Monday, January 28, 2013

New critical alternative: In Pursuit of Balance wines

Raj Parr
If you're looking for an alternative in California to wines with high point scores, it's here. And I mean here, literally, because I'm running a list of wineries after the jump.

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:
Cabernet Sauvignon specialists. Bubbly makers. Large companies. Flocks of wines over $100.

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
"The idea when we started was to have a little fun thing," Parr said by phone from Las Vegas. "We would have a handful of producers we knew who were all thinking in the same way. It became a big thing. The first event sold out in one day."

(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
You can't create any kind of list of wines without a backlash. Look at all the crap Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate take for the wines they recommend. Parr was new to the anointment game and was surprised by the pushback.

"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
I asked Parr the key question: How do you define balance?

"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
Cobb Wines
Copain Wine Cellars
Drew Family Cellars
Hirsch Vineyards
Knez Winery
Kutch Wines
LaRue Wines
Littorai Wines
Mount Eden Vineyard
Native9 Wines
Ojai Vineyard
Peay Vineyards
Red Car
Sandhi Wines
Soliste Cellars
Twomey Cellars
Tyler Winery
Wind Gap Wines

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Brian Loring - Loring Wine Company said...


Do you know for sure if Screaming Eagle was submitted to the tasting panel and rejected? And were all the wineries on the list approved by the blind tasting panel?

The list looks a lot like the folks who orignally came together to form the IOPB group. So they had to pass the blind tasting test as well?

I can't find any info in the IPOB website on how to submit wines. Maybe I missed it.

I ask because it seems to me that you imply via your Notably not on the list wineries had submitted wines and were rejected.

W. Blake Gray said...

Brian: The IPOB website sucks, so if you're really interested, and not just yanking my chain as usual, I'll give you Jasmine Hirsch's email address.

Unknown said...

It seems a little presumptuous for any panel to be dictating what wines are "balanced". When it comes to wine it is all subjective. One persons over ripe over oaked wine can seem perfectly balanced and food friendly to someone else. We all taste differently and have different tolerances for flavors and textures. I think it is disingenuous to use the term balance when all they mean are lighter styled wines.

W. Blake Gray said...

Robert: Is it any more presumptuous than a single critic dictating what wines are 100-points, or gold medal, or 5 stars?

Robert said...

Stupid question of the day: What makes a Sommelier a star and others not? He creates wine lists to pair with the restuarants food and thus is to heighten the dining experience, correct? I have seen wine directors and somms get awards for their wines lists but I am not sure why a extensive wine list with impressive names (and over priced wines) means anything (much like a 100 point score). If you like you can email or direct me to an article that explains it all to me.

W. