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Pit bulls and Pinot Noir, or how IPOB changed the way I think



That old saying “It changed the conversation” needs explanation. Not everybody in America is talking about the same things at the same time. We say Donald Trump has changed the conversation but there are lots of people who couldn’t care less about him. We say Ellen DeGeneres changed the conversation about gays when she came out on T.V. but there were millions of people who didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if they had. We say mounting evidence of massive, manmade climate change has changed the conversation, but we all know there are still so many Americans who refuse to believe even the basic science. So we have to be careful when we talk about conversation changers.

Now consider In Pursuit of Balance. It too is said to have changed the conversation, specifically about Pinot Noir, and more specifically, about West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir. Did it? I can speak from my own experience: Yes, it did. I’ve been a staunch defender of Pinot Noir for years and battled against what I perceived as IPOB’s irrational stance towards alcohol levels. I will yield to no critic for having done more to protect Pinot Noir from assault. I have the scars to prove it. I maintained from the get-go that just because a Pinot Noir was below 14% didn’t automatically make it “balanced” and just because a Pinot Noir approached 15% didn’t make it unbalanced. I consistently argued that if the wine tastes good, who cares what the alcohol is?

But slowly I’ve been looking at things differently. This has been evolving over the past two years. It actually began with my tasting Raj Parr’s 2012s from Domaine de la Côte. Those wines were quite low in alcohol (Bloom’s Field is 12.5%, La Côte is 13%), and while I was prepared to dislike them, after Raj’s execrable 2011s, they actually blew me away, and I began to think that maybe there was something to this low-alcohol thing after all.

Since then I’ve been finding more and more Pinot Noirs excessively heavy. These are mainly the 2013s: celebrated as a near-perfect vintage, it did result in grapes that were intensely fruity, but in many instances I’ve thought it was more successful for Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, because Cabernet’s bigger tannins and structure can carry more fruity weight and oak. Pinots that are super-ripe (and oaky) can be heavy, hot and monolithic, lacking the delicacy and cerebral complexity that the wines should possess.

Every once in a while I’ll taste such a West Coast Pinot Noir and think, Wow, this really needs steak or something to balance it out. When the wines are that dark, tannic, ripe to the point of raisins, hot and oaky, they can be hard to appreciate; but rich, fatty fare will take care of that, right? Of course, as a former critic, I’m aware that when we taste wine, it’s without food: you’re sampling the wine in and of itself, without ameliorating factors. Maybe that’s unfair. Probably it is. Normal human beings don’t drink wine (especially red wine) without food. Wine is made to be drunk with food. Still, you need to have consistent rules about wine tasting, and you can’t taste every wine with food. So we taste without food.

But if I think, “Wow, this Pinot is so heavy, it needs beefy fat to balance it out,” isn’t that making excuses for the wine? It’s like a pit bull that snarls and lunges at you on the street, scaring you, but the owner insists “Oh, Molly is a goofball, you should see her with little kids.” You think, “If I had little kids I wouldn’t let them anywhere near Molly,” and you think that Molly’s mommy is making excuses for her out-of-control dog: She doesn’t even realize that Molly is a ticking time bomb. So when I taste a big, thick, heavy Pinot and think “Steak!”, am I Molly’s mommy, making excuses for my pit bull of a wine?

Would I have been thinking along these lines had it not been for IPOB? It’s a hypothetical, but I think the answer is that, as harshly as I criticized IPOB for being ideological, they have changed my way of thinking about Pinot Noir. For the better.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “Since then I’ve been finding more and more Pinot Noirs excessively heavy. These are mainly the 2013s: celebrated as a near-perfect vintage, it did result in grapes that were intensely fruity, … Pinots that are super-ripe (and oaky) can be heavy, hot and monolithic, lacking the delicacy and cerebral complexity that the wines should possess.”

    Let me offer this observation.

