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On Balance, It's Not So Easy

Hit and miss at the third annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 12, 2013 11:22am ET

Has the wine term "balanced" been co-opted? I feared as much when a group called In Pursuit of Balance published its manifesto a couple of years ago. The group, which numbers 29 California wineries, has called for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays to be relatively low in alcohol and high in acid. Its proponents also prefer a flavor profile with more savory flavors than mere fruit.

That this runs counter to the prevailing style of these varietals in California is intentional. In Pursuit of Balance is very much a reaction to what its adherents characterize as overripe, overblown wines. From the top, I can say that I have liked my share of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in that more delicate or savory style, but my view is that there is a wide spectrum of legitimate approaches to the grape that can be called "balanced." The word is not a synonym for "light and crisp," and frankly I resent the implication that richer, more full-bodied wines can't be balanced.

Now that that's out of the way …

Last week, In Pursuit of Balance staged its third annual tasting event in San Francisco, pouring its members' Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of recent vintage for trade and consumers. I was traveling for the first two, but I made it a point to get to this one. I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

It is not lost on the balance mongers that they are struggling against a tide. Balancians hate it that most wine drinkers seem to believe that a delicious wine ought to taste of ripe fruit, feel rich in the mouth and need not tingle with extra-sharp acidity.

As I waited to taste samples of Kutch, one of the darlings of IPOB, Tom Dehlinger sidled up. Dehlinger is not a member, probably because his wines veer toward the rich end of the spectrum. "Any of these wines similar to Oregon?" he asked.

Dehlinger knows I review Oregon wines for Wine Spectator. That state's wines swing closer to the delicate end due to a relatively cool climate, but I find that the best of them center on ripe fruit, even at alcohol levels well below the dreaded 14 percent level. At least those are the ones I tend to recommend.

I asked Dehlinger why he asked. "Oh, my wife and I tried a lot of Oregon Pinot Noirs about 10 years ago," he said, "and she hated them. They were too light for her." I mentioned Domaine Serene and Bergström, a couple of wineries I thought she might like.

In the IPOB tasting, I kept looking for the kind of flavor intensity, texture and depth that I seek in Pinot Noir. I searched for Chardonnays that offered more than a tart pucker and some flavor complexity. I know those aspects are possible at moderate to low alcohol levels. I did find a few, but much of what I tasted simply lacked depth and persistence, attributes I believe wines must show to be considered outstanding.

Among those I liked, Lioco Chardonnay Sonoma Valley Hanzell Vineyard 2011 delivered focused, distinctive flavors, polished texture and real length. Kutch's Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast McDougal Ranch 2010 showed much more depth and complexity than others on similarly light frames. I liked Red Car Pinot Noir Seaview Fort Ross Estate 2011, which filled its open texture with pure dark fruit and wrapped it with elegance.

Time was running short so I skipped some producers I already knew and liked—Calera, Sandhi, Mount Eden and Wind Gap among them, but I did find a favorite. The most impressive table to me was Failla's. Its wines delivered a wide spectrum of flavors, centered on fruit but flashing nuances that persisted into long and refined finishes. Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2011, silky and refreshing, and its elegant Chardonnay Napa Valley Coombsville Haynes Vineyard 2011 both had stunning depth of flavor. I also warmed up to the crisp focus and impressive depth of Failla's Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Hirsch Vineyards 2010.

Some Balancians might consider Failla's wines over the top, but to me they proved that rich, ripe wines can indeed be balanced, too. In fact, in Burgundy some of the most celebrated bottles, such as classics produced by Henri Jayer, might be considered beyond the pale if the folks in the "balance" camp were to taste them blind. In my experience, his wines were indeed richer and more fruit-centered than most other Burgundy reds, at least when tasted young. The alcohol levels were higher too.

