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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.

  1. Mary Ann says:

    Call me naive, whatever, but the arrogance of some wine makers would take my breath away if I gave a fat rat’s fanny. I LOVE wine, how it smells, tastes, looks….I do NOT care about the process. If a winemaker can manipulate the wine that is being birthed to produce the best product possible, then I say, God bless him/her.

  2. Mary Ann, I’m with you. As Steve said, “You decide.” As for me, as an engineer, I love to find out how things are made, so I have an innate appreciation for and curiosity about the wine making process. But as an aficionado, like you, I’m more interested in the end result.

    I liken my appreciation of wine to my appreciation of guitars (I have several as a part-time professional guitarist): If something moves me emotionally in a positive way; if I connect with it, and it drives my creativity in some way, then to me at least, it’s a good guitar. Same goes for wine. While I lend credence to the experts and respect their insights, in the end, I decide what I like.

    By the way, Steve, I loved the audacity of your question! Mr. Clendenen’s response made me laugh out loud. I see his point (though it’s difficult to see because of the hair on his head).
    Adding sugar to wine is like adding octane to your fuel tank to give your engine more “vroom.” It’s not necessarily bad, but the question is whether or not it pushes the engine beyond its tolerances after prolonged use. Whatever happened to “it is what it is?” 🙂

  3. I am heartened that the first two comments here are in the vein of “we don’t care how it’s made so long as it tastes good to us.” Eminently sensible… unfortunately, sensibility does not make for a “riveting” story line.

    Steve I appreciate your take on this event. As we used to say in academia: “the arguments are so acrimonious because the stakes are so low.” It occurs to me that it might be tough for the players in this ongoing discussion to accept that the stakes are actually not life-or-death.

    But I almost wish I had been there. Your question regarding chaptalization vs. alcohol reduction was excellent, and I wish I had seen the full reaction of the panel. A while back Blake Gray reported on a tasting he did with Adam Lee, where neither of them could correctly guess, ahem… “discern” the alcohol levels of the wines they were tasting. Nobody will ever do this, but if you were to present a group of trained tasters with a range of wines, their ability to “discern” the ones that have been chaptalized or alcohol-manipulated would be equally miserable.

    Actually I’m surprised that the panel was “stumped” by the question about soil pH. To my thinking, the differences in soil pH between most of the New World and Burgundy *probably* are responsible for the greater measure of the difference in “balance” between Pinot produced in the different regions. The other major factors might be the relative day length at different latitudes, and the average temperature (and diurnal swing) between veraison and harvest. Did anyone bring these up? These arcana may not matter to the vast majority of Pinot lovers, but they do matter.

  4. It never ceases to amaze me that the those who decry any sort of what THEY define as high ripeness are also the most prickly when it comes to having the bases for their arguments questioned.

    Steve, you did not report on this aspect of the event, but I wonder if you have any data about the ABV of the wines presented or the ABVs of wines of the folks on the panels. I chose to avoid this event because it seemed to be loaded to one side of the question. I am happy to be proven wrong, but I see nothing in your comments that suggests anything resembling BALANCE in the way the topic was examined.

    Please tell me I am wrong because the irony of a seminar on balance being unbalanced is too much to let pass if it is true.

  5. There sure is a lot of heat and noise on the topic, but not a lot of light being shed. It seems ‘balance’ is as polarising a topic to wine enthusiasts as any of the major ideologies of today.

    Pity. Balance has everything to do with Pinot Noir as a whole beverage, not some minute aspect of its clonal variety, terroir, viticulture or vinification. As Eric Asimov noted in his blog, 13% Pinot is perfectly capable of seeming ‘hot’.

    Hot itself is an unfortunate term, because most folks associate it with the burning sensation of high alcohol content. That burn sensation (actually trigeminal nerve response, not a taste) from ethanol isn’t perceptible to most people until it reaches concentrations upwards of 18%. Unless the situation is worse than I thought, it’s not the alcohol, it’s the whole wine.