    In recent issues of Wine Spectator, James Laube has offered his back-of-the-book “Buying Guide” capsule reviews of many 2013 California Pinots.

    What is noteworthy is how few of the 2013s are crossing the 90 point “outstanding” threshold.

    And I can’t recall any 95+ point “classic” scores.

    Many well-known producers are bumping up against 89 point scores.

    This despite the high praise for the vintage.

    (Yes, one could dismiss the phenomenon as “just one man’s opinion.” But this is coming from a champion for California Pinot Noirs.

    Is it just symptomatic of the vintage . . . or has Laube pivoted in his assessment of this varietal?)

  2. Bob Henry says:

    I attended the IPOB trade tasting in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

    My discovery was Small Vines — run by Paul Sloan, a former wine steward. (Note he doesn’t call himself a “somm” on his website.)

    His Pinot Noir is a lovely expression of the grape variety.

    Some anemic Pinots at the IPOB event tasted like Sunkist not-from-concentrate bottled lemon juice:×380.png?itok=mQBF79Ey

    Like the Sunkist label says:

    “No sulfites”
    “No artificial colors”
    “No artificial flavors”

    No thanks!

  3. And here I am taking a break from writing tasting notes and seeing the words “totally IPOB paradigm” as part of the analysis of a 13.2% ABV Syrah.

    Yes, IPOB has become part of the lexicon, and that is to its credit, but the success of Pinots, and anything else, under 14% is not the making of IPOB. However, the failure of so many of the PNs and others in that style may be. It is very hard to make fine-tasting, low alcohol PNs, and Raj’s wines show that. Yes, it can happen, but the failures come from operating at the margins. Good for those who succeed. They all do not.

    That said, there have been wines of the IPOB ilk forever, both highly satisfying and not, and just because Jasmine and Raj came along to publicize them, does not mean that they have suddenly opened the door to lower alcohol wines or that fuller-bodied Pinots from the likes of Dehlinger, DuMOL or anyone else who makes them in a balanced manner (as you point out) have suddenly become corpulent, unbalanced and fit only for steak.

    You are giving IPOB too much credit. Yes, good on them for championing a legitimate, attractive style, but before we bow down before them, let us remember that they did not invent the category nor did they change your palate. You, and all of us, have liked a wide swath of Pinots, Chards, etc forever, and we still do.

  4. Charlie, like I wrote, I’m just speaking for myself — not crediting IPOB with influencing anything but my own way of thinking. And I must admit that they have had that effect on me.

  5. I must be missing the point. How can tasting balanced wines two years ago change your preferences? You have tasted and championed wines of all stripes. There is no new style here.

    Has your own palate changed regardless of whether IPOB ever existed or not? There is nothing wrong with liking anything that anyone likes. Yet, significant changes in preference would mean either that you have changed in ways that have more to do with your own taste buds. Balanced wines are still balanced wines, and corpulent wines are still corpulent wines.

    What has happened is that bigness for bigness sake has been moderated–and that is a good thing because there are fewer overwrought wines and a larger number of lighter wines.

    But that lighter style has always existed, and you, if I have read your writings and tasting notes, correctly, have always like those lighter wines when they were well-made. Fact is that we all did.

  6. Patrick says:

    I have a lot of admiration for this post. Too often, wine critics are like the man behind the curtain at Oz, attempting to dispense a sort of objectivity that does not really exist. As Chairman Mao has written, Let a Hundred Winemaking Styles Bloom.

  7. Charlie, my palate does change over time–fortunately. I would not want to be liking the same wines as I used to, otherwise I’d still be drinking Ripple! But seriously, it’s not that I don’t “like” the bigger style, just that I’m discerning overripeness and heat more these days. Not sure why that is…

  8. “Normal human beings don’t drink wine (especially red wine) without food.”

    I understand my takeaway from this post should be about IPOB and its effect on styles and production (I for one appreciate lower alcohol because they are, generally, more palatable without food) However, your statement above is mind-boggling. I appreciate what you and your ilk do and have done for moving conversation forward about relevant and timely topics related to our industry but I can’t get past that statement. Am I misunderstanding something?

