|Geoff Kruth, Ray Isle, Wells Guthrie, Sashi Moorman and Raj Parr (L-R)|
The column is a little cynical (who, me?), as I virtually wave the Stars and Stripes in the faces of all the Francophiles who attended. Just to clarify: Loved the event, love the Pinot makers who attended, love most of their wines, and I really love the fact that California winemakers are "in pursuit of balance."
Which is what, exactly? The alternate column I could have written would say that the reason many American consumers don't seem to prize it is because we in the wine media do a lousy job of describing it. And with all the media firepower at this seminar, we didn't do any better.
Ray Isle, wine editor at Food & Wine magazine, cited Potter Stewart's famous quote about obscenity: "I know it when I see it." Villa Mount Eden winemaker Jeffrey Patterson said, "When I can drink the whole bottle and the last glass is better than the first."
The best definition came from Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth, who said, while putting an empty glass upside down on his head, "I learned this from Gary Pisoni -- a balanced wine is one you can wear as a hat at the end of the tasting."
But how does a relative neophyte understand any of that? Perhaps the folks I see in restaurants leaving a half-bottle of Cabernet on their dinner table think it's their own fault for not appreciating its power.
One thing that Isle declared by including Evening Land winemaker Sashi Moorman on the panel is that "balance" does NOT mean "low-alcohol" or "lightweight." Moorman's wines are medium-bodied (full for Pinot) and taste of ripe fruit, but they're still delicious. For a winemaker in the Santa Rita Hills, where the long growing season leads to ripeness that Burgundians would -- like a closeted gay politician -- both lust after and publicly decry, that's staying true to terroir.
Moorman delivered my second-favorite quote* of the day: "Sometimes you come across wines that make you weak in the knees … but nobody ever says, 'Oh my God, that wine is so balanced'. I'm trying to make wines that are special."
I like the sentiment, and I love great wines, but over the course of a month, honestly I would rather drink more wines that are balanced than wines that are special. Yet if none of those luminaries can really define balance in a way that anyone would understand, what chance have I?
I'm going to give it a shot:
"Balance is when all the taste elements of a wine are so harmonious that none grabs your attention. Acidity is most important: a balanced wine must have enough acidity so that you do not tire of it, yet must not taste too sharp.
In a large tasting, 'balanced' may be the opposite of 'impressive.'
'Balance' is as much the absence of things (too much power, too much fruit, too much tannin) as the presence."
Now if I can get that down to shelf-talker size, maybe I can start a revolution.
* (What was my favorite quote? Go read Wine Review Online.)