. In the four years after IPOB’s founding, and before I quit Wine Enthusiast, I strove mightily to understand. (Perhaps that’s what IPOB meant when they said they wanted “to promote dialogue.”) I decided that the question was meaningless, because no two people, no matter how competent they are, are ever going to agree all the time about so elusive and subjective a concept as “balance.” That was fine with me: wine writers, critics, producers, consumers and restaurateurs love to gab about wine, and IPOB provided plenty of gabbing opportunities.

Still, IPOB had an overall negative impact. It divided Pinot Noir people into two opposite, warring camps. IPOB’s tastings never made any sense. They were fun to go to, in that they let us taste many famous, small-production Pinots we would otherwise miss. But I always wondered why IPOB’s gatekeepers, who included Jasmine Hirsch, allowed some wines in, while shutting other wines out. For example, Calera was there—no one ever accused Calera of making low alcohol wines—while some fine low alcohol Pinot Noirs from the company I started working for in 2014, Jackson Family Wines, were not. I think that’s why people who were not fans of IPOB started calling it “the cool kids’ club.” It reminded me of the cafeteria in college, where the jocks and cute chicks gathered at their tables, while the geeks, freaks and nerds (of which I was one) had to scramble to figure out where to sit.

This was not a happy development. IPOB caused divisiveness within the ranks of Pinot Noir producers and critics; and while I’m sure it was a fabulous marketing tool for Hirsch Vineyards, Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte and other IPOB favorites, I do not in retrospect think it contributed much that was positive.

My biggest problem with IPOB was the way the mainstream wine media treated it so worshipfully, without questioning the process or the assumptions behind it. This wasn’t journalism; it was lazy reporting by press release. Unimaginative wine writers considered themselves lucky to be invited to IPOB, and to be feted by such famous personages, so they failed to write with due diligence. I had the same problem with the mainstream media during the recent election process. It was awful the way they accepted pretty much all of the Donald Trump scandals with a shrug of the shoulders, while relentlessly pursuing Hillary Clinton’s emails as if they were the biggest security scandal since Benedict Arnold,  with Hillary actively working for ISIS. The email thing, of course, turned out to be absolutely nothing: a non-issue in every respect. But every media outlet in the country, print and broadcast, jumped on it like junkyard dogs and refused to let go, even while practically ignoring Trump University, his late-night infomercials on how to get-rich-quick through real estate flipping, not paying his bills, rape charges, lies, smears, prejudices, unproven allegations, insults, his current wife’s questionable background, his ties to Russia and foreign plutocrats, his taxes, and above all his utter ignorance of the issues. This glaring irresponsibility will be a sorry chapter in American journalism.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley, in her summation of IPOB’s final event on Nov. 14, at least did yeoman’s work in backing up far enough to write objectively about it. She praises it, not for dramatically changing the style of Pinot Noir in California (it didn’t; style is defined by climate, soils and viticultural practices, not by ideologies), but by making us all think a little harder about Pinot Noir than we might have otherwise. That’s a good thing, but I wouldn’t want future wine historians to overrate IPOB’s importance. It was not up there with the French Paradox or the Paris Tasting or Sideways. IPOB was a curiosity, a sort of hippie movement that flourished at a particular time and place, but whose import now has passed.

  1. Now if the Natural Wine movement will go the same way.

  2. Rich Reader says:

    Selling wines on a meaningless slogan or branding concept has no resonance with the people who might buy that wine. It won’t reach out to the consumer, dancing about and singing to garner their interest in your wine as they walk past your sorry little shelf space in a big box store. That’s a much larger problem.

  3. Just to be argumentative: “style is defined by climate, soils and viticultural practices, not by ideologies” doesn’t quite ring true to me. Ideology has a huge impact on viticultural practices and, of course, picking decisions, treatment in the cellar, etc. – all of which have a huge impact on style.

  4. Bob, my proposal is that natural wine writers should clearly state which writing tools they used in the creation of their content. Did they use MegaSpell to correct their typos? Slathered their writing with excessive suggestions from a Grammar filter? Did they run their words past an editor who manipulated it into some Frankenstein text only to find out that it didn’t fit in the column and they had to denude it by stripping things out?