    I know where I sit in the debate: I enjoy the cool, old-timey style of lower alcohol wines. Not that I don’t enjoy the occasional very ripe wine, but I’m old and grumpy and dislike change.

    I am starting to become irritable with being classified as an ideologue or an evangelist by people like Mark Squires, or as an appallingly stupid, frighteningly arbitrary tool of the police state by Robert Parker, or as a whiner by Alder Yarrow. If I and a bunch of other people happen to like a particular style of Pinot Noir, and most of them happen to be of lower alcohol levels than is the prevailing modern taste, how does that threaten anyone else’ manhood, much less provoke such a flurry of defensive posturing and silly tricks like label-swapping?

    I’m going to quit writing commentary about alcohol content. Everyone appears to have their mind made up. so no sense adding fuel to the (alcohol?) flames. Poinot NOir is too elusive and delightful to be subject to a reductio ad absurdem analysis of mere alcohol.

  6. Charlie, I didn’t get the ABV #s on the wines. I suspect Peay and Copain are relatively low. MEV has usually been below 14. Evening Land has been in the mid 14s, in my experience. EL is certainly a big wine, compared to the others.

  7. Nick Peay says:

    I know you were sitting in the back, and as such perhaps you did not hear the responses clearly, but in the hope of accurately reporting what was actually said at the seminar, I would like to point out what transpired in response to two questions.
    From the web, a viewer asked what, if any, effect soil pH had on juice pH and TA and the resulting balance of the wine. The hesitation of the panelists came from their collective lack of certainty, I think, but after a pause, Vanessa lobbed the question over to me, her grape grower, and I rambled on about the importance of soil pH and mineral nutrient balance before Wells cut me off to give voice to what I think all the panelists were thinking, and that is that there is no correlation with soil pH and juice pH. I affirmed Wells’ assertion and sheepishly pointed out that while true, balanced wine needed to come from healthy vines, and nutrient uptake is severely restricted if the soil pH is not within an ideal range. (Now, it is true that excess potassium can wreak havoc on juice and wine pH, but that seems like a finer point). So, the question was answered (where were you, Steve?). To John Kelly, “the differences in soil pH between most of the New World and Burgundy” are not the main cause of the differences in the wines because there are not very big differences in soil pH, and that is because diligent farmers are doing their best to maintain soil pH within that aforementioned ideal range.
    Now, for your question, “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?”: This query came at the end of the seminar, after the point about location being the most important aspect to producing Pinot noir grapes that have the potential of becoming a balanced wine was hammered home by Sashi, Wells, Vanessa and Jefferey. You must have the vine located in the right site, which, over the history of California Pinot noir, was ever cooler, to achieve flavor, retain acid, and not accumulate too much sugar before the grapes are ripe. I raised my hand and cautioned you about an excess of ideology. Bottom line, reality doesn’t fit the tidy boundaries of ideals, and Jim and I stated that there were plenty of wonderful wines that had sugar added that were balanced, but that adding acid was mostly a bad idea because the wine would not age gracefully, as Wells attested. One may conclude that there are parts of the world/vintages which produce sufficiently ripe grapes where everything is in balance except the sugar, which is too low, and can be brought into balance, seemlessly improving the wine in both in the short term and as the wine ages.
    I hope I’ve filled in your readers on the reporting gaps of the event. I think the webcast is viewable over at GastroTommy, so accuracy is attainable.
    As for tedium of the seminar, sorry about the navel-gazing, may your next assignment be more stimulating.

    Most if not all of the panelists gave brief summaries about what a balanced wine was, which included alcohol along with aroma, acid, tannin, oak, aftertaste, etc. being in balance. I think the implicit point of the entire seminar was that balance is about more than just alcohol. Conclusion? It is, after all, about site and winemaker’s philosophy i.e. not picking too ripe.
    As for your comment “I chose to avoid this event because it seemed to be loaded to one side of the question. I am happy to be proven wrong, but I see nothing in your comments that suggests anything resembling BALANCE in the way the topic was examined.” What are you talking about? Stumped, Nick Peay

  8. Something I remember from my first class in design [when I was at art school] ‘one man’s kitch is another man’s coffee table’…. aw the beauty of wine and it’s wonderful diversity!

