Continuing My Pursuit of Balance in #Wine

I was struck with sadness on May 23, 2016, when I received the email from In Pursuit of Balance that they are ceasing their operations at the end of this year. I have never had the pleasure of attending one of their tastings but I am regular consumer of the wineries that participate in IPOB. Since the fall of 2015 I have had on my list of articles to write one featuring IPOB; however, this is not what I had in mind. Furthermore, I really had no idea how controversial IPOB has been over its eight year tenure. In researching this article I have peered down the dark alley of the wine underworld; what lurked in that darkness was quite unattractive.

If you are not familiar, IPOB is a non-profit organization founded by Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr to fuel a conversation about the importance of balance in California wines. In the conclusion of the IPOB article, Parr explained, “IPOB was founded to show what balance in wine means to us. It started as a small event to draw attention to producers who weren’t chasing after ratings from wine critics. It wasn’t supposed to be an ideological war, but we felt that balanced wines (in California) weren’t being paid enough attention to by the wine community, so we decided to shine some light on what we were doing.” Hirsch elaborated by adding “There was an information gap between the full-throttle, high-alcohol wines, and the more subtle, nuanced wines our member wineries were producing. We felt that we could best put our message out as a group, which is why we created IPOB.”

The purpose of IPOB as explained in their manifesto:

IPOB logoTo bring together like-minded growers, winemakers, sommeliers, retailers, journalists and consumers who believe in the potential of California to produce profound and balanced pinot noirs. This isn’t a rebellion, but rather a gathering of believers. The wines presented here should speak for themselves and lay the groundwork for a discussion on the nature of balance in California pinot noir.

Why is it controversial to pursue balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? Well my first indication of the controversy came in reading Joe Roberts of 1WineDude’s article, “In Other Words, The Wine Biz is Pretty F*cked Up (Thoughts on the Closure of IPOB).” If the title was any indication I was stepping into a rabbit hole of controversy that I tend to avoid in my life. Joe explained that both Parr and Hirsch were aware of the controversy and found it rather frivolous. I agree, isn’t there enough wine and consumers in the world for everyone to avoid finger pointing for opposing styles? In Joe’s article he furthers the point by stating “And there it is. That, right there, encapsulates what’s so odd about the fine wine biz. Largely speaking, there is enough room for everyone, and yet position-jockeying and ego in the wine media is apparently so entrenched that tiny portions of the fine wine marketplace are seen as threats that must be mocked, debated, or ignored out of existence.” However, there are many dissenters. Among them is Tim Fish, Wine Spectator, who defended his position in a 2014 article titled “California Wine Doesn’t Need Saving.” In a nut shell Mr Fish explained every 10 to 20 years a new movement comes along to point out the deficiencies of California wines. He saw IPOB as the latest in a long line of nay-sayers and saw no relevance in their movement of manifesto. However, Wall Street Journal writer Jay McInerey wrote in his 2014 article “The Wine Club for Cool (and Well-Balanced) Kids, “Personally, I think the group represents some of California’s most exciting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers. But I’m a Burgundy nut; if your palate skews toward ripe, intense fruit flavors, you may want to shop elsewhere.” And this is where I come in.

I have an old world wine palate. There was a time in my wine consumption that the bigger, juicier, over-anything the better. But I also started out like white zinfandel. Fast forward through my 20’s, 30’s and now in my 40’s I appreciate the subtlety of balanced wines. These wines can and do come from anywhere in the world, do not read “old world” to mean a location, read it to mean a style. Yes, California is known for producing giant fruit bomb, over oaked wines. But they are NOT the only ones who craft such wines. Furthermore, California is also known for producing some of the best wines in the world. This is not an either/or, black and white conversation. Frankly those who seek such are just immature or bullies or both. Balance is a style not a location, some like it, others don’t. The best wine for you is the wine you like. I just so happen to absolutely LOVE Pinot Noir and I love it because of its delicate nature.