Although they know they are swimming against the tide, Balancians believe in what they are doing, and that's a big part of what it takes to make compelling wines. They just need to get more consistent at getting the depth of flavor and length on the palate that distinguishes great wines made from any grape anywhere. Making wines in their preferred style also involves a higher degree of difficulty, like a diver adding extra somersaults and twists. Ripe flavors are easier to drink, even if they often come with higher alcohols and lower acid levels.

I hope the Balancians get better at it, though. It's a style worth cultivating, when it works.

Richard Gangel
San Francisco, CA USA —  February 12, 2013 1:31pm ET
Harvey: I love your sarcasm: Balancians. I was unable to attend this year's event because of an engagement that occurred on the same date, but I did attend last year and my opinion was very much similar to yours as to the whole concept of what balance is in wine and how it was exhibited in the wines that were available for tasting. I haven't tasted Failla's 2011 vintage yet but I do recall that the 2010 wines that I tasted were quite good, but Failla has been consistently good over the past several years.
Scott Mitchell
Toronton, Ontario, Canada —  February 12, 2013 2:28pm ET
Always have been a big fan of Failla pinots. Make some killer Syrah too.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 12, 2013 7:06pm ET
"...there is a wide spectrum of legitimate approaches... that can be called "balanced." The word is not a synonym for "light and crisp," and frankly I resent the implication that richer, more fuller-bodied wines can't be balanced."

Yes, my thoughts exactly, and thank you for saying it, Harvey. Next thing you know, the "militant" side will take a cue from politics and start using the term "Pro-balance" to imply the rest of us are "against balance". LOL. So I think the rest of us need to coin "Pro-sanity" and "Pro-openmindedness" right now.
David Rapoport
CA —  February 13, 2013 8:38am ET
The problem isn' that IPOB exists- people should celebrate and promote things they love and feel strongly about -it's the smug attitude of derision towards any wine that doesn't fit their narrow definition of balance, as well as towards wine drinkers who might like wines that fall outside this definition.
The attitude seems driven by the movement's founder: Mr. Parr.
This is a shame, as some of the producers included are truly great
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 13, 2013 4:54pm ET
Thanks for the pats on the back Richard, Scott, Dan and David. Anyone with a dissenting view?
James Haug
Sebastopol, California USA —  February 13, 2013 8:22pm ET
Thoroughly enjoyed your article, Harvey.

I can always count on you for awesome Washington State reviews.

I totally get both you and the Balancians. Like you, I tend to like delicious wines first and foremost. When I'm paying $30+ bucks for a bottle, I don't want to hunt for the faint promise of a nose, or be underwhelmed by what's been squeezed into the bottle.

I also applaud the Balancians stance against over-ripe, over-extracted, over-oaked, high-alcohol wines.

Growing grapes and making wine is a balancing act: you've got to know when to go for it and when to back off. It is both science and art, so I think the conversation on balance is a good one and it will help winemakers make better wines.
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Canada —  February 13, 2013 9:10pm ET
Harvey. No, I think you're bang on. When we read your Oregon Pinot tasting notes, you use some pretty poignant descriptors for wines that define high-quality for you. Usually ripe flavours that flow seamlessly, or on an airy frame, make your point. I think most people agree that you can have flavour and density while maintaining freshness and proper levels of acid. After all, wines should beg for another glass, no matter what the style.
James Moseley
Rome, GA —  February 14, 2013 3:32pm ET
At the high end for Chardonnay, it seems to me that the people have spoken, and that they clearly prefer
a style opposed to that pushed by the IPOB folks. The
vast majority of these expensive, high-scoring wines
are crafted in a rich, even opulent style, though I would not describe them as "unbalanced".
Andrew Alley
NC —  February 15, 2013 12:17am ET

It seems like some people are missing the point of the IPOB and its member wineries. This is not some band of radicals, espousing contrarian ideas just for the hell of it. The IPOB crowd includes some of CA's most distinguished winegrowers and producers (Hirsch, Ehren Jordan of Failla, Ted Lemon of Littorai, Pax Mahle of Wind Gap). Most of these guys have decades of experience.