  9. Virginie Boone says:

    Hi Steve,

    Great to see you and sit next to you at the event. I came away essentially thinking about the statement David Hirsch made, that it just takes time to understand what you’re dealing with when it comes to Pinot Noir and I suspect that’s true whether you’re a grower (and it was nice to have at least one grower perspective), a winemaker or a writer trying to make sense of it all.

    Does the average consumer care about such things? Inadvertently, yes, they want wines that taste in balance and don’t make them loopy after one glass, but can you imagine ever actually discussing alcohol levels around the dinner table? That would for sure make the average consumer sleepier than any high-alcohol wine.

  10. I watched the webcast and found the whole think less interesting than I would have hoped for. I’m a big fan of Copain, Peay, Littorai and Au Bon Climate as well. I do think, however that Mr Clendenen doesn’t do himself or his “cause” any favors by being as abrasive and arrogant as he behaved yesterday. As someone who is pretty simpatico with producers of more streamlined Pinots I was pretty disgusted by Clendenen’s response to your question
    1) It takes the usual, quite specious, stance that the climactic struggles that European winemakers have to go through are somehow more noble and valid than those that California winemakers have to struggle with. I’ve certainly spoken to winemakers in CA who have made 14.8+% pinots in a given year, not because they wanted to, or because they were trying to push ripeness, but because that’s what nature gave them and they had to make do. Rather than manipulating the alcohol away, they did they best that they could with their raw materials. Clendenen, it seems, has little time for these producers.
    2) It maps a false “terrior” on to CA (or any other non-burgundian) producer.
    The focus of all of these discussions is WRONG from the start. The question that producers in each of the regions should be asking is:
    “What are the characteristics that make fruit/wine unique from my region, when I’ve removed as many variables as possible, and what can I do in the vineyard and cellar, to maximize those unique characteristics?”

    Ted Lemon was spot on, as he often is, when he said that (paraphrasing) if we keep asking ourselves what they are doing in europe, we will never have any sense of what our own terroirs can do.

  11. Deae Nick Peay, good heavens, “where was I”? In the room, when Vanessa lobbed the question to you because she could not answer and none of the other winemakers stepped up to the plate. I never said the question was “not answered.” I just said that for 99.9% of wine lovers in the world nobody cares about soil pH and why should we? We care about what’s in the bottle. Now, the question of philosophy did indeed arise, but was not answered satisfactorily, and your comment, which I respect, has not clarified my mind. If it’s okay for Burgundy to add sugar, why is it not okay for California to reduce alcohol and acidify? (And are you saying that Burgundy never acidifies?) This is a very difficult question for you to answer, and you haven’t. Everything is winemaker intervention, including oak barrels, so it is sheer ideology to accuse one form of intervention to be sinful and other forms to be “natural.”

  12. Nick–

    My point is simply this. If choice of the speakers, almost all makers of lower alcohol wines was intended to produce a balanced discussion, I have missed the point. How does one get balance in a discussion when all the speakers come from the same point of view?

    Now let’s also be clear. I am no champion of high alcohol wines, just as I am no champion of low alcohol wines. I am a champion of wines that have depth, complexity, varietal character and balance–oh, and that drink well now or in the future with aging.

    My publication is equally a fan of Dutton Goldfield and Freestone and of Dehlinger and DuMol. And of folks who fall in the middle of the range like Merry Edwards, Gary Farrell and Williams-Selyem, all with wines that are about 14% ABV give or take few tenths.

    Did anyone suggest that 13.6 and 14.2 were not essentially different except for a line in the sand that some people draw? If so, who? Were there people on the panel who were willing to argue that damning all wines over 14% ABV was unfair and simple minded?

