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Tilting at Balance

The In Pursuit of Balance tasting revealed some fine wines, but is the group too focused on an imaginary foe?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 24, 2015 2:30pm ET

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?

Adam Aldrich
Denver —  February 24, 2015 6:57pm ET
I've followed the IPOB movement and have purchased wine from Ceritas, Failla, Peay, and Sandhi. I wonder whether the IPOB folks are too wedded to the low alcohol, high acidity approach. California is not the Cote d'Or so why try to emulate it? History has shown that the style of wine coming from California has changed over time. IPOB may evidence a style change for some people and it certainly provides for good debate, but it is way too early for IPOB to self label the movement as the "new California wine."
Dustin Gillson
Dayton, OH —  February 25, 2015 7:57am ET
I think the low alcohol/high acidity movement in California Chardonnay may have begun as a way to emulate Burgundy, but it has moved well past that at this point. I think by shifting the wine-making philosophy toward the methods used in Burgundy, California has created something entirely new. I love the wines being made by folks like Liquid Farm and Ceritas, but do not need to compare them to Burgundy to lend any credibility, they are wonderful on their own. And in the price range that California Chardonnay of this caliber generally sits, it is really a toss up whether you could quickly find something inherently more enjoyable from Burgundy.
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  February 25, 2015 8:23am ET
Well I can make an argument that although the self trumpeting of things like this can be trying, all I ever sense these days is that old guard publications that staked their claims on a very specific type of wine and a certain style don't like pushback. I can tell you that a certain California syrah that JL lambasted as simple and thin with 83 points is one of my favorite wines. It is not simple and thin, its just not the style he likes.
I am sorry that the hegemony of WS and WA are now being challenged and that is a threat to the status-quo but there is room for more than one type of palate in the world and both sides can now be heard rather than only one.
James Molesworth
New York —  February 25, 2015 12:27pm ET
Thanks for the comments - all well said.

Jason: I don't think this is about any battle for world wine writing dominance or threat to hegemony. I've always been a big-tent player when it comes to the wine game.

I've visited with some of these producers, such as Pax Mahle (http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/50068), Jamie Kutch
(http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/50076) and Flowers (http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/47274). I like and respect many of the producers and their wines.

This is about the fact that IPOB isn't a guarantee of quality, or even a mark of uniform style - heck, one of the Au Bon Climat Chards at the tasting had spent two years in 100 percent new oak.

It's about the fact that IPOB is a marketing group, and I think people should always consider the motivation of the messenger before believing the message.
Sao Anash
santa barbara —  February 25, 2015 3:09pm ET
Agree with Mr. Molesworth here 100%. Some really brilliant wines like Ceritas, Larue and Tyler included in IPOB, but it's a marketing group, plain and simple. No shame in that, but to suggest its anything more is disingenuous.
James Molesworth
New York —  February 25, 2015 4:08pm ET
Sao: Call me James, please!

I liked the Tyler as well...my 'meh' wines were Red Car and Copain, with one or two others. But as I said, overall there were more positives than negatives...
Shannon Brock
Lodi, NY, USA —  February 27, 2015 8:53pm ET
In Europe, most benchmark wines are marketed as an appellation group. Why don't producers do this in the US? (In my opinion, it is because appellation holds relatively little meaning compared to Europe and even Canada). Should we make appellation more meaningful in the US?

If not, what principle can producers organize around that would be authentic (or perceived by most to be authentic)? It may be easy to poke holes in the IPOB group's mantra... but how would you do it differently?

It's indeed surprising that such highly-acclaimed producers would feel the need to compare their wines to Burgundy. Also, the "Manifesto" on their web site doesn't seem particularly definitive. I wonder how membership in the group is determined?

My particular favorite marketing group is the VDP of Germany, a prestigious association of estate producers focused on high quality. An organization like this in the US would be a great asset.
James Molesworth
New York —  February 28, 2015 9:49am ET
Shannon: Great point - if the claim that 'authentic' wine speaks of origin, why are they not discussing their terroir more, or helping to educate other and better define the AVAs they believe in? Why is the discussion always about technique, style, alcohol level, what's hip or new, etc?

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