  9. “It’s like a pit bull that snarls and lunges at you on the street, scaring you…She doesn’t even realize that Molly is a ticking time bomb.” Actually, in my case, it’s the two Beagles that lunge, snarl, and bark at me, always off leash, while I’m walking my Pit Bull, and their owner says, “Oh, they are the nicest dogs ever” as a reason why he allows them to roam the neighborhood and assault people and their dogs. By the way, I do like a good Pinot. I will drink red wine without food sometimes (so I guess I’m not a normal person, though I do prefer it with the right food, of course). What I don’t like at is the use of discriminatory stereotypes to make a point.

  10. Pinot Guy says:

    Overly light, low alcohol (by taste, not number), insipid wines are no more in balance than fat, high alcohol (again, by taste, not number), raisiny wines. It seems that in America, just as with our politics, we only talk about the extremes. By definition, balance lies somewhere in the middle. I can only assume that actual balance is simply so boring to write about that nobody bothers.

  11. JB, Well, I think you’re over-reacting. By “normal people” all I obviously mean is that most people drink wine with food of some kind: dinner, munchies, whatever. They do not “taste” wine like the critics do, and I’m glad they don’t! So I’d say, Chill out. My “ilk” is not on some kind of psychological witch hunt.

  12. Dear DM, I confess to some concern about pit bulls. They seem to go haywire more often than most dogs. And my little dog, Gus, has been attacked numerous times by pits right here in the ‘hood. As for my comment about “normal,” see my reply to JB. Nothing sinister meant by it, just to imply that we critics are the ones that don’t drink normally!

  13. It will be nice to be able to use the word ‘Balance’, once again, without inference or divisiveness. I always have a difficult time accepting a movement or organization that snubs or belittles one style of wine to elevate their style of wine.

  14. KC Phillips says:

    I know that many of you in the industry dislike IPOB. Okay. But as a consumer (that’s all I am), IPOB introduced me to producers of pinots and chards I had been looking for – my palate has changed over the years, and I was drifting away from heavier cabs and zins. Unfortunately, I wasn’t pleased with a lot of the pinot/chards I was finding in the market (too heavy, syrupy, strawberry cola, oaked, etc) – until I was introduced to wineries aligned with IPOB, and West of the West, for that matter. I don’t care about the alcohol level – I just want a wine that is integrated (yes, balanced), complex, and interesting to drink. No tannic, overly-spiced fruit bombs, please.

  15. Honestly, putting Pit Bulls in your headline and then using that analogy just tanked the blog post. It’s like my reading something about a completely innocuous topic, nodding with interest, and then getting to a racist diatribe at the end and wondering what on Earth is wrong with the author. Also, math and wine generally don’t mix (referring to the math problem required for commenting…so good thing I’m at work reading this and not on my third glass of wine with a fatty steak).

  16. Bob Henry says:

    What a coincidence to this conversation that this book just came out.

    From The Wall Street Journal “Review” Section
    (May 27, 2016, Page Unknown):

    “Breeding Contempt;
    Helen Keller, Walter Scott and Mark Twain all owned pit bulls and spoke of their generous, gentle nature.”

    Book review by Pat Shipman
    [Ms. Shipman is the author of “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.”]

    By Bronwen Dickey
    (Knopf, 330 pages, $26.95)


    This is a very good book. It is about pit bulls. Well, no, actually. It is about pit bulls and their relationships with people. And it is about people and their relationships with other people and the awful power of stereotypes and economic inequality. “Pit Bull” is also the story of how rumor, ignorance and sensationalist press transformed a good-hearted family dog into an (allegedly) vicious killer breed.