    If I read one more overly-manipulated, synthetic narrative about natural wine I’m going to scream.

    Write your words the way god intended, don’t look back, press the publish button and let your readers deal with typos, incoherent partial thoughts, and incorrect facts. Until you do that, shut the hell up about natural wine. 😉

  5. Michael, I like your idea. I was spurred to write what I did by another unsatisfactory encounter with a “natural wine” this week. While in Ottawa, Canada for a family gathering, there was a dinner at a well-regarded restaurant (yes, the food was good) with a good wine list (especially for Canada) which was not exclusively “natural wines” but put a great deal of emphasis on them. When we switched from white to red, I picked a Touraine Gamay from a producer well-known in the “natural wine” circles, and whose wines are imported in the US by Louis/Dressner. I wouldn’t say the wine was abominable, but I would never have guessed Gamay. In fact, I’m not sure what grape(s) I would have guessed. Instead of the grape, the predominant aroma and taste was brett.

  6. Michael Brill, I could have been more clear here. What I meant to suggest was that California will never be Burgundy. You can ideologically decide to have a 12% Pinot from the Russian River Valley, but the terroir will prevent that wine from being successful.

  7. I think that the fundamental problem was to elevate their philosophical precept they had to tear someone else’s down – not a good thing when “wine” already suffers from its fair share of elitism and snobbery. To wit, excerpt of the IPBO manifesto:

    “Few of us in the pro-chardonnay camp would defend the über-industrial, over-produced California chardonnays of the last 20 years. Rather we would be quick the make the distinction between wines with integrity and wines without. The “problem” resided not with chardonnay per se, but rather with the philosophy of how California chardonnay was being made.”

    Ester’s kind obituary of the IPOB is a respectful oeuvre to an organization who co-opted two words, important to a much larger history, and scope of those who make wine – ‘Pursuit’ & ‘Balance’ – Glad to have those two words back into the larger, more inclusive, lexicon of the world of wine!

  8. ..and Steve, I would concur with you on the media frenzy that surrounded the movement. For those who care to read the manifesto here is the link before the website might slip away:

  9. For those with short memories, what was vintage 2008 like in California . . .

    From Wine Spectator online

    “2008 Vintage Report Card: Part 1;
    A first look at vintage quality in American wine regions, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers”

    (Aside: “Report Card: Part 2” is “A first look at vintage conditions in French wine regions, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers.”)

    A comparison of the 2007 and 2008 vintage California Pinot Noirs:

  10. Excerpt from The New York Times Sunday Magazine
    (May 28, 2015, Pages Unknown):

    “The Wrath of Grapes;
    A band of upstart winemakers is trying to redefine what California wine should taste like — and enraging America’s most famous oenophile in the process.”

    By Bruce Schoenfeld

    “… He [Rajat Parr] prefers an alcohol concentration below 14 percent and often far lower, depending on the grape variety, as opposed to the 15 percent and higher that is common in California. …”

  11. From Vinography
    (posted 03.05.2011):

    “Alcohol Levels and Balance in Pinot Noir: The Panel”

    By Alder Yarrow

    Preface: “Here’s my attempt to capture most of the [‘Alcohol and Balance’ panel] exchange. I’ve edited out some of the discussion about the specific wines being poured, and as usual, wasn’t able to capture every word, but this is a fairly good facsimile of the discussion.”


    JOSH JENSEN: Let me talk about the two wines in front of you, and then I’d like to talk about global warming. The two wines we picked to bring here were the wines that had the widest differential in alcohol from the same year. One of these wines is 13.5% and the other one is 14.5% If you want to have a little fun with that, see if you can figure out which one is the lower alcohol. The answer will be revealed when our esteemed moderator wants to tell us.

    Right now we have a total of 83.6 acres, high in the Gavilan mountains. These mountains are the range that divides the Monterey and San Benito counties. Mills vineyard was planted in 1984 on its own roots, and is now 27 years old. Ryan was planted 4 years later in 1988.

