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In Pursuit of Balance: The Hand of Man or the Hand of the Land?

Jason Drew of Drew Family Cellars

Jason Drew of Drew Family Cellars

The annual In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) tastings have quickly found a place as one of the wine industry’s most important events. Initially organized by Raj Parr of the Michael Mina restaraunt group as a one-off event in San Francisco back in 2011, Raj was joined by Jasmine Hirsch, whose family owns the acclaimed Sonoma Coast vineyard named after her father, to organize the seminars and tastings. Starting in 2012, the IPOB conclaves have become a bi-coastal affair conducted in New York and San Francisco.

Most wine trade and consumer tastings are organized around something concrete, something that one can hold onto. It could be an event, like the release of a new vintage, while others might be focused on a grape (like ZAP’s annual party) or a winegrowing region. What makes the IPOB tastings so unique is that the purpose of the event is to focus attention on an idea: “to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay” as they note on their website. It’s clear that the IPOB tastings have struck a chord that resonates among passionate consumers and interested members of the trade because their events are one of the few that generates debate long after the spit buckets have been dumped and the glasses cleaned.

Following the success of the first event, Raj and Jasmine added a few industry stalwarts (including the SF Chronicle’s Jon Bonne and Failla winemaker Ehren Jordan) to help craft a portfolio of wineries that “share a commitment to seeking balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay”. The selected wineries present their wines at the trade and consumer tastings following a few educational seminars and mostly include “small, independent, family-run operations” that are usually sold direct to consumers and/or select restaurants. For many consumers and members of the trade, the IPOB tastings represent a rare chance to taste these wines.

The concept of balanced wines has become a lightning rod for the debate about lower alcohol in wines. Whether it’s in wine focused blogposts on the internet or more mainstream wine publications, the issue has gained traction in the press and polarized many in the wine community. And by that I mean winemakers and critics because the voice of consumers seems to be lost in all the noise.

Catalogs from the last In Pursuit of Balance tasting in San Francisco

Catalogs from the last In Pursuit of Balance tasting in San Francisco

But if you look at some statistics on the wines that have been poured at IPOB tastings, it seems that where the grapes are grown plays a greater role and a larger impact on making balanced wines, as least among the wines selected by the IPOB tasting panel. Over the past 4 years, wineries have poured about 400 wines from 17 different AVAs and these three appellations below are the most popular.

Sonoma Coast                                     38.4%
Anderson Valley/Mendocino                12%
Santa Cruz Mountains                          10%

It’s important to note that popular wine regions that have developed strong reputations for making quality pinot noirs like Monterey, Carneros and Russian River have been virtually excluded from the IPOB tastings. Over the past 4 years of San Francisco tastings, only 8.8% of the wines presented came from these three appellations.

The clear implication from this data is that the influence of the land is stronger than that of the winemaker’s hand in making balanced wines, and that certain regions are more likely to produce balanced wines than others. This is in sharp contrast to the notion that winemakers have control over a wine’s balance.

Happy greetings from Ehren Jordan of Failla Wines

Happy greetings from Ehren Jordan of Failla Wines

The tastings so far have probably raised more questions than have been answered (and that should be expected and encouraged). There are some very interesting topics that deserve to be addressed at future IPOB events which have so far only focused on chardonnay and pinot noir. For example, the concept of finding balance is something that could also extend to other varietals like syrah or cabernet. And what are we to make of regions that seem to be unable to make balanced wines? What will make wines from Carneros or Russian River more present at the IPOB in the future? Whatever the answers, you can be sure that IPOB events will create a healthy and vigorous dialogue in the future!!

The wines below are some of the wines poured at the San Francisco In Pursuit of Balance tastings and are available at JJ Buckley:

2011 Calera Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard

2012 Failla Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast

2011 Sandhi Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict

2012 Calera Chardonnay Central Coast

2012 Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast

2011 Sandhi Chardonnay Rita’s Crown

It’s Chardonnay Day!! Celebrating a Much Loved and Maligned Varietal

Chardonnay master Jacques Lardiere of Lois Jadot

Chardonnay master Jacques Lardiere of Louis Jadot

It wasn’t that long ago that we celebrated International Sauvignon Blanc Day, in fact it was actually just last week. Started five years ago, it has sparked a number of other “Grape Days” thanks to the increasing connections between the wine industry and social media. The goal has been to taste the grape of the day and use twitter and Facebook to share tasting experiences across the globe, raise awareness of the grape and do a bit of education on the side.

So now comes National Chardonnay Day and it’s quite logical to ask why chardonnay, one of the most popular grapes in the world, would need a day of its own? If anything, the grape probably needs a bit of love these days as chardonnay seems to be a target for any wine writer or a sommelier with an ax to grind. The term “ABC” used to refer to the alphabet or Jim Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat Winery but today is more popularly known for meaning “Anything But Chardonnay.” Wineries that specialize in chardonnay are ridiculed. It’s tough to be a chardonnay lover these days.

It wasn’t always that way. From a historical perspective, chardonnay has been around for centuries having found a long standing home in Burgundy. Going further back, UC Davis researchers have used DNA analysis to conclude that the grape is derived from a cross of pinot blanc and a more obscure varietal called gouais blanc. Other anecdotal claims have traced its’ origins back to the Middle East. Today, however, it has a global presence shared by few other varietals.

In America, chardonnay’s history is much more recent. The first cuttings came to California just over a century ago when the Wente family of Livermore sourced some rootstock from the University of Montpelier, France’s leading wine research center. Some of the first plantings to follow occurred in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Mount Eden and Ridge, in Napa with Louis Martini and Stony Hill and in Sonoma at Hanzell.

Paul and Michael Brajkovich, chardonnay masters at Kumeu River

Paul and Michael Brajkovich, chardonnay masters at Kumeu River

It nevertheless took decades before chardonnay gained a foothold with consumers in America. In fact, so little chardonnay was planted that the annual California Grape Harvest Reports put chardonnay in the category of “Other White Varietals” up until the mid-1960’s. Things began to change shortly after as the beginnings of a wine culture began to take hold in the country. A growing segment of wine drinkers started to enjoy drier white wines, moving on from the rieslings and chenin blancs preferred for the table in previous years. Thanks to the rapid growth of California’s wine industry following the Judgment of Paris, chardonnay was identified by writers and winemakers as one of the grapes that the state could produce successfully.

What accounts for chardonnay’s popularity? Part of it lies with how it is made. For one, it’s relatively easy to grow and the vines naturally produce a healthy, bountiful crop so it’s good for revenue from a grower’s perspective. In the cellar, winemakers can choose to get the wine to market quickly by fermenting in stainless steel. This low cost winemaking style popularized by wineries in Chablis are crisp and fresh appealing to those consumers who like a more elegant style of wine. Or they can invest in a more serious style that mimics the great wines of Burgundy using oak barrels and malolactic fermentation creating wines with greater texture and complexity.

Australia's Moss Wood Winery specializes in chardonnay

Australia’s Moss Wood Winery specializes in chardonnay

But chardonnay’s popularity also stems from the fact that the grape can communicate a wide array of flavors that are easily understood by novices and experts alike. For those new to wine, the language in wine descriptions can be hard to decipher, frequently scaring people away from a greater appreciation of wine. But the ability of chardonnay to easily transmit specific flavors makes it easy for consumers to identify specific flavors. Words like buttery, tropical and oaky are easy to identify in chardonnays. With that knowledge comes the confidence to tell a sommelier, “I’d like a buttery, oaky chardonnay with flavors of pineapple” and get a chardonnay from Monterey or Santa Barbara. For many. chardonnay becomes the first step to understanding the language of wine and a doorway to exploring other varietals.

But the chardonnay grape also serves an important function, creating a wine that appeals to a broad range of customers who may want something special or as an everyday beverage. It is an easy grape to like, for the consumer, the grower and the winemaker. Which is why it has been America’s most preferred wine for decades. It’s clear that just about everyone loves chardonnay, this is a day as good as any to show the grape just a bit more love. You know you want to!

Some of our favorite chardonnays at JJ Buckley:

2012 Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast

2009 La Follette Chardonnay Lorenzo Vineyard

2012 Mer Soleil Chardonnay Reserve

2011 Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountain Estate

2011 Shafer Vineyards Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch

Region Profile: Howell Mountain

Regional Spotlight: Howell Mountain

Post by Chuck Hayward | March 28th, 2013

Howell Mountain Vines

Howell Mountain Vines

Just east of downtown Napa, the small area of Coombsville was recently designated as Napa Valley’s 16th subregional AVA. Each of Napa’s subregions is distinct, showcasing a unique climate and combination of soils, perfectly reflected in the wines. At the same time, Napa’s patchwork of AVAs provides a window into the valley’s diversity, belying the misconception that the region is homogenous.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Napa Valley’s first subregional AVAs. The first to be designated entirely within Napa Valley was Howell Mountain. With its unique attributes, it it’s no surprise that the mountain was the first to be distinguished from other appellations. Altitude is what makes Howell Mountain so distinctive – grapes must be grown above 1400 feet in elevation to be eligible for its AVA status. This altitude lies above the morning fog layer that covers the valley floor, allowing for more sunshine during the day. This also allows for cooler average temperatures, often up to ten degrees lower than down the slopes, which preserves vital acidity. (more…)