    The first problem, as Bronwen Dickey shows, is that it is not at all clear what a “pit bull” is. There is no universal breed standard, though the American pit bull terrier is a recognized breed often called a pit bull. Yet the term is also used to include the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, the American bully, a lot of mutts, and almost any stocky muscular dog with a large head. … As Ms. Dickey wisely observes, the term pit bull “has become a slap-dash shorthand for a general shape of dog—a medium-sized, smooth-coated mutt—or for a ‘dog not otherwise specified.’ ”

  17. For me, IPOB brought attention to certain winemakers that were working with cooler locations to source their fruit. These winemakers were not trying to make those locations into something they shouldn’t be. I don’t want to see even more AVA’s but when you taste a Littorai Pinot from Mays Canyon (Porter Bass Vineyard) v. Rochioli I don’t want those two wines to be similar and it was frustrating to see some critics trying to judge them that way. Of course IPOB was about marketing, but it was also about questioning the push toward ever riper styles regardless of place. Match the winemaker style with appropriate vineyards and let the location be the star.

  18. “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. The noble chardonnay wines from France remained unmoved while California chardonnay was working through its identity crisis.”
    Manifesto of Balance – IPOB Website –
    Like I said…

  19. “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. The noble chardonnay wines from France remained unmoved while California chardonnay was working through its identity crisis.”
    Manifesto of Balance – IPOB Website –
    Like I said…

  20. Bob Henry says:

    “Echoing” Mark’s comment . . .

    If Pinot Noir is the “transparent” grape that so many of its winemakers and proponents say it is, then it should reflect the terroir it comes from.

    I don’t expect Sonoma Pinots to taste like Napa Pinots. Or Anderson Valley Pinots. Or Santa Cruz Mountain Pinots. Or Monterey Pinots. Or Gavillan Mountain Pinots. Or Paso Robles Pinots. Or Santa Barbara County Pinots.

    And I don’t expect any of them to taste like Oregon.

    Or Burgundy. Alsace. Champagne. Germany. Austria.

    Nor New Zealand and Australia.

    The producers in each region have adopted and propagated different clones. Different planting densities. Different growing practices. Different picking practices based on brix or “physiological ripeness.” And different fermentation practices (e.g., indigenous yeast versus inoculated yeast).

    That matrix of decisions consequently leads to a continuum of styles.

  21. KC Phillips says:

    In the war of many, many wine words, maybe “balance” is the problem – Maybe we’re in pursuit of “harmony,” whatever that eventually means for each of us. Balance is perhaps too prescriptive a term; harmony is, well, the stuff of ethereal experience – up to us to describe.

  22. Bob Henry says:

    A call out to John Skupny at Lang and Reed winery:

    Scroll up to your earlier comments, and click on your (linked) name.

    The security alert message is pretty ominous.

  23. John Skupny says:

    Bob et al… Thanks for the heads up – and apologies for not knowing my name (never hidden) linked to our website. We were notified, after my post, that a section of our web page had been hacked and it came through google chrome – the problem is being delt with. Fortunately, you got an ominous warning, something I would have loved to get when IPOB co-opted a great word in our industry.

  24. Bob Henry says:

    You’re welcome, John.

    Taking our lead from KC, there is always In Pursuit of Harmony (IPOH).

    Not to be confused with Tina Caputo’s quip on HoseMaster:

    “Fear not, Ron, IPOB’s sister organization, IPOO (In Pursuit of Oak) is still going strong!”

    As Sherlock Holmes said to his sidekick: “Alimentary, my dear Watson.”

  25. Bob Henry says:

    On the subject of higher alcohol wines . . .

    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section
    (August 7, 2011, Page G6):

    “Alcohol Levels Can Make Big Difference”

    By Michael Apstein
    “Health” Column

    “I only had two glasses of wine.”

    It’s not an unreasonable amount to drink with dinner, yet how much you feel from those two glasses can vary widely – whether you’re worried about a curbside Breathalyzer or just hoping you don’t feel the effects the next day.