    I’d like to step back in time 7000 years and the reason that Neolithic man decided that he liked wine when he stumbled on it — this heat generating, foaming, funky smelling mystery. They decided to store some grapes for the winter, and they found when they stored it, they got something funky, but if you drank this stuff that fermented in pots or in stone pits in 5000 BC, it would carry the nutritional value of that fruit through the Winter. it would keep the fruit alive and would keep the tribe alive through Spring. The other interesting feature of the origins of wine is why did cavemen first start making wine from grapes and not from other things? Why not from apples strawberries, and pears? The answer is straightforward as anyone who has tried to make wine from other fruits knows. Grapes are the only fruit that can produce high enough concentrations of sugar. Other fruits cant get anywhere close to that.

    So alcohol is necessary for wines. The reason I asked the question about global warming this morning, is that I think the higher alcohol wines we see in CA can be attributed to the phenomenon. In terms of our vineyards 1997 was the watershed year where we saw alcohol levels going up. We had a very talented intern that year, named Rajat Parr, who claims that the quality of wine that year was entirely his fault. Since then our alcohol levels have been going up, however. When we saw we got to the point where we normally picked at 24.5 brix or so, we thought the wines tasted green. We thought, well, should we pick at 24.5 and have herbaceous green wines that no one is going to buy? We saw this choice arise in many subsequent years. Each time we opted for the fully ripe flavors. The wines are higher in alcohol as a result. Certainly there’s a movement today where consumers and health experts decry the move to higher alcohols. I personally don’t like higher alcohols . The sign of great wine is complexity, not horsepower. I didn’t like the trend. Before the 2005 harvest, I called the team together and told them that we’re going to pick less ripe. We were inching up a bit each year, got in the habit, and I decided to stop. I’ve always decided when to pick and I decided to change. We picked at lower sugars, and that means living on the edge a little. And sometimes I went too far. I went over the edge on two important batches of wine. Half of the Selleck vineyard I chose to pick early was too green. I was wrong, and it didn’t go in the blend. Same thing happened with a quarter of the Mills vineyard one year. I picked too early, and it didn’t have balance and maturity. You can go to far, but my position is that global warming has definitely changed the picture. If you want ripe flavors, they’re coming with higher sugars, and it’s a changed world. We’re not going to get back anytime soon to ripe flavors with 24.5% sugar. Mr. Bichot said earlier that the average pick date is 9 days earlier, and if the Burgundians, who tracked these things for thousands of years say there’s change, it’s real.

  12. From Vinography
    (posted 03.05.2011):

    “Alcohol Levels and Balance in Pinot Noir: The Panel”

    By Alder Yarrow

    At this point the panel was opened up for questions and they only had time for a couple. The most interesting one was:

    QUESTION: I’ve been drinking California Pinot Noir since 1979. Everyone always says they’re still picking at 24.5 but we’ve gone from 12.5% alcohol in 1979 to roughly 15% now. What’s going on.

    JOSH JENSEN: I’d like to thank you sir, for that slow, underhand pitch right over the middle of the plate. In 1981 (and I’m not normally a name dropper by the way) but in 1981, Aubert de Villaine [owner of Domaine de la Romanee Conti] came to our winery. Just so you know he hasn’t been back since, so this is not a regular occurrence [laughter]. He tasted, and asked what ripeness we were picking at. I said 22% sugar, and the final wines were 12.2% alcohol. Then in his stately way he told me that wasn’t too good. He said “You’ve got to pick for 13.5% alcohol at least. These wines are just too small. Pinot Noir needs more than that.”

    It wasn’t overnight that wines went from 12% to 15% it was over 36 years. And we’re riding this runaway horse of global warming and trying to do the best we can.

  13. From Vinography
    (posted 03.05.2011):

    “Alcohol Levels and Balance in Pinot Noir: The Panel”

    By Alder Yarrow

    ERIC ASIMOV: Our next panelist is Rajat Parr, the wine director for Michael Mina restaurants, with a special responsibility for RN74 in San Francisco and soon to be in Seattle, and also a winemaker now, putting into practice the rigorous training he got at Calera. Jim Clendenen has alluded to a column that Lettie Teague wrote a few months ago criticizing you and your policy at RN74. Tell us the policy and how it came about.