“Balance is the characteristic a wine possesses when all of its major components (acid, alcohol, fruit, and tannin) are in equilibrium. Because no single component sticks out more than any of the others, a balanced wine has a kind of harmonious tension of opposites.[1]” ~ Karen McNeil, The Wine Bible

Karen McNeil compared a balanced wine to Thai soup, where the spice, heat, sweetness and acidity all come together in balanced harmony. I enjoy Tom Yum Gai soup. The heat from the curry is balanced with the creaminess of the slightly sweet coconut milk, together they wrap my palate in a crisp, acidic mouth-feel that creates harmony.

“Great wine is about nuances, surprise, subtlety, expression, qualities that keep you coming back for another taste. Rejecting a wine because it is not big enough is like rejecting a book because it is not long enough, or a piece of music because it is not loud enough.[2]” ~ Kermit Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

All this is to say, controversy aside, I have and will continue to thoroughly enjoy the member wines and wineries of IPOB and I would like to encourage you to seek out these wines if balance agrees with your wine-loving style. To better give an understanding to those unfamiliar with IPOB, here are three member Pinot Noirs that I have recently enjoyed.

IPOB Wines

IPOB Hirsch Pinot NoirHirsch Vineyards San Andreas Fault Sonoma Coast 2013 Pinot Noir: This gorgeous wine poured a soft ruby into the glass; integrated notes of tart cherry, blackberry, red currant, white tea, dried rose petals, white oyster mushrooms, and minerality all entice the nostrils and dance across the palate in harmonious unison, an elegant wine that continued to evolve through the last sip, perfectly balanced, soft and delicate but not at all shy, beautifully structured with balanced acidity and tannins, this wine pairs great with food but I prefer to savor every drop by itself; this wine is the signature Pinot of Hirsch vineyards and is crafted to represent the complexity of the vineyard containing fruit from 24 of their 61 distinct farming blocks; aged in 100% French oak barrels with approx. 35% new; 13.1% ABV. SRP $60, buy direct from Hirsch Vineyard.

IPOB TylerTyler Bien Nacido Vineyard Old Vine 2013 Pinot Noir: This wine was crafted from grapes sourced from 40 year old vines in the western edge of the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County and is comprised of clone 667; it poured a bright scarlet into the glass; a bounty of red summer fruit including strawberries, red raspberries, cherries and plums were met with a hint of cherry cola, crushed dried violets, white tea, spice notes and white pepper fill the glass and develop in layers of flavors and textures across the palate, a complicated, well-balance wine with rounded acidity and soft yet dusty tannins, refined and elegant in every way, harmonious to the point that as the wine continued to evolve it became harder to distinguish each flavor from the next; 13% ABV; SRP $64.99.

IPOB Au Bon ClimatAu Bon Climat Talley Vineyard – Rincon Arroyo Grande Valley 2011 Pinot Noir: This wine was crafted from grapes sourced from the Talley Vineyard in the Arroyo Grande Valley in San Luis Obispo; it poured an alluring soft garnet with a touch of orange at the rim into the glass; soft summer red fruit of strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums are joined by spice notes, black tea, a soft touch of cola, resting comfortably on a firm bed of minerality; seamless harmony of fruit and earth dance across the palate with the black tea notes lingering in a long, pleasing finish; a true finesse wine that evolves through the last sip, delicate in nature yet firm in acidity and integrated tannins, a true gem; aged 18 months in French oak barrels; 13.5% ABV; SRP $50; buy direct from Au Bon Climat

Take a moment to browse through the list of 2016 IPOB member wineries. If you are a lover of balanced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir save this link because these are the wines and wineries you want to support. Even though IPOB is concluding its formal non-profit at the end of 2016, the pursuit of balance in wines continues for those of us who desire it. Furthermore, wine influencers like Craig Camp of Troon Vineyard in southern Oregon continue to carry the torch in crafting balanced wines using a variety of grapes in an outspoken fashion, while other wine makers all along with western coast of the US craft harmonious wines of balance in a quiet fashion. I know this because I receive samples from them regularly. All this being said I am not about to tell you how to drink wine and what wine to like. This is the very reason I never place a numeric value to the wines I share with you. We all have our tastes and preferences, thankfully there is plenty of wine styles for everyone. For me, if I am stranded on a desert island I want IPOB wines with me.