To me, the true purpose of IPOB is to get people to appreciate, drink & ultimately grow/produce wines like citizens of the Global Wine World. A strong respect & appreciation of the ultimate role of wine as a dance partner, harmoniously pairing with food is key.

I think many of the winegrowers in the IPOB camp certainly can appreciate the abundant ripeness of fruit that can be achieved in California's generous climate ... but many of them are finally asking, "What more are we capable of?"

In my mind, their aspirations are essential for the evolution of fine wine in America.

Kevin Harvey
California —  February 15, 2013 10:55am ET
The "tide" that you suppose these wines swim against receded long ago. Also I think your views of what consumers are looking for, and what CA is capable of, are quite antiquated.

The wineries presenting here are some of the most successful new wineries in CA. If you think there is not very strong demand for this style, you are truly living in an echo chamber of decades past.

Meanwhile there is a reason that most of CAs ripest producers have "dialed it back" (ie the tide went out). That reason is that the market did not want the wines!!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 15, 2013 11:07am ET
"In my mind, their aspirations are essential for the evolution of fine wine in America."

I totally agree, and thanks for your reasoned perspective, Andrew. The Balancians have an uphill climb, and often fall short of the summit (largely because they are trying to fit the square peg of a sunny clime into the round hole of a Burgundian model). But when they do get to the top (Failla was my example from this event, but there are others in California), the results can be rewarding.

Whether that turns out to "more" or just "different" is immaterial to me. Count me among those who want a variety of styles, tuned to the occasion, the mood and the food.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 15, 2013 11:15am ET
Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin. I agree, California's over-all style has dialed back from the excessive alcohol and extract of the mid 1990s. It's most evident to me in Chardonnay where the big buttery, oaky pattern has swung back toward a more middle-of-the-road style. I do think that's an improvement. But the echo chamber is really among the zealots, who still are talking to a relatively small percentage of wine drinkers.

As I replied to Andrew, I am all for diversity. I want to see these guys succeed, but I also don't want to lose perspective.
Alan Rath
California —  February 15, 2013 1:35pm ET
Have to agree with Kevin Harvey. The tide turned several years ago. Many may have missed it, those who continue to follow only the reviews of the principal critics here at WS. Others have discovered a wide world of interesting, fascinating wines that have qualities beyond just saturating your palate with sweet, lush fruit.

What I find unfortunate, Harvey, is the need to denigrate a group that is striving to create wines of a certain style. Instead, why not celebrate diversity?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 15, 2013 2:45pm ET
Alan, if I must choose between fruit and savory, I will take fruit. But I would rather a wine find a balance of both, with emphasis on fruit. And I don't think my bottom line was denigrating. Just pointing out that this lighter style is harder to do well and therefore misses more often. In the Oregon wines I review they seem to succeed at a higher rate.
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  February 15, 2013 7:22pm ET

I agree with your last statement about denigrating a group that is creating wines of a certain style entirely. So when Kevin Harvey writes, in another forum, "for many of us the bitter burn of vodka accentuated by sharp Kool aid-like tartaric additions is much harder to drink" then you are willing to distance yourself from those comments?

I'd think it much more difficult to find similar comments from wineries who make more fruit forward wines about those wines that are leaner in style. Perhaps I am wrong about that, if so I'd love to hear them.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  February 15, 2013 9:16pm ET
Harvey, your post came across a little insecure to me. Nobody is trying to take away your ripe pinots or is calling you names for enjoying the big and lush style of wines you prefer. Like Andrew said, this is a pretty experienced group of winemakers. They strive to make something that is more than just a pinot with ripe fruit. It’s clear you prefer ripe fruit over other characteristics in wine, which is your right as a consumer and a critic. Thankfully for you, there are plenty of choices for you to enjoy in CA and Oregon. I like fruit as well, but I’m looking for more complexity than just sweet fruit and I have found that with a number of producers that pour at the IPOB.