    RAJAT PARR: We have 18 restaurants around the country. It’s the old name of the road through Burgundy, and it’s my dream restaurant. I was going to leave Michael Mina to start it, but Michael asked me to do it within the fold. I decided that since the restaurant was going to be an homage to Burgundy, I decided I would only list wines that were made in a style of Burgundy. For me that means balance. I picked Pinot Noir or Chardonnay only 14% or below. The reason I picked that was, if you don’t know, that Burgundy actually has a maximum alcohol that is legislated at no more than 14.5%. So I did that and there was a lot of criticism, mostly from producers. I was surprised. We’re this is one little restaurant, it’s not going to change the world. The rest of our restaurants don’t have this rule. Surprisingly, the clientele really never questioned it. A few people have asked for things we didn’t have but it was pretty well accepted.

    ERIC ASIMOV: Does that 14% standard apply just to Burgundian varieties?

    RAJAT PARR: Yes, Pinot and Chardonnay only.

    . . .

    ERIC ASIMOV: Is the intent of that alcohol level so that the wines go with the food, or is that where you find balance and pleasure?

    RAJAT PARR: Yes, it’s about balance and pleasure. I won’t say that high alcohol wines won’t go with food. It definitely has a contrasting effect with delicate food. It’s harder to match a higher alcohol wine with food. But balance is not alcohol, it’s tannins, acid, fruit, a whole combination of things. You can’t say a wine is not balanced just because it has 14.5% alcohol. There’s a big battle saying that low is better. It doesn’t matter. Make the wine truthfully, and present the wine you make to the guest. Let them decide.

    ERIC ASIMOV: Does alcohol level play a role in the wines you make?

    RAJAT PARR: Well, I learned all my stuff at Calera in 1997 and hanging out with Jim [Clendenen] for 10 years. I made a little wine in ’04 and some in ’09, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Santa Rita and Santa Maria. I did a lot of whole cluster for the Pinot, and I pick mostly in 22s rather than 24s [brix]. I’m trying to make delicious wines that I want to make.

    ERIC ASIMOV: I just want to bring up the question of ripeness for a second, as it’s such a moving target. When you’re trying to pick, is there only one point of ripeness or are there a spectrum of times that there grape will be ripe? People, especially winemakers, tend to talk with the public that there is a point of ripeness and if you’re not picking at that moment you’re wrong.

    RAJAT PARR: it’s very personal. I’m not the most qualified person on this panel to answer that question. I got to Burgundy 3 to 4 times a year and taste at Jim’s cellar . That’s it. It’s my palate, it’s my idea, it’s what I learned. My experience for tasting in ripeness is in Burgundy. I know what I like — freshness and vibrancy. I look for fruit components — I like more of the cool fruit, not cooked fruit. I am on the extreme. That’s just my perspective.

    [Alder Yarrow’s postscript]

    And then, right as things were about to break up [following the audience Q & A], Adam Lee took the mike and said something. In order to understand this last point, I’ll remind you that Adam had brought two wines to show, a 2008 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills at 13.6% alcohol and a 2009 Keefer Ranch Vineyard Pinot noir, Green Valley in Sonoma at 15.2% alcohol.

    ADAM LEE: So I want to share something with all of you. I have Raj’s permission to do this, but I want to let you know that he just leaned over to me and asked me if he could buy some of the Cargasacchi Pinot from me for his restaurant. But it’s important that I share this fact. Before I came here I personally took all the bottles of these two wines, and steamed off the labels and re-glued them on the other bottles. The wine that Raj just asked to buy was not the Cargasacchi, it was the Keefer Ranch pinot that is 15.2% alcohol.

  14. Michael Brill writes:

    “Just to be argumentative: ‘style is defined by climate, soils and viticultural practices, not by ideologies’ doesn’t quite ring true to me. Ideology has a huge impact on viticultural practices and, of course, picking decisions, treatment in the cellar, etc. – all of which have a huge impact on style.

    Isn’t that the concept of cru?

