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04.05.2011

Low(er) Alcohol California Pinot Noir: Tasting Notes from 'In Pursuit of Balance'

ipob.jpgSpring certainly seems to be Pinot Noir season in the Bay Area. Several major Pinot focused events -- the Pinot Noir Shootout, the World of Pinot Noir, the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, the Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Passport Event, etc. -- all occur within a span of about three months. To this impressive list, we may be able to add yet one more annual event, judging by the crush of the crowd at the first ever "In Pursuit of Balance" tasting held a couple of weeks ago at RN74 in San Francisco.

This was a somewhat unusual Pinot Noir tasting in several respects, not the least of which being that it came with its own manifesto. Put together by Rajat Parr, the well-known sommelier for the Michael Mina Group of restaurants, and the young Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, this event was as much a statement as it was a tasting. Parr, who has become somewhat infamous for not selling Pinot Noirs over 14.5% alcohol in his RN74 restaurant, believes strongly that the beauty of Pinot Noir is only expressed when the wine is "in balance," and this tasting was an attempt to showcase exactly what he meant.

Of course, balance isn't exactly a straightforward thing when it comes to wine, is it? Some might say balance is in the eye of the beholder, while others would contend that it is as perceivable and concrete as the color of the wine. What is the relationship between balance and alcohol level? Between balance and acidity? Where does balance come from? The event's manifesto offers its own interpretation "Balance is the foundation of all fine wine. Loosely speaking, a wine is in balance when its diverse components - fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol - coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed."

That's a pretty good definition to start with for me, but I might add that in particular, when I speak of balance in a wine in a positive sense, I am often referring to the tension between the expression of fruit and the acidity and whatever minerality might exist in the wine. Whereas when I think about wines that are out of balance, they can be so not only because they lack acidity or lack a fruit expression, but also because some components in the wine like tannic structure or alcohol obscure other aspects of the wine.

Not assuming that there was no more to say after the drafting of their manifesto, the event began with a panel discussion moderated by Ray Isle of Food & Wine Magazine. By the time I showed up (45 minutes late thanks to meetings that ran over time at work) I caught only the last few minutes of discussion and the questions from the crowd. Judging by what I saw, it was a very interesting panel, but perhaps not definitive in its consensus on what balance actually meant. The panel was webcast as it happens, so hopefully that means a video will be forthcoming. I'll post it here when it is available.

After the panel, I joined a large crowd at RN74 for a tasting of some thirty or so producers that gathered to showcase their wines under the banner of balance.

Not all of the wines were balanced.

Having said that, the quality of wines at this tasting, with a few exceptions, was perhaps the highest of any single public tasting I've attended in San Francisco. In short, a lot of Pinot Noir superstars showed up to pour at this event, and irrespective of the ideology that united them, that was certainly enough to justify the event.

The question remains, however, whether this group was indeed defined by a common characteristic in their wines, in addition to a common belief that so clearly unites them.

My answer? I'm not sure. Certainly these wines skewed slightly to the lower end of the alcoholic strength of California Pinot Noir. But not so much (but for a couple of exceptions, like Wind Gap's jaw-dropping 12.5% alcohol) that these wines were all clearly in a category of their own compared to the bulk of California Pinot. Of course, balance is not simply about alcohol level, though that clearly figures heavily in the conception of this group's sense of balance.

Ultimately, I think this whole event and the philosophy that underlies it, comes back to a yearning for California Pinot Noir to more resemble Burgundy. Is that a reasonable desire? Perhaps. I certainly tend to appreciate California Pinots that have some of the restraint and complexity that I find in Burgundy, though I find even the best California Pinots a far cry from Burgundy. They're just different animals. And if this is the case, I think it is possible to go too far in demanding that California Pinot Noir model itself in Burgundy's image. On the other hand, I think a bunch of the California Pinot Noirs I try have too much new oak, are picked too ripe, and finish with alcoholic heat.

So balance is a great aim, but as Vanessa Peay put it in the bit of the panel discussion I caught, perhaps it's more about a journey than a specific destination.

This was a fantastic tasting, though if it happens again, I hope the organizers will move it to a more suitable venue than RN74, as it was a heavily overcrowded and poorly configured space.

Here are my scores for all the wines that were poured.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5
2009 Kutch "McDougall Ranch" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $48
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry, flowers, and brown sugar. In the mouth it is wonderfully silky and taut between flavors of raspberry and elegant, wet dirt qualities. Quite delicate and poised, this is one hell of a classy wine, with a long finish of mineral and fruit. Perfectly balanced and delicious. Outstanding.

2009 Peay Vineyards "Ama Estate" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $53
A new bottling for the Peay label, this wine is light to medium garnet colored in the glass, with a wonderfully floral and stony nose of raspberry, cranberry and dirt aromas. In the mouth apart from being quite sexy and slithery on the tongue, the wine conveys an overwhelming sense of delicacy in its raspberry and cranberry and mineral flavors. Hints of herbs emerge on the finish. Fantastic.