My Song Selection: I debated whether or not to include a song pairing in this article, in the end I have decided that the balance of music is every bit as important as the balance in wine. Most unbalanced songs are never even recorded, unless of course you like punk or grunge (which I do like both). Seeking a balanced song to pair with these three balanced wine was not hard at all, so many to choose from, I just selected the first one that came to mind, but hard to argue with its greatness.

Get your own bottles of IPOB member Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines and let me know what song you pair with them. And please share your thoughts with me about balance in wine; agree, disagree, important, not so important, I would love to hear what you think about this topic. Cheers!

[1]Karen McNeil, The Wine Bible, 2nd edition. (New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2001, 2015), 5.

[2] Ibid.6.

14 responses to “Continuing My Pursuit of Balance in #Wine”

  1. A wonderful read Michelle. I had the pleasure of attending two IPOB events and tasting through quite a few of the wines. Like you, my palate skews toward the “Old World” style (And thank you for pointing out that Old World isn’t a place). I love the style of wines produced by IPOB members (though a few were too lean for me) Balance, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I never understood the IPOB controversy. I reminded me of a conversation about race I’ve had a few times. It goes like this. Does being pro-Black make you anti-White? Not in my book. No more so that supporting and encouraging women makes you anti-male. It seems many see these things in a binary way. I don’t think they should. The other thing I saw as a criticism re: IPOB is that it was purely marketing. I’m not sure what in the wine world isn’t….in the end I suppose haters are gonna hate…Preaching peace, love and happiness here…

    • Thank you Martin. It seems each winemaker is free to craft any style of wine they like and consumers are free to drink any style of wine they like, so what’s controversial. The pursuit of balance does inherently make other wines unbalanced. Like you said people are too binary. I prefer the message of drink what you like, of course your message of peace, love and happiness! Cheers friend!

  2. Tyler and ABC Pinots are stunning, and their balance is part of why I love new world wines… being an old world, francophile by upbringing. This is a great piece, and I’m sorry that IPOB is having these issues when I feel that EVERYONE has a right to drink what they like, enjoy it, & promote it. I’ve read good arguments from both sides of the fence on this (I thought it was really a single-sided argument at first) so I’m not going to engage, other than to say- thanks for this, it’s a great blog piece, I adore these wines and am sorry to see IPOB go.

    • Thanks Jim. I understand your position. Seems like there is enough to go around. I am sorry IPOB is closing but the wines remain and its important people who seek balance know these wines. Cheers friend!

  3. I completely agree with jim and martin. It is a shame that IPOB has had such hurdles to overcome when it really should be about people being able to drink what they like whether they have an old or new world palate. Unless I’m missing something, why did people feel obligated to sling SH&% at people who wanted to make better wines, wines that in balance? Another life question, I guess.

    • You know how someone losses weight and others are somehow not happy for them because then they must reflect on their poor eating choices? I am guessing some feel IPOB somehow points the finger at them for not being IPOB. As my son says, “do you mom.”

  4. Michelle, this is an awesome read. Thanks for the research in putting this together! But when it comes to the style of wines that I prefer, I am going to take the opposite side and say I like New World Wines over Old World. But…there are some fantastic Old World Wines that I enjoy. Hope this doesn’t sound too “on the fence” with my opinion. When it comes down to it, I prefer the Big Bold Fruit Forward High Tannin Red Wines.

    I didn’t realize like you that this was such an issue. It’s funny how some take something that is to be enjoyed and over complicate things.

    Oh well, I’ll just keep drinking what I like depending on my mood, weather, music, or what suits me at the time.


    • Cheers to that Mark. I certainly enjoy big reds, Tannat, Malbec, Barolo, etc. I just prefer big fruit is balanced with earthiness and acidity. But that is just my taste, not right or wrong. Wine preferences should not be a binary, divisive issue. Keep drinking and enjoying what you like Mark!

  5. I had no idea your preference of wine was such a controversy! Of course, I have health issue with mine, but still… Anyways, this was a great read, and I’m sorry to hear this organization that you valued so much is closing. xo (p.s. love Miles Davis!)