    “More on Pinot Noir and terroir: the concept of Cru”

  15. Jason Carey says:

    Steve I think that for some reason you feel threatened, there were plenty of tough articles on IPOB.
    Let me tell you one thing, yes the cool kids aspect is annoying, but its strange that when one tyranny (of the Parker palate) is being challenged, a whole mental paradigm is threatened. Your pushback against IPOB is to me nonsense, The kind of wines that the represented were villified by RP and James Laube and they felt a need to reframe the argument, and your dubious argument that it has mostly to do with where the grapes were grown is frankly, nonsense. All you have to do is taste different wines from the same vineyards to know its mostly choices of the winemaker. The argument that you need to pick at 26 brix to get a good wine in certain places is nonsense, or if not then you are growing the wrong grape in the wrong places.
    Hey I work in a retail place where I can tell you that the most popular “premium” wines are those dreadful new red blend concoctions that are bigger and bigger and bigger, so I know that people all have different palates, Why can’t you accept that all of these are vallid? IPOB is a proper pushback against a tyrannical power structure that had made only certain flavor profiles acceptable in CA wines. Now things have changed and we can all at least have some vaidation for what we like.

    And to you commenters who just hate on so called natural wines, Some of the most expensive and so called prestegious wines in the world are made exactly the same way, without calling themselves that. Why don’t you haters just not drink natural wines and let those of us who enjoy them enjoy them. The UC Davis worldview pervades for 99.9% of wine in the world, and will continue to do so. Why you are so threatened by people who like something else is beyond me other than fear.

  16. “Some of the most expensive and so called prestegious wines in the world are made exactly the same way, without calling themselves that.”
    I’m not sure if that’s true, but if so, it partly illustrates what I’ve been saying. Too many people in the business (and not usually the winemakers) are pushing crappy wines by saying: Hey, this is a “natural wine,” you need to try it.

  17. Jason,

    Good tasting wines are good tasting wines, regardless of “doctrine” or “dogma.”

    How you got there is less important to me than THAT you got there.

    (One reason “why” I insist that wine judging and wine reviewing should be conducted single-blind. Meaningless to me to know if the grapes were grown “conventionally” or organically or biodynamically. Mechanically harvested [*] or hand harvested. Fermented using indigenous yeast or inoculated. In stainless steel tanks or concrete eggs or barriques or foudres. Fined and filtered — or not. Micro-oxygenated — or not.)

    So Jason, as a new “voice” to this blog’s comments section, tell us a little bit more about yourself and your work in wine retailing.

    ~~ Bob

    [*I am reminded of curmudgeon Joe Heitz’s indifference to mechanical harvesting as expressed in his interview in Bob Benson’s book.]

  18. I don’t believe in rating wine by the numbers or alcohol content and I’m not a fan of wine critics per se, especially, Robinson (tasting 100 wines in one sitting), Wart (crazy man) or Gray (alarmist) and you (lazy Jackson family advocate), because all of you don’t appear to know what you’re talking about.
    And this time, to get attention to your article or because you just ran out of ideas, you compared the IPOB to the GOP (shame on you). And to gain sympathy and/or approval, you cast yourself as unpopular in school (who cares). Did your boss at JFW have any input in this negative article.
    The thing is, the premise of comparing California pinot noirs to Burgundies is a good one, even if the focus is about alcohol. So why not just follow through.
    In simple terms: Ripe fruit begets more alcohol. The fact of the matter is that low alcohol in wine is usually the result of a shorter growing season which doesn’t allow fruit to achieve ripeness. Vineyards in Burgundy get lots more rain (and hail) and have shorter growing seasons than California vineyards. Winemakers in Burgundy would love to have California weather and when they are lucky enough to harvest ripe fruit, they call it a vintage year. This is where some will talk about global warming.
    Comparing pinot noir is one of my favorite thigs to do. I sell select premium California and Oregon pinot noirs in my wine shop in France and have hosted wine tastings with the French for four years now. I enjoy pinot noir blends, like Wait Cellars (Russian River) and Fiddlehead Cellars (Santa Rita Hills) and I love the transparency of a single clone, like Tondre (Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County), a very special and pretty pinot noir, which is a favorite of the French.
    I have encountered a few French who will talk about alcohol, but these are people who, for the most part, drink French wines costing 3 to 15 Euros a bottle and for lack of experience, have fallen prey to French wine critics working for big wine houses (not unlike JFW), which control the majority of the wine market and produce a lot low alcohol wines due to the short growing season. Also, these customers are not familiar with premium wines because most of the good Burgundies are exported, which drives the cost of the remaining Burgundies too high for the average guy.
    Also, nearly all the French women who come into my wine shop do not drink low alcohol French white wines, because the acid gives them a sour stomach, but they love to drink Fiddlehead the Sauvignon Blanc.
    And from what I know of Mr. Parr, early on he was a little pointed about pinot noirs that he felt were berry bombs and too jammy and extracted and I feel he went too far when he was critical of Sea Smoke, which I have tasted side by side with Romanee Conti and they tasted like they could have been from the same barrel. But all of us are capable of saying things to make a point or stir the pot, even you.
    And your response to a comment:
    “Michael Brill, I could have been more clear here. What I meant to suggest was that California will never be Burgundy. You can ideologically decide to have a 12% Pinot from the Russian River Valley, but the terroir will prevent that wine from being successful.”
    What are you talking about?
    Finally, I am sorry that I will not be able to attend a wine tasting at IPOB.