    I looked at the panel and the wineries involved and concluded that fair and balanced is alive and well, if one believes in one point of view. But, Nick, as I said to Steve, and to another writer to whom I have reached out by email, I would love to be proven wrong. That is why I asked about the wines Steve tasted. It is really easy to prove a point to yourself if all the wines are self-affirming. And if there were Pinots of 14.8 being poured and admired, I am all ears. I am asking, and I am listening.

  13. Nick – “maintain[ing the] soil pH within that … ideal range…” Really? I’ve been involved in growing grapes for 25 years and IMO that is a fool’s errand, or thinking that one is actually affecting the soil pH, a fool’s paradise.

    I have been in soil pits 18 ft. deep with no end to the root system of the vines above in sight. Are you telling me that you are moving the soil pH throughout the rooting profile from 5.6-5.7 (average California soil pH) to 7.4-8.0 (subsoil pH of Burgundian limestone)? Really.

    Ever heard a Burgundian grower complain of lime-induced chlorosis? Ever heard a Californian grower complain of same. The correct answer is “yes” to (1) and “no” to (2) – except in very young vines.

    I’m not suggesting that there is any correlation between juice pH and soil pH – I know better. I am suggesting that vines in high pH soils have to apportion photosynthate differently than do vines in low pH soil.

    To me this suggests that there may be a different “balance” point for wines from grapes grown in soils of different pH – not that one is any *better* than the other.

  14. Nick,

    Just a specific question — as I’ve done more than my share lately in the Pinot Noir balance debate 🙂 —–

    Can you help me out with an explanation as to why a wine that has been modestly chaptalized will age well but one that has been modestly acidified will not? Do you have any specific examples of wines that you know of that have not aged well because of a moderate acid add? —-

    As a sidelight, certainly Burgundy is allowed to add acid. And, fwiw, some of the wines that we find that we have to add acid too are those grown in the coolest areas (Oregon, specifically), because they tend to have higher %s of malic and thus, even though they come in with low pHs, these shift pretty significantly when malic is 60% of your total.


    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  15. Nick Peay says:

    As for “I just said that for 99.9% of wine lovers in the world nobody cares about soil pH and why should we?” yes, I fully agree with you there. But as your statement “someone from the Internet asked a question about soil pH, which seemed to baffle even the panelists” indicates, it sounds as if you didn’t hear Wells and myself hashing out an answer. And it is important from the perspective of having the knowledge that comes from being inside production to relate to your readers that the panelists weren’t baffled, but merely considering the complicated answer (something like my answer regarding soil chemistry) or a basic answer, as Wells eventually provided and we all know, that soil pH and juice pH don’t track.
    I need to review the podcast, but I think I heard from all five mouths (including Geoff Kruth this time) that site was everything, and we have learned from experience that cooler sites make more balanced Pinot noir. There was a bit of diplomacy as to what one considered ripe, but in general, the rule espoused was that overripeness was to be eschewed. You didn’t receive this message clearly?
    As for Chaptalization, you wrote “Everything is winemaker intervention, including oak barrels, so it is sheer ideology to accuse one form of intervention to be sinful and other forms to be “natural.” Again I think I agree with you, except what I thought was a common belief was the ideological position that intervention always is bad. My recommendation was to step away from that ideology. Specifically, all “intervention” is not the same, not because of ideology but because of chemistry. I’ll let others argue about other types of intervention, but I have empirically learned that it is possible to have physiologically flavor-ripe grapes that don’t have enough sugar to make a delicious, balanced wine, and that sugar can be added seamlessly, without any MW’s or MS’s (or your) ability to detect it – and for the long haul. OTOH, acid additions often don’t work out, especially with aging. As for reducing alcohol, there is the rare weather event that pushes up a cool site/cool vintage brix level without cooking the flavors of the grape. As to whether one would reduce alcohol/sugar via water or RO or spinning cone in that case, I get rather religious about no pumps and no filters so would opt for the water, but what a pity anyway.


