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:
To 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.” ~ 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.” ~ 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.
Hirsch 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.
Tyler 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.
Au 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!
Karen McNeil, The Wine Bible, 2nd edition. (New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2001, 2015), 5.