I do agree that the name of the event is unfortunate and causes some, like you, to get a little ruffled up. If you can get past the name and look at the individual producers you will see it’s a bunch passionate small business owner’s that are making wines they truly believe in which is something I think we can all get behind.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 15, 2013 11:21pm ET
OK Glenn, what's the difference between these two statements?

"if I must choose between fruit and savory, I will take fruit. But I would rather a wine find a balance of both, with emphasis on fruit." (Me)

"I like fruit as well, but I’m looking for more complexity than just sweet fruit." (You)

We are saying the same thing.

I listened to the IPOB crowd denigrate riper, higher-alcohol wines than theirs in the panel discussions that preceded the tastings. Some of their followers are even more denigrating.

I applaud what they are trying to accomplish, and I noted the wines I appreciated the most among those I tasted. But it's hard to deny that it's a steep climb to get the depth, length and intensity that characterizes an outstanding wine within the parameters they set for themselves. So far, results are all over the board.
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  February 16, 2013 2:02am ET
We are obviously not saying the same thing because I enjoyed a number of the wines at IPOB that you probably found were lacking “depth, length and intensity”. And that is fine by the way. Wine is not an exact science so what is balanced to you might taste like melted candy to me and what might be balanced for me tastes like broccoli water to you. That is what is great about our domestic wine choices these days. There is a wine out there to match most palates, which I think was harder to find just 5 years ago.

My main reason for noting some insecurity on your part was the silly name calling like balance mongers and balancians. Plus quotes like “Balancians hate it that most wine drinkers seem to believe that a delicious wine ought to taste of ripe fruit, feel rich in the mouth and need not tingle with extra-sharp acidity”. That statement, especially the word hate seems like a major stretch to me. The owners and winemakers I have met from IPOB do not hate the riper wine crowd. They just know that is not their customer base. I am sorry to hear that some denigrated the riper wine styles. While one should be free to express his love or hate for a wine, bashing a wine style in a panel discussion is probably not the most effective way of promoting their cause and could create an unnecessary divide.

Like I said, I fully understand that the name of the event invites little jabs and I know some of your comments and name calling were very tongue in cheek. I do find it amusing though that the “big wines can be balanced too” crowd feels so threatened by these little “balance mongers” every year when the IPOB rolls around.
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  February 16, 2013 9:19am ET

I am not sure if you are including other wineries in your "big wines can be balanced too" crowd....but as I mentioned before, I'd be interested in where wineries in that crowd have denigrated the style of those wineries at IPOB.


Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Dan Kosta
Sebastopol, CA —  February 16, 2013 12:53pm ET
From my POV, the only reason that anyone would be threatened and defensive about the IPOB group is because IPOB went on the offensive years ago. Reminds me of the ABC group from the mid nineties. Why dismiss (or worse yet, denigrate) a certain style of wine in the process of fine tuning your own vision? THat's THE definition of insecurity. The reality is that the winners in this game are those that hold true to a vision and passion, without succumbing to political game-playing and name calling in order to make up for short comings in their endeavours.
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  February 16, 2013 4:18pm ET
Adam, I was speaking of critics and consumers.

Dan, you are obviously in the business and would have a better feel for this than me, but I have not heard one negative thing said about any specific wineries making bigger wines while tasting at IPOB or while visiting wineries that participate at IPOB. All the discussions I have been a part of have centered around the sites that grapes are growth and the passionate people making the wines.

Again, while the name might stir up some emotion for some, I hope IPOB keeps growing and inspiring more and more winemakers to look for sites that can produce wines that express depth, length and intensity to my palate. They might taste “light and crisp” to Harvey, but that is fine as there are plenty of bigger pinots to be found to satisfy him and others looking for that style. Both styles have a bright future in CA, I’m just glad the more restrained (for lack of a better term) style seems to be gaining a little more momentum each year as it gives us consumers more choices.
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  February 16, 2013 8:29pm ET
Glenn and Harvey and Others,

While I was not at IPOB and so can't comment on any of the specific wines (except those which I have had at other times), it probably is worth noting that 2011 and (to some extent) 2010 are the two coolest vintages in my 19 year history of making CA Pinot Noir. The odds that some wines are going to be "light and crisp" or even under ripe are probably increased in these vintages....much like the odds of overripe wines were increased in years like 2003.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 17, 2013 12:34pm ET
Glenn, I will grant you that critics and consumers who favor the IPOB's stylistic range are more vocal in their disdain for riper wines than the winemakers are, but the videos of the SF seminars (available on the org's website) might be eye-opening for those who think the winemakers don't do it too.