  19. Mr. Duval, I will allow your comment to be published despite the insulting tone. Your blanket condemnation of critics suggests one thing to me: You’re jealous of their power to influence consumers.

  20. Jason, it’s not hating on natural wines. It’s hating on the intellectually dishonest, fundamentalist writing on the topic. It’s the same issue that, I believe, irks Steve on IPOB. Weird lines are drawn in the sand (14% alcohol) but somehow things like irrigation and adding flavors like oak are ok. Propagated yeast is evil while propagated rootstock and laboratory isolated clones are ok. You can’t get to the second paragraph of the typical natural write narrative without some exaggerated references to Mega Purple or Isinglass. That is simply lazy and polarizing. I can imagine how much a professional wine writer is irritated (and, yes, threatened) by this sort of writing so now that Steve is retired from the business, let him bitch and moan a little bit.

  21. Michael Brill, I was saying the same thing before I retired, so my position has been consistent for years. And by the way, I never felt “threatened” by bad writers. If anything, they made me look better!

  22. “Threatened” is maybe a tad too rust belt for you… how about “compelled to comment.”

  23. Compelled..chose to…whatever. As a good, accurate writer, I defend my craft against usurpers.

  24. John Duval:

    I think it is admirable that you champion California wines as a retailer in France.

    Talk about a Sisyphean challenge being an “opinion leader” and “taste maker”!

    It has been said about the French that only their societal elite can afford their better/best wines. And that the majority of those wines are exported.

    The “common man” is buying and consuming village-level wines priced in the single digit Euro range.

    So John, for those of us on this side of The Pond, tell us what motivates a Frenchman or -woman to eagerly pay a high price for a California and Oregon wine over its domestic counterpart?

    ~~ Bob

  25. Bob Henry:
    Setting the table:
    My focus is Pinot Noir. I’ll drink just about any white, but since 2002, if it’s red, I drink only pinot noir. I’m just not interested in opaque flavors of blended varietals with overwhelming tannins. I prefer pinot noir.
    Since my first visit to France in 1971 and visiting over the years since, and living in Paris from 1999 to 2001 and then Annecy for the better part of a year, I returned to Carmel Valley in 2002 to convert a portion of an old Spanish cattle ranch to a vineyard and grow pinot noir. Monterey County was starting to make good pinot noirs and every year is better than the year before. In 2005, I caught my partner embezzling and notified the lender which caused a hostile takeover and after two years of litigation, I settled because be in a lawsuit for the rest of my life. I lost six years of my life and all my savings. I was 64 yo and didn’t feel that I had the time to start over, so in 2012, I bought California and Oregon wines and returned to France to share the wealth.
    A quick response to your inquiry:
    Thirty years ago, a Frenchman could go into a wine shop and purchase a good bottle Burgundy for $20 or $30, but no more. Since then, the demand for pinot noir continues to increase and the big wine houses and multinational conglomerates have been buying wineries and vineyards and fruit futures from small independent producers trying to survive, which is not a good thing. And the crazy growing regulations in Burgundy make it tough on everybody, especially the little guy. The demand for Burgundies means that most of their best wines are exported and what is left is going to epicurean restaurants for business luncheons and family celebrations and basically out of reach for the average guy.
    Five days a week I open my CA and OR select pinot noirs to introduce them to the French. Most French, most people for that matter, cannot afford to pay the much inflated prices for good Burgundies caused by global demand.
    I sell wonderful CA and OR pinot noirs from 36 to 50 Euros. And it’s a deal. And let’s face it, pinot noir ain’t easy to grow and its low yields make it expensive no matter the country.
    And it is so satisfying to have the French say that these wines are the best they’ve ever tasted.
    I had two friends from CA visit me last month and I took them to a good French restaurant in the hills overlooking la lac and where I know the owner, who lets me bring my wines. I opened a great pinot noir for my friends, they tasted it and looked up at me and asked, “is this a good wine”? The French don’t ask this question. They usually look at the glass, taste the wine, make a sound, taste the wine again and give me a surprised look and say, “this is good wine.”
    There are a lot of people out there who don’t know much about America or Americans or American wines, so I am here doing what I enjoy, introducing American wines to the French and others who come into my wine shop.
    And yes, the French will pay 50 E for a bottle, as they do enjoy a good wine.