    This was a subjective assemblage of wineries that Raj and Jasmine felt make balanced Pinot noirs. This was not an attempt to have a “fair and balanced” discussion about the merits of a range of alcohol levels. I didn’t go around asking alcohols on the wines poured and I think it was implicit in the whole event that alcohol in of itself was beside the point. Remember, this event was put together long before the WOPN alcohol dustup. Looking at the participants, I can see how they may have skewed a little to the under 14 side, but I contend there were still many over 14 wines poured, and all of their producers were attesting to their wines’ balance. I will grant you that most if not all participants would probably think that a balanced 15+ Pinot noir would be highly unlikely.
    As for “drink well now and in the future,” I definitely don’t drink Pinot noir on release. Drinking it now is just a way to determine if it will make good bones in the future. I can’t think of any Pinot noir that I’d rather drink on release over a good, age-worthy Pinot noir that has some age on it – can you? I understand, as a wine reviewer you have a job to do, thank you for tasting all those young Pinots.


  16. Nick Peay says:

    Hey Adam,

    I love your insertions of “modestly.” My experience has been that wines with immoderate acid adds become disjointed with age. I didn’t say always adding acid was a bad idea, and as Vanessa indicated in the seminar, the Burgundians are allowed to and do add both sugar and acid in some years. I also have tasted many wines with immoderate sugar adds (1.5 brix? 2.5 brix?) that are delicious and age well. No names, no dishing, this stuff is not mysterious, you do know this. Why is this so? This is empirical learning. I said it was chemistry not ideology, but I did not claim to know what the chemistry was. I strongly believe that the chemistry will be elucidated one day.

    John Kelly,

    Surely your petiole samples at bloom and veraison are showing you the degree of successful uptake of micro and macro nutrients. I didn’t say pH adjustment was happening throughout the soil profile, only that a healthy vine is required as a baseline for a balanced Pinot noir, and a healthy vine needs to have access to some roots that are in the right range of pH to have nutrients available to take up. Those high and low pH deep roots are just taking up water, no? The Burgundian grower with the lime induced chlorosis has no roots at any depth in the soil of the ideal pH range, right? Chlorotic vines are not the ideal, need help, even in Burgundy…Definitely a super esoteric tangent we are on.

  17. It is called “wine-making” and not “wine happening” for a reason. If we didn’t use modern wine-making techniques we couldn’t make the perfectly balanced, classic, true to variety, pinot noirs that we do. Generally, wine consumers’ eyes glass over when a winemaker starts talking about wine making techniques. We make pinot noir because we have a passion for making the best wine that can be produced from the best vineyards in the world. People want to share that experience and enjoy the results.

  18. Nick, thanks for your long and thoughtful response. You have confirmed for me that this was not an attempt to examine the boundaries of ripeness but to showcase wines that Raj, with his Burgundian preferences, finds to be in balance. I have no bone to pick with that notion; it is his preference and I fully respect that.

    And of course, I have no bone to pick with the wines shown in terms of their quality. I am lucky to be able to taste the wines from most of those producers. Some send them and some I buy, as I bought some Au Bon Climat wines today. Sometimes wines from those producers and others who make wines in that style get very positive reviews and some do not. It is the same for fuller-bodied wines.

    But, what concerns me is the adjunct notion that comes out of this seminar, and that is that Pinots from producers like Dehlinger, Benovia, DuMol and lots of others are somehow not in balance because they fall outside of the parameters of the seminar. No one may have made that statement out loud, but it is implicit in the wines chosen as examples to be poured and speakers to be featured.

    The so-called WOPN dustup, or Kerfluffle as my blog chooses to call it, may not have proven much, but it did, in some small way, show that a wine at 15.2% (Siduri’s Keefer Ranch Pinot) had sufficient balance that Raj bought it on the spot. A one-anecdote data point is not proof of anything save for that data point. However, that data point does exist, and so does the wine.

