California Pinot Noir: A Question of Balance

What is balance in pinot noir and why does it matter?

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.

The genius of pinot noir is found in subtlety and poise, in its graceful and transparent expression of the soils and climate in which it is grown. Balance in pinot noir enables these characteristics to reach their highest expression in a complete wine where no single element dominates the whole.

The purpose of this event is to bring together like-minded growers, winemakers, sommeliers, retailers, journalists and consumers who believe in the potential of California to produce profound and balanced pinot noirs. This isn’t a rebellion, but rather a gathering of believers. The wines presented here should speak for themselves and lay the groundwork for a discussion on the nature of balance in California pinot noir.

This event is meant to open a dialogue between producers and consumers about the nature of balanced pinot noir, including:

      • Whole-picture farming and winemaking. Artisan winemaking techniques are a given at this point. Looking beyond that, let’s consider farming, or even pre-farming decisions, and the thought process behind identifying a great terroir. How do these decisions affect the balance of the ultimate wine?
      • Growing healthy fruit and maintaining natural acidity to achieve optimum ripeness without being overripe. What is ripeness and what is its relation to balance?
      • A question of intention: Can balance in wine be achieved through corrections in the winery or is it the result of a natural process informed by carefully considered intention at every step of the way?
    • Reconsidering the importance of heritage pinot noir clones with respect to the omnipresent Dijon clones. What do heritage clones contribute to balanced wine?

Pinot noir grown on the west coast has been the next big thing for a while now, but perhaps that shouldn’t be the case. Popularity is an exaggeration, a distortion of pinot noir’s defining qualities and a distraction from what makes it truly great.

As pinot noir lovers, we face a collective challenge in the search for truly expressive, honest wine: What must we do to achieve balance in California pinot noir?


California Chardonnay: A Comeback Story

Is California Chardonnay still relevant?

Chardonnay, it is believed, originated from Burgundy, France where for centuries it was cultivated with an obsessive-like rigor by the Cistercian Monks.  Today it is found wherever wine is produced.   Chardonnay captivated American wine drinkers in the early 1950’s.  In 1990 it surpassed riesling as the most widely planted variety in the state. Today, a quarter of the world’s chardonnay plantings reside in California.

The early trend with California chardonnay was to imitate Burgundy, but the variety found broader commercial appeal by pushing the limits on ripeness and oak. “Bigger is better” seemed to be the approach.  A peak in chardonnay’s popularity in the late 1980’s lead to a backlash by wine drinkers who took a strong disliking to its overblown, homogenous style.  The “Anything But Chardonnay” (ABC) camp emerged.  As America’s thirst for this variety grew boundlessly, so too did the ABC camp’s capacity for its disdain.  Chardonnay became the brunt of jokes.  The poster child of passé.

Few of us in the pro-chardonnay camp would defend the über-industrial, over-produced California chardonnays of the last 20 years.  Rather we would be quick the make the distinction between wines with integrity and wines without.  The “problem” resided not with chardonnay per se, but rather with the philosophy of how California chardonnay was being made.  The noble chardonnay wines from France remained unmoved while California chardonnay was working through its identity crisis.

Today, California chardonnay is enjoying a renaissance.  It has shed the unwanted pounds and with them the stigma of ‘cocktail wine.’   A new movement is afoot led by a generation of winemakers equally at ease discussing Burgundy, The Jura, and the Sonoma Coast.   These producers are taking the kind of risks necessary to create truly compelling chardonnay:

• Farming it in tougher soils and in very marginal climates

• Showing a preference for certain clonal selections

• Experimenting with native yeasts

• Harvesting at lower sugar levels

• Using judicious amounts of oak (some loons have reportedly been using 100% steel!)

The resultant wines, moderate in alcohol and flush with acidity, do what great wines do:  give a clear translation of time and place.

The ABC Movement has had its day, and to be fair it served its purpose.  Its collective rumbling was no doubt part of the solution.  But chardonnay is back.   San Francisco’s sommeliers have reportedly been buying the stuff again.  Long live the king!