  26. John, I think it’s wonderful that you’re managing to live and make a living in one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. But I’ve been to Burgundy many times, and I know there are still plenty of very good Burgundies that won’t break the bank, especially in the Cote Chalonnaise.

  27. Bob R,
    I’m happy for you too, but please note, I’m talking about premium pinot noir wines, not village blends. And also note that Burgundy has had terrible weather the last 6 years.
    You may want to try the co-op in nearby Mercury where you can taste 40+ Burgundies in one place. But of the 100+ local Burgundies I’ve tasted there over the last 3 years, I could recommend 3 or 4. And they were priced from 14 to 18 E, a good deal, but not comparable to the CA and OR premium pinot noir wines I sell. The closest I’ve gotten to finding a Burgundy comparable to the PNs I sell is a Romanee Conti (800 E), Pommard (100 E) and a Chardonnay for 80 E.

  28. Steve sez: “….suggests one thing to me: You’re jealous of their power to influence consumers.”

    I find it mildly amusing that (many, not all) wine critics (and their sycophants) run out the “jealous” argument whenever some reader questions their infallibility or if they belong atop this pedestal to which they have hoisted themselves. I hate to break the news to you but few, if any, wine people I know have any desire to be a wine critic in order to exercise all this “power” critics think they have to influence consumers. Some of us are actually satisfied w/ the success we enjoy in our “day job” and have no interest in this “power” many critics think they wield. And…gasp…some of us have our own palates and can choose our own wines and have no need to have some wine critic tell us what to buy or validate our choices with big points they anoint our wines.

  29. Tom Hill,
    Thx and when I’m confronted with cultural and language difficulties as an American selling American wine in France, I tell customers that the wine speaks for itself and there is 100% agreement.

  30. When John Duval was having difficulty posting his comment to me, he wrote to me directly.

    We have subsequently exchanged e-mails.

    John touts Santa Lucia Highlands producers. My new discovery from the area: Mansfield Dunne.

    John touts Oregon producers. My new discovery from the area: Hawkins Cellars.

    And this new discovery from Sonoma while attending the IPOB trade tasting in Los Angeles this past Spring: Small Vines.

    Good hunting, John. And keep carrying the torch for West Coast wines.

  31. On the putative “power” of wine critics . . .

    An exchange between Jancis Robinson, MW and Russ Parsons (former food editor and columnist of the Los Angeles Times) posted on Splendid Table.

    “Thanksgiving wine tips from Jancis Robinson”

    Russ Parsons: What are you drinking for pleasure now?

    Jancis Robinson: It’s so varied. I like roaming over the world of wine, but one constant is that I’ve always loved riesling. Occasionally someone will say to me, “What’s it like having power in the world of wine?” I always say I’ve been writing about wine for 40 years, and for 40 years I’ve been saying riesling is the greatest white wine grape in the world. And it still doesn’t sell.

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts