subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The last word, literally, on In Pursuit of Balance (well, maybe…)



Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former wine critic and, now, occasional columnist, has much to say about the demise of In Pursuit of Balance that is on point: that the organization was controversial, that it stimulated a valuable conversation over Pinot Noir style, that it received a disproportionate amount of attention and media coverage,” that the ending, after five years, was “a shock” to the group’s members and fans, and—ultimately—that IPOB “served its purpose.”

Bonné can be a good reporter when he sticks to the facts and leaves aside his personal piques, but here, his dislike, verging on hatred, of larger wineries lends his analysis an off-putting hysteria. This is further fueled by his ongoing antagonism towards Big Critics, especially Wine Spectator, some of whose writers consistently raised legitimate questions about IPOB. Raising questions is the lifeblood and purpose of journalism—no reporter would be worth anything without raising questions–but Bonné calls it “savaging” IPOB, an odd but telling choice of verbiage. He goes on to accuse these Wine Spectator commentators (and, by extension, all of us who raised similar questions) of being “fearful of change.” That there is no evidence of such “fear” on the part of anyone who asked IPOB’s creators to more precisely define the “balance” that was their hallmark should be clear to all impartial observers. I myself asked, frequently, because IPOB never could iron out their internal contradiction, which was that they seemed to be suggesting that “balanced” Pinot Noir had to be below 14% in alcoholic strength, but even Raj Parr himself repeatedly had to backtrack from that assertion, for obvious reasons: It is on its face silly, and besides, there were members of IPOB whose wines were well in excess of 14%. Thus IPOB was forever hoisted on a petard of its own making, its “message” smudged into incoherence: If, indeed, they could not define “balance,” then what were they “in pursuit” of? IPOB’s inclusion of only certain wineries to their road show—the hottest ticket in London, L.A., Prowein, San Francisco or wherever else they poured–could only be seen as an arbitrary illustration of what has come to be known, in California circles, as the Cool Kids’ Club: We’ll invite our friends to the party. Don’t bother coming if you’re ugly.

I went to just about every IPOB tasting in San Francisco since the group’s founding in 2011, and yes, they were wonderful tastings. But they were wonderful not because they represented some sort of curated selection of the best and most balanced Pinot Noirs, but because they showcased many small producers whose wines most people—even I, as Wine Enthusiast’s senior California reviewer—didn’t have access to. I would have gone no matter who sponsored the event or what it was called; but the weight under which it was placed by that word “balance” cast a more lurid and ominous glow over the proceedings. One felt one was entering, not a mere arena for tasting, such as World of Pinot Noir, but a political convention, complete with party platform and ideological frisson, that just happened to feature wine. Since we knew that a cadre of insiders—including Jon Bonne—was responsible for the decision of what to include, out of all the bottles submitted for consideration, the implication was that all other Pinot Noirs were somehow unbalanced, an unsettling thought to a wine critic who might have given years of high scores to wines that, presumably, had been rejected by IPOB’s overseers. I should think James Laube and Matt Kramer felt quite the same: and why not? Thus to publicly air their concerns was not to “savage” In Pursuit of Balance. It was not to “savage” Raj Parr or Jasmine Hirsch or even Jon Bonne. It was to wonder, just as you might in a similar situation, why there was such a discrepancy between something you liked and something that IPOB appeared to find “unbalanced,” which, when you get right down to it, has to be seen as defamatory.

Not all of the kinds of wines IPOB loved, however, were good, and some were disasters. The 2011 Pinot Noir from Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Cote, which I tasted not at IPOB but at a World of Pinot Noir tasting, was among the worst Pinots I’ve ever had. In that cold vintage, Raj picked too early, motivated, I supposed, by ideology; the wines tasted like Listerine. (In fairness, his 2012s, which I tasted the next year at IPOB, were utterly magnificent.) This served to underscore what always was IPOB’s Achilles heel: its apparently slave-like devotion to a concept—low alcohol—at the expense of a far more important concept: deliciousness. Let the vintage tell you when to pick, not your frontal lobe. Incidentally, the limits, indeed the dangers, of sticking to this low-alcohol ideology were graphically illustrated at a World of Pinot Noir tasting some years ago when Siduri’s Adam Lee pulled a switcheroo on Raj Parr, at a public panel, an event Bonne alludes to in his opinion piece but whose implication he does not explore: that when you blind taste Pinot Noir without the ability to form a pre-conception due to knowledge of the alcohol level, you just might find yourself loving something you thought you were supposed to hate. Sic temper alcoholis.

But Jon is correct that IPOB “served its purpose,” if its purpose was to stimulate just the sort of discussion we’re having and have been having for some years. What had been esoterica has now become a standard part of the conversation about Pinot Noir, and for that we have to thank Raj and Jasmine. You have done the industry a service, monsieur et mademoiselle, and it is now time for you, and us, to move on.

  1. It’s like when we were told that low fat diet was the answer to weight loss. Defining balance based on one component alone will never be the “balanced” approach.

  2. Your experience tasting 2011 Pinot Noir from Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Cote” against the 2012, is my experience over and over again with the Hirsch Vineyard Pinots..

    Wonderful about every 3rd year on average, Meh on every 3rd year, and undrinkable the other 3rd year.

    But that being my experience, I poured out a glass of their 2011 offering, and a friend next to me drank the whole bottle!

    So we disagreed.

  3. Different strokes!

  4. Bob Henry says:

    We all need to avoid this myopic trap:

    As the late, great scientist Richard Feynman observed:

    “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  5. Bob Henry says:

    One question I have repeated asked rhetorically, but never received an answer to, is this:

    Do IPOB proponents denigrate other high ABV beverages?

    Do they swear off drinking:

    • Port?
    • Cognac?
    • Armagnac?
    • Brandy?
    • Single malt Scotch?
    • blended Scotch?
    • Whiskey?
    • Bourbon?
    • Rye?
    • Rum?
    • Vodka?
    • Tequila?
    • high alcohol beer?

    Do they refrain from drinking cocktails at the restaurants they work at or dine at?

  6. Patrick says:

    IPOB did publicize the idea that there is more than one way to make great wines. And that stuck in the craw of lots of folks who believed, or wanted to believe, in the “objectivity” of wine criticism. Some of these aggrieved folks were actual writers for national publications who felt that their judgments were being questioned. And they were being questioned. If the demise of IPOB means that the discussion now continues at a lower volume, that will be a good thing.

  7. Patrick, well, those writers’ judgment WAS being questioned. And they quite naturally took some umbrage. However you slice it, IPOB’s real message (unstated but clear) was that, if your wine was not in IPOB it was unbalanced. They got very ideological about it, and some of their supporters got downright hateful.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    To avoid confirmation bias and living in a “filter bubble,” one has to make a philosophical commitment to actively go out of one’s way to listen to other POVs.

  9. A client with a Pinot Noir vineyard near Freestone sells some of the fruit. One purchaser picks at 21 brix–to my taste his wine is on the thin and herbal side. A new buyer last harvest waited until 27 brix and because this was a tonnage contract there was some fruit left over (in spite of shrinkage due to dehydration) which we brought it and now is in the barrel–it smells like raisons and is still struggling to finish fermentation at over 16% alcohol (to be blended away).

  10. I read, but never, ever comment on these issues. I have to make an exception here. Bravo for well-written thoughts, Steve. My own opinion is that the people arguing the “over and under 14” alcohol scenario are like parents bitterly squabbling, and who always fall through the cracks? The children, of course. Does anyone bother to ask the kids what they want? I haven’t used a refractometer for picking decisions in over 25 years, and, as a result, have wines in the mid-12s all the way up to the low 15s. This is based on plant physiology reacting to the site and the vintage, which, in cooler climes, is always different both in terms of site and of year. Please, let’s put behind us the rancor of this issue and get back to the job of making wines that are faithful to the land, and to the winemaker’s own vision. Let us leave it up to the wine-drinking public as to whether the vision of the land and the winegrower align.

  11. Great to hear from the master himself, my old friend Greg. I couldn’t agree more with your comment!

  12. Haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Greg in a few years, but as usual he has clear vision and expresses it concisely.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    A “call out” to Adam Lee: when you switched those higher ABV Pinot Noir bottles sampled by Raj, what was his reaction to being fooled?

  14. PN Winemaker says:

    I’m with Greg. Brix readings from grape samples are a useful tool for monitoring circumstances like dehydration, but ultimately the pick call is made on physiologic ripeness (such as flavor), weather forecasts, and a historical knowledge of where on the ripeness scale “the zone” is for a site. One site I work with is usually “in the zone” at 23.8 brix, depending on the aforementioned factors; another site is “in the zone” at 25.5 brix (or higher!). Both sites have produced gorgeous, balanced wines that have fooled a panel of master sommeliers to guess Burgundy or Oregon (answer: California).

    This is just a long winded way of saying that there are so many factors that contribute to “ripeness” in grapes, which then translate into the balance of the wine–and this isn’t even to mention what the winemaker does or doesn’t do in the winery–that to focus on a single one (sugar ripeness, or alcohol) seems arbitrary, myopic, and ultimately unhelpful in the production of great wines. That said, I’m grateful for the now-ongoing discussion of “balance,” even if it got hijacked (and thrown out of balance?) by a fixation with a single player in the balancing act.

  15. Adam Lee says:


    To be clear, the idea that I pulled a switch on Raj Paar isn’t really accurate. The entire room tasted two Pinots of mine — one in the mid 13s and one just over 15% alcohol. My entire plan had been to ask the entire room to vote on which wine was better balanced. Raj and I started discussing something privately and he asked to purchase what he perceived to be the lower alcohol wine. After some back and forth, I told him that it was actually the higher alcohol wine. He thought it was hilarious and insisted that I reveal to the entire room what had happened. — Those who think that I tried to specifically pull something over on Raj ignore the fact that I had no way of knowing future events. — Raj was most gracious about it. The only person who seemed to get upset was Eric Asimov.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  16. Bob Henry says:


    Thanks for setting the “urban legend” straight.

    ~~ Bob

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts