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Editor's Letter


Doing Something About Balance

May 2011
by Jim Gordon
I can’t remember the last time I saw so many journalists show up for a wine event. The wine media practically drowns in invitations to press conferences and tastings. They have to turn down the majority.

But the topic of this event—California Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance—struck a chord, not only with writers, but with restaurant and retail trade members and with winemakers themselves. These wine professionals packed a meeting room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco in late March to hear a panel discussion and taste seven Pinot Noirs with their winemakers. Afterward, the group hiked a few blocks across Market Street to the restaurant RN74 for a walk-around tasting of Pinots from 24 wineries that support the idea of balance.

Something was happening here, and its purpose was very clear: Three constituencies came together for a very positive celebration and exploration of a style of wine in which many of them believe. After years of sniping about high-octane, mega-ripe Pinot Noir, here was a forum that dropped virtually all of the negativity and instead generated a wave of proactive energy.

No Frankenweins
Everyone knew the enemy—those inky, long hang-time, high alcohol, high pH wines that win scores high in the 90s from a small number of influential critics, attract large mailing lists but bear little resemblance to the wines that originally attracted so many in the group to Pinot Noir, the traditional red wines of Burgundy. At this event, however, they barely mentioned the enemy (except for an occasional outburst from the audience like that of Au Bon Climat founder Jim Clendenen, who declared, “Frankenweins! There’s no place for them in Pinot Noir.”) Moderator Ray Isle of Food + Wine magazine merely said that the discussion was “a reference or reaction to the fact that the current style of American Pinot Noir is robust.”

An outsider might wonder, why is this reaction necessary? Who has a problem with these well-muscled reds? The winemakers receiving the high scores for big, dense Pinot Noirs are selling their wines. They are happy. The critics giving the scores are getting plenty of affirmation from their readers who buy the high-scoring Pinots, so they are happy. The steakhouses and rib joints that like serving really noir, even sweet, Pinots to complement their porterhouses and pulled pork are happy, too.

What’s new is that the lovers of balance have finally grasped that it’s their problem, not anyone else’s, and they are the only ones who can do something about it. They want to drink (and sell) Pinot Noir that is less heavy, less inky, less sweet and more aromatic, more crisp, more dry. If they want that kind of Pinot Noir in circulation, they need to encourage winemakers to make more of it, trade members to sell more of it and consumers to buy more of it.

The key organizers of the day were sommelier Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and RN74 restaurants (he is now a Pinot Noir producer, too) and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. All seven of the wines poured during the panel discussion were tasty and well made; not one was a wimp. In fact, in the absence of any monster wines picked at potential alcohols of 15.5% to compare to, one might not have known they were mostly below 14% alcohol.

Concentration with elegance
Several speakers declared that the vineyard location and picking time are the keys to making wines with higher natural acidity, lower alcohol and thus better balance. “Getting a concentrated wine to be elegant is a real challenge,” acknowledged Sashi Moorman of Evening Land Vineyards. “But that’s the opportunity we have in California.”

The discussion and subsequent tasting provided lots more information, but there’s not enough room for it here. We are planning more reportage in Wines & Vines in the near future about how to gracefully lighten a wine’s style without sacrificing character.

My take away is that the discussion of balance in Pinot Noir is a very important one that will have eventual ramifications in the marketplace for almost all Pinot Noir makers. My personal preference in Pinot Noir is for more elegance, nuance and grace, because Pinot Noir is one of the few red wines that can achieve these. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with my tastes.

The participants in California Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance, seemed to acknowledge this, too. Their positive approach helps the debate turn the corner from bitching to advocating, and that’s a good new direction to take.

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