And again, your more recent comments make me think we are closer to agreement than disagreement.

You: " I hope IPOB keeps growing and inspiring more and more winemakers to look for sites that can produce wines that express depth, length and intensity to my palate."

Me: :"I hope the Balancians get better at it...It's a style worth cultivating..."
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  February 18, 2013 6:40pm ET

I watched a few of the videos and I didn’t see any disrespect for any wineries. In fact, I thought the interview with Mr. Parr was extremely fair. He basically said balance means different things to different people and the goal of IPOB was not to go to war against the bigger/riper wines, but just to highlight some producers that are trying to make something different. To be fair, I didn’t watch all of the videos as some were just to wine geeky for me (an hour long video on whole cluster, no thanks!).

And yes, I think you and I are not far apart on wanting to support this group of wineries, I probably just think they are a little further along then you do.

One more question for you Harvey. In your December article in the mag about Oregon Pinot Noir you were talking to Mr. Bergstrom and discussing how Oregon was different from Burgundy, NZ and CA and Bergstrom said “We’re not in pursuit of balance” and you added “a reference to a group of mostly California winemakers who reject what they call an overripe style and who aim for extremely light wines”.

Now that you have actually gone to the event and tasted more of the wines, do you still think their goal is to make extremely light wines?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 18, 2013 8:34pm ET
I recall some Chardonnay panel members repeatedly disparaging the fuller style, but I think we can give that debate a rest.

At the event at least 2/3 of the wines qualify as extremely light, but certainly not all. I would say the goal is to make relatively light wines. Producers I review favorably in Oregon aim for a style comparable to the better wines at IPOB, among them Cristom, Bethel Heights, St Innocent and JK Carrière. I'm not against the style, just saying it's harder to do well. So far I taste greater complexity and length from the Oregon gang.
Greg Malcolm, St. Louis, MO —  February 19, 2013 3:25pm ET
Harvey: A quick review of the WS Wine Ratings shows that only one wine from the four wineries listed (the 2010 BH Casteel Reserve) is in the top 100 rated Oregon Pinot Noirs. Beyond that you have to go into the second 100 to find any Cristom or other Bethel Heights; into the third 100 to find any St. Innocent and into the eighth 100 to find any JK Carriere. The producers that you review more favorably than BH/Cristom/JKC/StI are Archery Summit/Beaux Freres/Berstrom/Domaine Serene, etc. -- i.e., in general, the 'Big' style Pinots. That is not a criticism. It is a simple statement based on looking at the list. What I don't understand is your reluctance to make a structured logical arguement for the Big style that you prefer. This would be a much more informative and interesting dialoge if it was undertaken from the standpoint of emphasizing what you like and why, instead of denigrating styles that you obviously don't prefer.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 19, 2013 4:08pm ET
Seriously, Glenn, if you just want to cherry pick, I can point to Evening Land, King Estate, Brittan, Knudsen Erath, Ken Wright, Adelsheim and Sineann among my 100 most highly rated Oregon PInot Noirs. I don't just reward richer, fuller bodied styles. Let's leave it at that.
Greg Malcolm, St. Louis, MO —  February 19, 2013 6:00pm ET
Harvey: Thanks for the response. First of all, it's Greg, not Glenn. I'm not as articulate as Glenn! Secondly, I never said that you "just reward richer, fuller bodies styles." What I said is that you review the bigger styles more favorably. This is self evident based on the WS Wine Rating Data -- no cherry picking. Thirdly, there is no problem with having a personal preference. Thus, it's not clear why you are being so defensive about this. I don't have a stylistic dog in this fight: I own a range of Oregon Pinot styles, from Archery Summit to Westrey. Likewise, with California Pinot. Different wines for different occasions. There is room for more than one style, without resorting to name calling and derision.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 19, 2013 7:19pm ET
Greg, apologies. Let me try a different response.