WINES SCORING BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5
2008 Chanin "Le Bon Climat Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $43
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of spicy raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth the wine explodes with juicy acidity, carrying bright flavors of raspberry, cranberry and cedar across the palate on a velvety smooth surface. The finish is long and fine. Click to buy.

2008 Chanin "Bien Nacido Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $43
Pale garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and floral aromas with a hint of wet dirt. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy raspberry, and briary green leaf flavors mix with brown sugar and floral notes that linger in a long finish. Delicate and exuberant at the same time. Click to buy.

2009 Wind Gap "Woodruff Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains. $50
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of slightly green grape stems caramelized veggies, and pure ethereal raspberry fruit. In the mouth, the wine explodes with juicy raspberry fruit, and a deep wet dirt character that is stunning. Flavors of woody stems and brown sugar morph to a caramel and mineral quality in the finish. Fantastic acidity, wonderful balance and delicacy. A staggering 12.5% alcohol.

2007 Calera "Ryan Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Mt. Harlan. $40 Click to buy.
2007 Ceritas Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $55 Click to buy.
2007 Clendenen Family Vineyards "Le Bon Climat" Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $60 Click to buy.
2007 Cobb "Emmaline Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $78 Click to buy.
2009 Copain "Les Voisins" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. $38 Click to buy.
2009 Copain Kiser "en haute" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. $55
2009 Failla "Pearlessence Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $55
2009 Failla "Hirsch Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $65
2007 Flowers "Frances Thompson Estate" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $70 Click to buy.
2009 Kutch Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. $39 Click to buy.
2009 Littorai Wines "The Pivot Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $63 Click to buy.
2009 Littorai Wines "Savoy Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. $63 Click to buy.
2009 Peay Vineyards "Pomarium Estate" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $53 Click to buy.
2008 Wind Gap "Woodruff Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains. $50
2009 Wind Gap Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $36 Click to buy.


WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2009 Au Bon Climat "Le Bon Climat - K&U" Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. Not available in the US.
2007 Calera "Jensen Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Mt. Harlan. $70 Click to buy.
2008 Ceritas "Escarpa Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $55
2009 Ceritas "Escarpa Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $55 Click to buy.
2008 Cobb "Diane Cobb: Coastlands Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $68 Click to buy.
2009 Copain "Monument Tree" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. $50
2009 Copain "Wentzel" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. $50
2009 Failla "Keefer Ranch" Pinot Noir, Russian River. $42 Click to buy.
2007 Flowers "Sea View Ridge Estate" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $70 Click to buy.
2009 Freestone Tank Sample Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $55
2009 Hirsch Vineyards "Bohan Dillon" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $30 Click to buy.
2009 Hirsch Vineyards "Reserve - Barrel Sample" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $85
2009 Kutch "Falstaff" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $48
2009 LIOCO "Hirsch Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $?? Click to buy.
2007 Littorai Wines "Savoy Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. $63 Click to buy.
2008 Miura "Silacci Vineyard - Matador" Pinot Noir, Monterey County. $??
2005 Mount Eden Vineyards "Estate" Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains. $?? Click to buy.
2009 Peay Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $40 Click to buy.
2009 Sandhi Wines "ELV Tempest" Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills. $75
2009 Tyler "Bien Nacido N Block - Old Vines" Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $65

WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2008 Alta Maria Vineyards Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $25 Click to buy.
2008 Au Bon Climat "Isabelle" Pinot Noir, California. $50 Click to buy.
2009 Cartha Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. Click to buy.
2008 Cobb "Coastlands Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $68 Click to buy.
2008 Evening land Pinot Noir, Sonoma coast. $40 Click to buy.
2009 Evening Land Vineyards "Tempest Bloom's Field" Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills. $63
2009 Evening Land Vineyards "Occidental Vineyards" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $120
2007 Freestone Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $55 Click to buy.
2008 Freestone Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $55 Click to buy.
2007 Hirsch Vineyards "San Andreas" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $60 Click to buy.
2007 LIOCO "Michaud Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Chalone. $?? Click to buy.
2008 Miura "Garys' Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands. $60 Click to buy.
2009 Mount Eden Vineyards "Estate" Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains. $??
2007 Mount Eden Vineyards "Estate" Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains. $?? Click to buy.
2008 Native9 "Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $55 Click to buy.
2009 Native9 "Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $55
2009 Soliste "Sonatera Vineyards" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $??
2008 Tyler "Clos Pepe" Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills. $62


WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2009 Alta Maria Vineyards Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley. $25 Click to buy.
2009 Calera Pinot Noir, Central Coast. $24 Click to buy.
2008 Miura "Pisoni Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands. $60 Click to buy.
2008 Tyler "Presidio" Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County. $50

WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2007 Soliste "L' Espérance" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $??

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5
2008 Soliste "L' Espérance" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $??

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