On the list: Lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay makers. One expensive Napa Merlot producer. Some Syrah producers. Some of California's longest-tenured winemakers, and some of its youngest.
Notably not on the list:
UPDATE: IPOB is only for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. How could I miss something so obvious? Apparently it's on the website, and the website is terrible. I apologize to readers for this misimpression.
The list comes courtesy of Raj Parr, who is as close to a star as a sommelier gets in America. Now he's trying to influence the style of wine made in America in a direction spelled out by the title of his event: In Pursuit of Balance.
Most consumers want quick, easy guidance; that's why ratings are popular. 100-point-scale ratings are inherently unfriendly to wines that don't jump up and scream at a critic during a long tasting session without food; we know that. How to reconcile the two: provide easy guidance, without giving the highest rewards to the biggest blockbusters?
That's what In Pursuit of Balance might become, in Parr's dreams: not just a group of California wines, critically screened, that are meant to go with food, but a coveted seal of approval that might influence what winemakers do.
|Calera's Josh Jensen: On the list|
(Note: Tickets are still available for IPOB's annual tasting events next Monday, Feb. 4 in San Francisco and Wednesday, Feb. 6 in Los Angeles. They're $85; details are here.)
Parr, global wine director for Michael Mina's restaurants, had hit upon the ripe moment for a movement.
Sommeliers are a growing force on the American wine scene, but their influence is fragmented because none of them has stepped up with an easy-to-understand classification system like the 100-point scale.
Hate on the 100-point scale all you want, but there's no mistaking which wines are recommended. In contrast, if you want to go to a wine shop to buy a "sommelier wine," there's no guideline. If you're lucky the shop workers will steer you right. But you can't just take your smartphone and look up an online list.
I read bloggers sometimes who say, "Consumers should take the time to research wineries and taste widely and develop their own preferences," because that's what we did (that's how I learned). Yes, if everyone wanted to take the time to do that instead of pursuing their own career and other interests, they too could be wine bloggers! The rest of the US wants a list.
|Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen: On the list|
"People asked, 'Who do you pick, why do you pick?' I don't want to be in the hot seat," Parr said.
Parr didn't want to make the choices himself anymore, so this year he formed a committee of Failla winemaker Ehren Jordan, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné and Wolfgang Weber, a wine writer now working in sales for Revel Wine. Parr tasted with them but didn't vote.
The committee tasted blind, which is interesting because that's the antithesis of a parallel anti-wine-critic backlash against wines with no sense of place or personality. Eric Asimov would not approve: He would say that to really know the wine, you have to know the winery.
"I agree with you, but there's no other way," Parr said. "The committee was able to taste wines, and if they were on the fence, they'd say, 'Let's see what this is and maybe taste it again'."
The tasting was exactly like the Wine Advocate marathons people criticize: more than 100 wines, more than 5 hours long.
"It definitely gets difficult after the halfway point," Parr said. "But we're tasting collectively. Some wines are yes, yes, yes. Some wines are yes, yes, I'm on the fence. It's tiring but we weren't scoring the wines, giving a number or saying this is best, this is second best."
The wineries on the IPOB list don't have points to put one above the other; they all have the IPOB seal of approval, and if the list stays short, it can be just as powerful as the Wine Advocate's increasingly lengthy list of 100 point wines.
|Not on the list|
"You try to find the wines in harmony. Nothing pops out: it's not too lean or too flabby, or too much alcohol. Not too much oak. No flaws. There were some wines that had massive fruit, or tremendous sweetness of oak. Some wines can have that, but it's too much."
The whole reason to do this is because balanced wines don't get critical acclaim.
"The general trend has been going for the big fat wines," Parr said. "We don't want to criticize wines that are very large and rich. This style is just different. We want wines that have a little more acidity, are a little more crunchy."
"It means to bite into a firm cherry or a firm peach, something that gives back. Something that's not just pure sweetness. Something with texture. That's something I look for in grapes, and something I look for in wine."
Sommeliers love acid, so I asked if a wine can be so high-acid that it's not balanced.
"Absolutely," Parr said. "It's rare in California, but I've tasted wines that are so austere, there's no fruit at all."
Parr also wants you to know that it's not all about low alcohol. "It's just about the wine."
I asked what his dreams are for the impact of IPOB.
"Hopefully one day we won't have a tasting because everyone's going to be thinking the same way. We're just starting a conversation. This is about making wines that work on the table with food. Wines with texture. Wines with balance. We'll never change everyone. But we do want to talk about how we can get better. Hopefully there will be more awareness that there is something else out there, that it's not just fruits."
It may be just a conversation, but there's a list. And since the IPOB website sucks, I'm putting it right here. You want a balanced California wine? Raj Parr says try one of these.
In Pursuit of Balance approved California wineries, 2013
Anthill Farms Winery
Au Bon Climat
Bluxome Street Winery
Calera Wine Company
Chanin Wine Company
Copain Wine Cellars
Drew Family Cellars
Mount Eden Vineyard
Wind Gap Wines