    And you undoubtedly know what happened when Blake Gray, a fine taster, tried to pick out wines by alcohol and failed.

    The possibiility that a seminar dubbed “Balance in Pinot Noir” might start with built-in bias is why I passed on the chance to attend. Not only is balance determined by palate, not by label, but the limits on what is balanced exceed those championed by the seminar as I now understand it. I don’t ask anyone to like Dehlinger or DuMol Pinots. Like what you like. But for goodness sake, let’s not suggest to the world that they are a priori outside of balance because they exceed some preconceived limit.

    It is heartening to see a shift in some wines to brightness and structure. Those are more than legitimate goals. They are rewarding aspects. But they are not the only rewarding ways that wine can be made in order to achieve balance, longevity, grandeur.

    In my view, the wine world would be better off with a reduction in doctrinaire thinking on this subject, and an increase in open-mindedess and humility.

  19. I’m feeling kind of sad and horrified at Mary Ann’s comment above “I do NOT care about the process”. Firstly because it’s so self-centred and selfish. There are other aspects to a bottle of wine (or any other product) apart from gratifying one’s eyes, nose and taste-buds. Everyone seems to forget (in their blind quest for pleasure and gratification of the senses) that the process is very important due to its impact on consumers’ health and on the environment. Wineries are exempt from listing the ingredients they use – imagine the ‘concern’ (to say the least) if consumers found out what’s in their wine. And the chemical runoffs from the vineyards, that pollute the groundwaters, etc?
    With consumers so unconcerned about environmental and health issues, it’s not surprising that wineries will cater to them, and adulterate and manipulate the grape juice beyond recognition, with the sole aim of producing a sellable product.

  20. Hey There Nick,

    I am fine with inserting the word “modestly” in regard to both sugar adds and acid adds (and, for that matter, water adds, nutrients adds, enzyme adds, maceration, saignee, oak usage, etc.).

    I have had many Pinots that haven’t aged well from both sides of the ocean….some of those have been mine, unfortunately. But I have never been able to correlate acid adds or sugar adds or any other additions as the reason they didn’t age well. — I have also tasted many wines that have aged well (some fortunately my own), and occasionally have been shocked at what occurred to the wine in question, but more often I don’t know what happened in the winemaking process so can’t again make any correlation. — Again, would love to taste some examples if you want to share (even via email).

    BTW, you should know that I enjoyed the podcast. Also, you all should know that, after some good natured ribbing via Twitter, I was asked to participate at the tasting but it was too late for me by the time I was asked.


    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. Hey Nick – “…a healthy vine needs to have access to some roots that are in the right range of pH to have nutrients available to take up.” Well, sort of. Implied in this statement is that the vine is a little machine – you put the right stuff in and the right stuff comes out. True on some level, but I don’t endorse the idea that the rest of the roots are just taking up water. In my worldview the entire root system is involved in water uptake as well as in nutrient uptake, and what affects one part affects the whole.

    The rootstocks we use were derived from parents evolved to thrive in lower pH soils. In Burgundy they wish they could own-root because vinifera is more lime tolerant. Anyway, at our vineyard we have never amended the soil and our nutrient levels are fine. And yes this is probably too esoteric to continue here. Maybe we meet for beers someday to discuss further.

    Yes Fabio we are destroying the environment and trying to poison our consumers. Sarcasm aside – artisanal producers across the globe embrace the idea of minimizing environmental impact. You won’t find any runoff or groundwater pollution at our vineyard.

    And as I have written elsewhere, consumers are not entitled by law to know what ingredients producers of any consumable use to produce their product, only what actually remains in what consumers put in their mouths. As to your unnecessarily alarmist statement “…imagine the ‘concern’ (to say the least) if consumers found out what’s in their wine…” the reality is that the reaction would likely be a universal {yawn}.

