In Pursuit of Balance in Wine

Last week I attended an event called “In Pursuit of Balance,” at the urban Bluxome Street Winery in San Francisco.

The sponsoring organization, In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB), was launched four years ago to promote dialogue about the importance and the challenges of achieving balance in California chardonnay and pinot noir. IPOB was founded by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, and by American sommelier Rajat Parr, the former wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group. Parr is now one of the owners of Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills, and Evening Land Vineyards in the Willamette Valley.

The implied goal of the organization is to offer an alternative to the strong voice and ubiquitous marketplace presence in recent years of California wines of prodigious size. These include what are often referred to as “butterball” chardonnays (aged in a high percentage of new French oak combined and made with techniques that result in buttery aromas, flavors, and textures), and “Parkeresque” pinot noirs (a style of wine that noted wine critic Robert Parker prefers: big and ripe-fruited).

The wineries in IPOB are poised to show a different style of California wine, an “Ode to Burgundy,” if you will, that is not proclaimed to be superior to other wine styles but worthy of its own recognition. The emphasis is on food-friendly wines that are site-driven. These wines are not made from grapes left on the vine until they reach extreme ripeness, leading to an escalation of alcohol percentage, and they’re not manipulated in the winery in such a way as to lose balance and all expression of vineyard site.

In these wines, grapes are not left on vines until they reach extreme ripeness, leading to an escalation of alcohol percentage, and manipulation, which results in a loss of balance and all expression of vineyard site.

The goal of IPOB vintners is to naturally achieve balance in their wines through viticultural practices and winemaking craftsmanship. The definition of the descriptive term, “balance,” seems self-evident, but it’s an abstract term not easily recognizable or measurable in wine. It’s achieved when no element (fruit extract, acid, sugar, alcohol, tannin, and texture) is out of proportion.

“Balance” is a high accolade whenever the quality of wine is discussed. With more than 300 chemical constituents in wine, it’s impossible to analytically arrive at a determination of what it is. It’s difficult to describe, but we know it when we experience it. In the words of winemaker Ted Elliott, “If a wine tastes great, yet you can’t describe it, it’s in balance.”

Thirty-one wineries participated in this year’s IPOB event. Some of the most well known represented were Calera, COBB, Drew, Failla, Flowers, Hanzell, Hirsch, Knez, Littorai, Mount Eden, Peay, Soliste, and Twomey. For more information about IPOB and its future events, visit the website at www.inpursuitofbalance.com.

My parting comment is that I really like the style of wine that IPOB champions. However, I am not a slave to any one iron-clad wine mystique. We should embrace all styles of pinot noir and chardonnay, finding purpose and charm in them all, without insisting that they adamantly adhere to traditional roles.