Balance, Alcohol and Ripeness

Jamie Kutch, owner and winemaker, Kutch Wines, prepares for the IPOB tasting in February of this year.
Jamie Kutch, owner and winemaker, Kutch Wines, prepares for the IPOB tasting in February of this year.

In recent years the perennial argument in California wine circles about alcohol levels, and along with that, what constitutes balance in wine, has intensified. Ever since California winemakers assumed their own identities following the success of Napa wines in the now legendary Paris Tasting of 1976, and stopped trying to emulate the classic models of French viniculture, California wines have become known for rich, ripe, robust flavors. And alcohol levels to match.

Lately, consumers, wine professionals, and a growing number of winemakers have begun to push back against the typically big California wines.

“I think we are now seeing a bit of a backlash because so many people have gone with richness to such an extent that now you’re getting a combination of sommeliers and formally educated American winemakers who are trying to dial things back,” observed Fred Swan, president of NorCal Wine, who writes regularly on the California wine scene.

These industry professionals, along with many consumers, have gone in pursuit of wines that are more nuanced, less alcoholic, and, some would contend, more balanced.

It is the use of this last term that has many in the wine world up in arms.

Jasmine Hirsch welcomes guests to the February IPOB tasting at San Francisco’s Bluxome Street Winery.
Jasmine Hirsch welcomes guests to the February IPOB tasting at San Francisco’s Bluxome Street Winery.

Advocating for less power and more subtlety is a group of growers and winemakers who specialize in pinot noir and chardonnay, and have come together under the “In Pursuit of Balance” (IPOB) banner, organized by Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group and founder of the Sandhi line of wines, and Jasmine Hirsch, director of sales and marketing for her family’s Hirsch Vineyards. IPOB was conceived as a way for like-minded, cool climate pinot and chardonnay producers, many of whom felt ignored by the wine media and industry leaders, who often seem to favor and reward the riper, more robust style, to come together and share their wines and their knowledge. It was Hirsch’s and Parr’s hope that IPOB would be a celebration of a more elegant style, as well as a way to show the public that the California wine landscape was far more varied than they might have imagined.

“There is no Us versus Them,” explained Hirsch. “Ripeness is such a difficult word. It’s as difficult a word as balance. I mean, what IS balance? Is a 15 % abv (alcohol by volume) Hermitage blanc not balanced because it’s 15%? Of course not. Some of those wines are 50-year wines. They are extraordinarily balanced.

“So, balance and ripeness are specific to a wine, to a vintage, to a region,” she continued. “Alcohol is a very inexact proxy for ripeness; some of our producers make wines that are regularly above 14%; even towards 14.5%. So it’s not about any one alcohol target or any one ripeness target. And, it’s not about anybody else.  We’re doing this because of us and what we believe in.”

Members of the “Relevance and Purpose in California Chardonnay” at the February IPOB tasting include, from left, Rajat Parr, winemaker, Sanhi Vineyards; Gavin Chanin, winemaker, Chanin Wine Company; Matt Licklider, proprietor, LIOCO; and Bob Varner, winemaker, Varner Wine.
Members of the “Relevance and Purpose in California Chardonnay” at the February IPOB tasting include, from left, Rajat Parr, winemaker, Sanhi Vineyards; Gavin Chanin, winemaker, Chanin Wine Company; Matt Licklider, proprietor, LIOCO; and Bob Varner, winemaker, Varner Wine.

Despite Hirsch’s insistence, some members of the wine press refuse to listen. Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman attended the IPOB seminar and tasting in San Francisco this past February. He is convinced the program and its participants are simply acting in opposition to the prevailing winds and have misappropriated the term balance. As for the wines, for the most part he was less than impressed.

“In Pursuit of Balance is very much a reaction to what its adherents characterize as overripe, overblown wines,” Steiman wrote. “...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.”

Calling participants “balance mongers” and “Balancians,” Steiman admitted having a preference for more substantial wines, but found himself disappointed.

“I kept looking for the kind of flavor intensity, texture and depth that I seek in Pinot Noir,” he said. “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.”

A year earlier, Luke Sykora, executive editor of Wine & Spirits Magazine, found just the opposite to be true, especially when it came to the chardonnays being poured.

“Rather than being thin and acidic, for the most part these wines were threaded with a surprising richness of texture and fruit,” Sykora wrote. “Many were from the cool 2010 vintage, and that’s certainly part of the story. But when I talked to Lioco’s Matt Licklider about the depth I was sensing at this low level of ripeness, he told me that, in general, he believes chardonnay in California reaches phenological ripeness much earlier than most people think.”

Exploring Whole Cluster Fermentation in Pinot Noir Seminar
Exploring Whole Cluster Fermentation in Pinot Noir Seminar

As a way of explaining such divergent assessments of very similar wines, Hirsch notes that some people have carved out careers based on a particular style or philosophy, and being open is not always to their advantage.

“I think there are people who maybe built their business, whether it’s media or a winery or a wine list, around a different style of pinot noir,” she said. “I guess there are some folks threatened by all this. But IPOB is only one part of what I think is a much larger and significant shift in the American palate. People are more sophisticated, they appreciate more refined and elegant flavors, whether it’s in wine or in food. With the growing subtlety and sophistication of the American palate not everything has to be big and robust, it can be more subtle and delicate. And there’s space for that.”

One of the more surprising defenders of much of the IPOB philosophy is Shauna Rosenblum, winemaker at Rock Wall Wine Co., and daughter of Kent Rosenblum, who forged a notable career making high-octane zinfandels under his own label before selling the brand to Diageo in 2008 and creating Rock Wall. She understands the recipe behind robust wines better than most, and knows what to do with a crop of ripe fruit. Still, she, like Hirsch and other proponents of restraint, does not believe that balance lies at a specific point of the alcohol spectrum.

“The big difference between what I’m doing and my dad was doing is that I really feel so strongly about letting the grapes express themselves,” she said. Rosenblum, who holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, respectively, in ceramics and sculpture, likens good winemaking to a fine art. “Just like in my ceramics studies, I would say the clay is going to be what it wants to be, I’m only here to be the vehicle to make it manifest. I feel the same way about winemaking.”

“My whole goal is to let the fruit speak,” she continued. “I let the grapes ripen until they taste good. When they taste good I know the wine will taste good, too.

“As a result we are achieving a more balanced wine. Of course, there are people who will look at my 15% and 16% zins and say, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with you? You make such high alcohol wines!” My reaction is, these wines are balanced. What are you talking about?”

Shauna Rosenblum, courtesy Rock Wall Wine Co.
Shauna Rosenblum, courtesy Rock Wall Wine Co.

Rock Wall Wine Co. boasts a roster of 38 different labels from 25 varieties, sourced from 68 vineyards. Rosenblum is adamant about making sure she produces a wine for folks at every point of the alcohol spectrum. From her powerful zins at 16% that echo her father’s heyday, to light sparklers and rosés at 10% and 11%, she says she makes wines always focused on what her family and friends prefer. And no matter the alcohol levels, she knows her wines are in balance.

Still, she is somewhat confused by people who won’t try wines because of what’s on the label, i.e., alcohol content.

“People have to have an open mind when it comes to wine,” she said. “Palates are so subjective. You’re never wrong. It’s so important to really run the gamut with what you’re drinking, and, in my case, what you’re making.”

Voices on either side of this debate can push all they want, but the final word might belong to Mother Nature. The 2010 and 2011 vintages were difficult growing seasons, with weather conditions causing widespread crop loss and lower sugar and higher acid levels. Alcohol levels, subsequently, remained low. Those who have been beating the ripeness drum over the years might just need to learn a new tune.