  22. Addrssing the issue of soil pH, I remember when I was getting ready to plant our russian river valley vineyard I told my brother , Miguel, that our soil pHs were as low as 4.5 — he was astounded that we’d plant there and stated that in Spain they would never plant it! Of course it’s all about balance, whether real or “helped ” by winemaking.

    Interestingly, on Saturday we did a comparative tasting of 12 pinots with some including Bill Dyer and Gerald Asher; we found indeed some wines that were out of balance because they were too sweet, over extracted or otherwise out of context with the rest of components in the wine . Gerald was in fact mesmerized at how several wines seemed manipulated — and it goes all to perception. That’s the task of all winemakers, I think , to achieve wines that are balanced in perception and in aging potential.

  23. Marimar, I agree that many Pinots taste too sweet and over extracted. The magic, which you achieve so often, is to get all those elements just right. Wouldn’t it be interesting if winemakers had to reveal every single thing they did to the wine? We would indeed see that the emperor has no clothes.

  24. What is really missing from this discussion is a comprehensive vertical tasting of older vintages of all the wineries whose names have popped up here. What has aged, what hasn’t, and is there any correlation to ABV (or anything else)? Then the proof would be in the pudding, so to speak. Unfortunately, I doubt that such a tasting can be made to happen. But if any of the winemakers who read this want to try and organize something, I’ll help in any way I can.

  25. Nick, please see my comment in this string on organizing a vertical tasting. Having a conversation about ageability is pointless unless we actually taste through multiple wines and vintages and see what’s going on. Right now, I have no way to say that a delicious 13.7% Pinot will age better than a delicious 14.9% Pinot (or vice versa). Do you? I think it’s incumbent on all the winemakers who have been so passionate about this issue (on both sides of the argument) to put something together, invite the media, and see if we can’t learn something.

  26. Steve,

    I can certainly pull some older wines….though we never really have kept a full library…but have some things and would be happy to participate.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  27. Nick Peay says:


    Whoa! I’m not getting roped into a high/low alcohol debate. In regard to ageability, you’ll see that I was speaking of the difference between sugar adds and acid adds, and clearly what I held as pretty widely agreed to, Adam remains unconvinced of. Adam knows how to reach me. What is required is that he and I drink a lot of wine together to flesh this thing out.


  28. Adam–

    I am happy to add other wines from my cellar. Maybe, if enough of us pitch in, and we invite wines from other wineries who might also want to join the investigation, we might prove something to someone, including ourselves.

    I have cellared several hundred recommended Pinots (by Connoisseurs’ Guide, of course) over the years for our own vertical and horizontal tastings. Frankly, I have not tracked the alcohols, but I can say that wines like Gary Farrell (esp when he was there), Marimar and others have shown quite well as they have aged. I have not, on the other hand, tried to compare CA aging to Burgundy. I have a much longer and more compelling data base for CA Cabs and equivalent Brdx in that regard.

  29. Also, I’d be happy to provide detailed winemaking notes on all of our wines….always happy to do that….what additions were made, picking dates, etc. Sent those to Steve not too long ago….happy for you to see them as well Charlie if you’d like.


  30. Thanks, Adam. I think I will stay out of the additions debate for the moment. I prefer to taste the wines and consider them for what they are. Process is not unimportant from a learning perspective, but when one is tasting wine blind, it is the wine that speaks, not the paperwork.

    That is the principle that I think is being overlooked these days, and I appreciate how much “stick” you have taken in trying to defend that principle against all comers.

  31. Oh, and one other thing. Steve has it right when he says that the answer to longevity is not found in theoretical discussions, but in tastings. Your comments that wines vary in aging, often for reasons that are hard to fathom, suggests that there some of the doctrinaire thinking may not have a solid foundation.