For Wine Lovers Down Under, The “Options” Are Endless

For Wine Lovers Down Under, The “Options” Are Endless

Post by Chuck Hayward | March 14th, 2013

The end of the options lunch. Note the small wooden barrel for coins

The end of the options lunch. Note the small wooden barrel for coins

The Sydney Royal Wine Show is one of Australia’s most prestigious wine competitions. Ranking up there with shows based in Adelaide and Melbourne, the organizers have selected an international wine figure to serve as a guest judge since 1986 and this year, I was honored to be selected to fulfill this role. Judging duties kicked-off with one of the show’s most important traditions, the Peter Doyle Options Game.

Leave it to the Australians to take something like blind wine tasting and turn it into a game. Called Wine Options or just plain Options, it was developed by Len Evans, one of Australia’s pioneering wine educators and personalities. Legend has it that he dipped into his cellar after a long lunch and served a bottle blind, asking his mates a series of questions that became ever more specific until the wine was identified. (more…)

Ted Lemon: “The Concept of Noble Place in New World Winegrowing”

Ted Lemon: “The Concept of Noble Place in New World Winegrowing”

Post by Chuck Hayward | February 20th, 2013

Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines

Ted Lemon of Littorai & Burn Cottage

A few weeks ago, I joined a large portion of the wine world that descended on Wellington, New Zealand for Pinot Noir NZ 2013. Held every three years, the four day symposium featured lectures, tastings and seminars, attracting leading winemakers, critics and consumers from around the world.

Wine Spectator critic Matt Kramer delivered an excellent and thought provoking keynote speech that has generated considerable attention. He attempted to answer the question, “Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir?” and in his usual eloquent and captivating manner, Matt laid out his ideas regarding how to make superlative pinot. Whether you agree with him or not, Matt made a convincing argument in support of his theories. And, as might be expected, Matt’s arguments provoked some rather spirited discussions and blog posts. To any pinot (or wine) enthusiast, I highly recommend Alder Yarrow’s transcript of Matt’s lecture.

A week after the New Zealand conference concluded, I found myself with a smaller group in Australia to attend the sixth biannual Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration. As I did, many of those in the audience had also come from the New Zealand conclave, including Ted Lemon, winemaker for Littorai as well as Central Otago’s Burn Cottage Vineyard. (more…)

2010 Bordeaux: Return To Terroir

2010 Bordeaux: Return to Terroir

Post by Chuck Hayward | February 4th, 2013

Blog 1

UGC 2013 in San Francisco’s stunning Palace Hotel

Each year in January, the Union des Grand Crus, an association of 134 estates in Bordeaux, conducts a series of tastings across the United States designed to introduce the latest vintage to consumers and the trade alike. For us at JJ Buckley, the tastings provide a perfect opportunity to reassess these wines after assessing them as barrel samples one year earlier.

The latest tastings turned towards the 2010 vintage, an excellent year that was considered a return to classically-styled Bordeaux. Critics and merchants alike agree that the hallmark traits of the vintage – precise flavors, focused structure and a strong tannic backbone – will provide long-lived wines that will act as a perfect foil to the more forward and opulent qualities of the 2009s. (more…)

Pinot Noir NZ 2013 – Notes From Wellington

Pinot Noir NZ 2013 – Notes From Wellington

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 29th, 2013

Jim Robertson of Brancott Estate with Alder Yarrow of discuss the vintage

Jim Robertson of Brancott Estate with Alder Yarrow of discuss the vintage

Every three years, a large portion of the wine world descends on Wellington, the small capital city of New Zealand. Four days of informative seminars and lectures follow, combined with tastings of current and older vintages of Kiwi pinots. This year sees a large contingent of British wine critics in attendance, including Oz Clarke and Tim Atkin, alongside local representatives such as Matt Kramer and Alder Yarrow, putting forth their observations on New Zealand pinot. Aussies and locals make up most of the rest but there are many other countries represented among the 500 people in attendance.

For many in the trade, Pinot Noir NZ represents a unique opportunity to advance their knowledge about the category and, perhaps, take the steps necessary to place New Zealand’s pinots in a global perspective. I’m here to offer my comments as someone who has worked in the category for twenty years while seeking out exceptional wines for our customers. (more…)