Tilting at Balance

The In Pursuit of Balance tasting revealed some fine wines, but is the group too focused on an imaginary foe?
Feb 24, 2015

Last night I attended the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) tasting held in New York. The consumer portion ($125), a 3-hour walkaround tasting, featured more than 30 wineries pouring Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. 

IPOB, for those of you not yet familiar, is a group aimed at shedding light on wines of "balance," which the organization considers "the foundation of all wine" (noble if not exactly groundbreaking). IPOB's concept of balance is modeled on Burgundy—hence the exclusively Chardonnay and Pinot tasting—while also looking to promote wines made in cooler climates that accentuate acidity, minerality and purity rather than fuller-blown, fruit-driven expressions. Consider it the slightly more high-brow version of the anti-high alcohol/natural wine argument.

IPOB has its share of honest supporters. The idea that there can be another way to make wine, other places to make it from and other styles worth considering is exactly what makes wine fun.

But IPOB also has an exhausting cadre of sycophants via social media as well as a growing number of detractors and mounting pushback to its exclusionary style. Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon can't be balanced? Burgundy is the only benchmark for great wine? It can come off as elitist, which is exactly what can make wine no fun.

Most telling for me is laid out in the evening's tasting booklet as part of an essay on balance in California Pinot Noir: "The purpose of this event is to bring together likeminded growers, winemakers, sommeliers, retailers, journalists and consumers ... This isn't a rebellion, but rather a gathering of believers."

But if everyone in the room is already a likeminded believer, how interesting can the discussion be?

I don't begrudge any winery for doing what it can to get in touch with and introduce their wine directly to consumers. The wine world is a crowded place and IPOB gives a handful of mostly interesting, small-production wineries an effective strength-in-numbers approach. But let's be honest here: IPOB is less genuine movement and rather more clever marketing—the group's ultimate purpose is to sell wine.

I focused on the Chardonnays, rather than bounce from Chard to Pinot at every winery table, and was able to taste nearly all of them.

At the tasting, the standouts for me included Wind Gap's 2009 Woodruff Vineyard Chardonnay, which has mellowed nicely, with an alluring hazelnut thread.

Another standout, the Tyler Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, is reserved in style, with a long, minerally finish. From the same vineyard, the 2013 Chanin Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay is focused and pure, with fine acidity and subtle fruit nuances that play out nicely.

The 2012 Hanzell Sonoma Chardonnay is a tightly coiled spring of orchard fruit and minerality in need of cellaring. The 2012 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay is classy and suave while the 2013 Littorai Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay bristles with energy and glistens with fruit—it was hands-down the best of the more than three dozen Chardonnays I tasted all evening.

The less-interesting Chardonnays I tasted were either overly angular or blowsy efforts, or were just simple.

Overall though, quality among the wines was generally high and consistent. I did note that many of the wines were from the same AVAs and vineyards however. That overcrowding begs the question: How will these wineries differentiate themselves down the road if they're all using essentially the same terroir? Will they have to rely on differing viticulture or vinification techniques, which could be argued as an "interventionist" approach?

In the end, what I found most interesting was that the real benchmark Chardonnays in the room—Hanzell, Mount Eden and Littorai—were from wineries who have been making wines in their style for a generation or more.

So I wonder: Why is IPOB so obsessed with Burgundy as a benchmark as it asks if California Chardonnay is still relevant, when the benchmarks and answers are already right in front of it?

United States California Sonoma White Wines Chardonnay

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