    Despite the frequent discussion of rising alcohol levels in wine, the effect on blood alcohol concentration is often overlooked. Does it matter whether you’d been drinking a lean white at 12 percent alcohol instead of a ripe Chardonnay with 14 percent alcohol or a high-octane Zinfandel?

    It’s a difficult question to answer because it depends on how you metabolize alcohol – and it’s different for men and women. But, in a word, yes – it most definitely does matter.

    Although the liver breaks down most of the alcohol we consume, alcohol metabolism really starts in the stomach, which contains an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, similar to the ones found in the liver. But not all stomachs handle alcohol the same way; gender, age and whether you ate while drinking all help determine how much alcohol is broken down in the stomach before it makes it into the bloodstream.

    Women have less of this enzyme than men (or it doesn’t work as well because it might be estrogen sensitive). As a consequence, women break down less alcohol in their stomachs, which means they will have a higher BAC even if they drink the same amount as men. Some scientists believe that the enzyme becomes less functional with age, which might help explain why people become less alcohol-tolerant as they get older.

    Alcohol is distributed only in the portion of the body composed of water, as opposed to fat. Since men’s bodies contain a higher proportion of water than women’s, the alcohol is dispersed in a larger volume, which means a man would have a lower blood alcohol despite drinking the same amount as a woman.

    The stomach pushes its contents into the small intestine, where most alcohol is absorbed. It empties more slowly when filled with food, so drinking while eating means alcohol stays in the stomach longer, where it can be broken down, resulting in lower blood alcohol levels. So eating before or while drinking — but not after — will result in a lower blood alcohol than drinking on an empty stomach. (As for the urban myth about eating butter before drinking to “protect” the stomach, it’s not true, but it will result in a lower blood alcohol.)

    Those who drink wine regularly — one or two glasses a day — will have lower blood alcohol levels than those who drink occasionally. Drinking one to two glasses of wine daily tells the liver to recruit more enzymes – to rev up the factory – to break down alcohol. Everything else being equal, a chronic imbiber will have a lower blood alcohol than a sporadic drinker because the liver has more enzymes ready to break down the alcohol.

    Most daily wine drinkers recognize this phenomenon when they have a brief illness, such as a cold, and temporarily stop drinking. After a week of abstinence, the first glass of wine has a bigger impact than usual. After a week of not drinking, the liver is out of practice.

    Even if you enjoy wine daily, how fast you drink is important because the slower alcohol is presented to the enzymes – whether they are in the stomach or liver – the more efficient they are in breaking it down before it reaches the bloodstream.

    So if you’re a 200-pound male who drinks wine regularly and has just finished two glasses over a two-hour meal, your blood alcohol will be dramatically lower than that of a 130-pound woman who drinks occasionally and has polished off those two glasses quickly.

    Still, don’t discount even the small differences in the alcoholic content of what you drink. Obviously, drinking 80-proof spirits can have more impact than drinking an equal amount of wine. But even a 1 to 2 percent variable in the alcoholic content of wine can make a big difference. (See table). When practicing moderation, keep the wine’s alcohol level in mind.

    Sidebar exhibit: BAC Comparison

    Does a 14 percent wine really get you more drunk than one at 12 percent? It can. The table below shows the blood alcohol concentration for an average 130-pound woman who consumes two 5-ounce glasses of wine over 1½ hours.

    While the alcohol content of the wine rises 25 percent (from 12 to 15 percent), BAC goes up by 35 percent – above California’s legal driving limit of 0.08 percent. As more alcohol hits the stomach, more of it gets through into the blood.

    These calculations are rough estimates because the formula does not account for differences in how the liver metabolizes alcohol, so don’t rely on these values or other calculators for determining whether it is safe to drive.