  6. Nice work, Michelle. I’m with you on the preference side. My frustration is that we, as a community, can’t seem to respect all tastes. I’ve backed off from referring to bold wines as “giant fruit bomb, over oaked wines”, even though that’s how I read them. For another person, they are simply flavorful fruit forward wines with alluring vanilla aromas.
    My wish: Let’s find nice words to describe both styles, and then use them consistently to describe wines so we can understand the approach and drink accordingly. Finally, as much as I avoid the big, fruity wines, when I smoke ribs, fruit bombs pair the best. I usually eat a piece of humble pie for dessert.
    As far as IPOB is concerned, I was a big fan, but I’m not too worried about Jasmine or Raj; they’re doing ok. I think they accomplished their mission 110%.

    • Well said Jeff. You mentioned the desire for a common language this past weekend at WBC. As you know from my writing I do not use derogatory words to describe “big” wines either; instead opting for more descriptive words to paint a picture. I am sure some of my audience loves that style. Additionally, like you said they are perfect for certain meals, as long as they still have balance. Many CA wine makers craft “big” wines that are balanced. But after all is said and done the best wine for anyone is the one they like! Cheers friend!

  7. First, I would argue that all winemakers are seeking balance, so I disagree with your assertion that “[b]alance is a style….” I would say that balance is a goal that all winemakers look to achieve. I disagree with Raj and Jasmine that balance can only be achieved in Pinot (and Chardonnay) at under 14% ABV, as any time you draw a line in the sand like that, the line itself is usually arbitrary.

    I have had wines over 14% that were wonderfully balanced and wines under that number that were a bit out of balance. It is not the number itself, but the talents of the vineyard manager and winemaker that determine whether a wine is balanced or not. I highly doubt that winemakers like Adam Lee (Siduri) or Brian Loring (Loring) would say that their wines are out of balance, but since they are regularly above 14% ABV, they were excluded from IPoB. In fact, I would even argue that the vast majority of winemakers have no idea what the alcohol levels of their wines are since they are looking to achieve balance, not trying to get them under a certain number.

    I, like you it seems, tend to prefer more of a restrained, nuanced Pinot, but there are plenty out there that prefer a more full-throttle style. Neither style is “right” or “wrong” just different. I attended IPoB several times and enjoyed the wines and the experience, but to say that those wines were “superior” to wines with higher alcohols is at best short-sighted and at worst unnecessarily divisive.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting Jeff. I appreciate your insight and wisdom. We are totally on the same page re: ABV. I realize 14% is an IPOB guideline but like you I do not think balance is determined by an ABV %. For example Alban Vineyards produces pretty high ABV Syrahs and they are beautifully balanced. I also think Sidiri and Loring (I have a case of Loring Pinot in my cellar) produce very balanced pinots. Furthermore, I am sure you are right as far as winemakers not paying attention to ABV for the most part.
      What I don’t care for is the general discussion that surrounds IPOB is that there is a “right” way to make wine and if one is not aligned with that style there is a need to “make wrong.” I have a friend who loves a particular Aussie producer that I simply cannot drink. The wines IMO lack balance. Yes, the ABV is high but the wines are jammy and hot and I simply do not care for them. This same friend did not like three Loring Pinots I poured for him b/c they were too “light.” Neither he or I is wrong, just prefer different styles.
      The one thing you said I do disagree with is “all winemakers are seeking balance.” I have had far too many unbalanced wines to believe this to be true. Maybe I am jaded but some wines are so terribly out of balance that the wine maker seeking balance would be like Stevie Wonder driving a car. Earlier this year I participated in a virtual tasting of Sonoma county wines. One of the red blends was so big many were choking on it. The winemaker claimed he crafted wines he liked to drink “jammy with lots of oak.” The wine clearly lacked balance and the winemaker liked it that way. Was he wrong? NO! It just was not my style.
      I do NOT believe IPOB wines are superior to any other wines. They are simply I style I prefer. Craig Camp is now making balanced wines in Applegate Valley with Tannat and Malbec, big wines, big ABV, still balanced. I think you and I are more in agreement on this issue than we differ. We just need to drink more wine together!

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