When I taste Oregon Pinot Noir I actively seek the delicacy, transparency and refinement that the Pinot Noir grape can attain so gracefully. In my view, the same attributes that make any wine great separate the best from the rest—complexity, depth of flavor and length. Lighter style wines often come off as simple and pretty, charming but without the complexity that makes every sip a revelation. When they get it all (Evening Land's wines come to mind) I slap a big score on them.

But I can't ignore what's missing. I downgrade big wines when they seem clumsy, and delicate wines that lack complexity, depth and length.

And that brings me back to the headline, and the gist of what I was trying to convey. Riper styles seem to get that complexity, depth and length more consistently, and thus the list of my highest scores is populated with more of them than the lighter styles. Nothing would please me more than to hold up an increasing number of examples of lighter styles that accomplish what a great wine is supposed to do.
Dave Kiefer
Westfield, NJ —  February 19, 2013 10:05pm ET
As dedicated follower of great Pinot, I would like to point out that no one has mentioned that there is a time and a place for both of the styles being discussed. I find the lighter, more acidic pintos more food friendly, while the bolder, fruit driven Pinots are great on their own. Bottom line is that there are horses for courses and plenty of great Pinots out there these days for whatever mood strikes, or whatever dish is on the menu. Final note: I'm fortunate enough to have both Siduri and Kosta Browne in my cellar and love both of them (keep up the good work, guys). Failla, Chasseur and Papapietro Perry are my other favorites.
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  February 19, 2013 11:53pm ET
Sounds like you owe me an apology Harvey, not Greg. I wasn’t cherry picking! ☺

I would like to thank you for responding to this thread Harvey. I think its great that readers can participate in these blog entries.

I have to respectfully disagree that the IPOB crowd’s goal is to make “light wines”. While the result my taste light to you, I have never heard that term used in describing these wines before and for sure have not heard the winemakers use that term. I’m not going to compare these wines to Burgundy, because Burgundy they are not, but I will say the goal of this group seems to be similar to some of my favorite producers in Burgundy and that is to make a wine that evokes a sense of place and vintage and not the heavy hand of the winemaker. So far, I think they have really succeeded and I’m excited at what the future will bring for CA.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 20, 2013 11:12am ET
I believe the point behind using the word "balance" in the group's name is to reflect a stated goal of lower alcohol levels (in the 12s and 13s). In their view that's not light, it's normal, and they see the usual alcohol levels in California Pinot (14s and 15s) as heavy. All in how you look at it.

It's been a fruitful discussion. I appreciate being pushed to support my views, especially when the level of discourse is as civil as this has been.
Andrew Alley
NC —  March 4, 2013 1:28pm ET
Just an interesting observation ... Who would have ever thought a group of California chardonnay and pinot noirs would ever be criticized for being too "light" or "delicate"?

The true benefit of the IPOB movement is exactly what has happened in these posts ... to engender debate and provoke serious questions about the past, present and future potential of Pinot noir/Chardonnay as grown in CA.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 4, 2013 2:38pm ET
In thinking back to the wines I tasted at IPOB's event, the winery that stood out for me aside from Failla was Wind Gap. Its Pinot Noirs had beguiling red fruit character on a light, tight frame. I would happily drink them, but missing for me was the sort of length and complexity that distinguishes great Pinot, or justifies the prices asked. Maybe that will come with cellaring.

I am not trying to discourage IPOB's members. I recognize that it's harder to get great expressiveness within the limits they put on themselves. I'll be the first to cheer when a critical mass of winemakers achieve what they're aiming for.

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