    -Michael Apstein

    [Table exhibit — not found online; reproduced from print edition]

    Alcohol Content . . . Blood Alcohol Concentration

    12% . . . 0.065%
    13% . . . 0.073%
    14% . . . 0.081%
    15% . . . 0.088%

    [See my next comment about consuming more wine alcohol than you think, based on the stemware used. ~~ Bob]

  26. Bob Henry says:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (May 1, 2007, Page D1):

    “The Accidental Binge Drinker: How Much We Really Pour”

    By Tara Parker-Pope
    “Health Journal” Column

    Chances are you’re drinking far more alcohol than you think.

    The reason? Wine, beer and spirits glasses are surprisingly deceptive, and most of us — even professional bartenders — are over-pouring the alcohol we serve.

    While too much alcohol obviously adds calories to your diet, other consequences of supersizing alcoholic beverages are even more worrisome. The health benefits of alcohol disappear and risk increases when you drink more than a few servings a day. And because over-pouring can double or even triple a standard serving size, many of us are technically “binge” drinking without knowing it, wreaking havoc on our livers and overall health.

    A standard “serving” for an alcoholic beverage is 5 fluid ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer or 1½ ounces of distilled spirits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All three portions contain 0.6 ounce of alcohol. But glasses today come in so many different shapes and sizes — tall “highballs,” wide tumblers, bowl-shaped wine goblets and now the new popular stemless wine glasses — it’s virtually impossible to estimate the right serving amount. Although a traditional wine glass holds about 7 ounces, many wine glasses today hold 16 ounces or more. Beer glasses often hold 20 ounces.

    “Often my clients think they are just having one or two drinks, when really they’re having more like three or four,” says Lisa R. Young, a New York University nutritionist.

    Try this experiment at home. Take your favorite wine or beer glass and use water to estimate drink size. Pour the contents into a measuring cup to see how close you come to the standard 5-ounce wine portion or 12-ounce beer portion.

    I did this myself, and was stunned by the result. I filled my favorite wine glass just half full. But I still ended up with 300 milliliters or 10.14 ounces — double the standard serving size. I tried again — this time with a smaller wine glass and then again with a large bowl-shaped goblet. But each time I still poured 200 milliliters or 6.76 ounces — 35% too much.

    The British Medical Journal published a study of 196 college students and 86 bartenders, asking them to pour drinks into different-size glasses. The study used 355-milliliter glasses, but one was a tall, thin highball glass and the other was a short, wide tumbler.

    Study participants were asked to pour a serving of alcohol (1½ ounces or 44.3 milliliters) needed to mix a gin and tonic or other popular drinks. They over-poured by 33% when using the short glass, but came close to the right serving with the tall, thin glass, pouring just 3% too much. Even the bartenders, who had an average of six years experience, poured 25% too much when using the tumblers.

    Another Duke University study also found college students over-poured shots by 26%, mixed drinks by 80% and beer by 25%. And the bigger the cup, the more the students overestimated a serving size.

    Pouring too much clearly adds calories. Each additional ounce of beer contains about 12 calories while an ounce of wine contains about 20 calories. But the bigger worry is that the maximum health benefits of alcohol come with just less than one serving a day for women and up to two servings for men. At that level, heart protection is high but risk for other alcohol-related health problems is at its lowest, studies show.

    People who drink somewhat more — for women, two to three drinks a day; for men, three or four — aren’t getting any extra benefit. Their overall risk, balanced with the benefits, is the same as people who don’t drink at all. But once women go above three drinks and men go above four drinks, they put themselves at far higher risk for other alcohol-related problems.

    Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as four drinks for a woman and five drinks for a man over a two-hour time frame. “People do not know how to assess how much they are drinking, and when they have two drinks on a Friday night, it is really four or five because there are multiple doses in one giant cup,” says Julia Chester assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University .

    Dr. Young says that a solution is for drinkers at restaurants to count each glass of wine, beer or spirits as two servings. And at home, conduct practice pourings with a measuring cup to see what a real serving looks like in your own wine goblet or drinking glass. And avoid short, wide glasses that increase your risk of over-pouring.

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