    That said, I am guess that few Pinots with high pHs and low TA will age remarkably well. What that does not prove, however, is whether those wines held up in the mid-term. While I like a twenty year old wine as much as the next guy (hells bells, I have a cellar full of them), I do not demand that very good Pinot last that long–or even very good Cab despite the fact that most of those good ones do. Longevity is a bit of a red herring in this discussion in that regard. It is only relevant to those who want their Pinots to be alive, complex and grand as they experience their second decade. I doubt that most Pinots anywhere in the world are held that long.

  32. Steve,

    You wrote: “What is really missing from this discussion is a comprehensive vertical tasting of older vintages of all the wineries whose names have popped up here. What has aged, what hasn’t, and is there any correlation to ABV (or anything else)? Then the proof would be in the pudding, so to speak.”

    I interpreted the decision made by Sashi (Evening Land) and Nick/Vanessa (Peay) to bring both an older wine and a younger wine to the seminar as a good-faith attempt to provide some perspective upon the issue of ageability and balance (within the constraints of that seminar). While I enjoyed all of the wines at the seminar, the oldest wine poured, the Evening Land Occidental Vineyard 2005, was my favorite. IMHO, it showed great balance (among other favorable and delicious attributes), as did the Peay 2006. And, having spoken with Wells about this on a number of occasions, I think he would agree that the higher ABV in the Copain 2003 Pinots has undermined their ability to age well. But I agree, a comprehensive vertical would be the ultimate test. Best, John

  33. Lucky Adam.

  34. Steve, we would be happy to participate in a vertical tasting of Tudor pinot noirs. From my perspective, the problem with high alcohol in pinot noir is they taste like syrah, and that although the wine may taste balanced when young, it will not age well. The wine must be perfectly balanced when it goes in the bottle with alcohol under 14.5 and preferably under 14. Any imbalance becomes more apparent with time.


  35. Rod Berglund says:

    Nick, Your comment that acid additions generally don’t work out, especially with aging, flies in the face of all my years of experience. I have always valued balance in wines from my first days of tasting wines. As a winemaker my philosophy has always been to try to harvest grapes, pinot noir and others, at their optimum level of ripeness and balance. Usually, in the Russian River Valley, we are able to harvest fruit that, to my mind, is both ripe and balanced. This means that we, as a general rule, don’t have to do additions and subtractions. However, there are two words I try to avoid–always and never. Over the years I have opened my tool box on numerous occasions and used the tools I felt necessary to achieve balance in the resultant wine. Acid additions have been one of them. I have never found that the aging ability of a wine that I have done an acid addition to to have been lessened. On the contrary, they have usually aged more gracefully than I expect that they would have done if not adjusted as the pH and TA was brought into, drum roll, BALANCE. That being said, I have had plenty of wines where the acid addition was obvious. Most of these were wines where the adds were done late and the wines had already been compromised. Our adds have been early on, almost always as juice. I think you would see the same deleterious effect of chapatalization if you did it three weeks before bottling to bring the EtOH up a little bit. Sometimes mother nature is stingy or over generous. A little fine tuning doesn’t seem to be that big of a sin to me.

  36. I’d love to contribute La Rochelle Pinots going back to the early 2000’s to the ageability tasting. Just say when and where.

  37. Steve, I’d be delighted to join in at a Pinot Noir vertical! We do have a good library, almost of all vintages back to 1992. That sounds like a great idea, and lots of fun! I think we can make it happen, and would love to help. And thanks for the compliment, BTW! 🙂

    Charlie, thank you as well – saying our wines age well is a great compliment for me!

  38. Marimar, thanks. Could you help round up some of the other Pinot houses in RRV/GV/Sonoma Coast?

  39. I have great respect for everyone mentioned in this story and only hope that the growers and winemakers will stay true to the grape and not bottle what they think the consumer wants….

  40. Damn, I was bottling last week and missed this one. Balance… listen to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Jerry Garcia.


  1. Chanin Wines » Steve Heimoff “Weighing in on Balance” - […] Enthusiast critic, Steve Heimoff, takes a look at the In Pursuit of Balance tasting in San […]

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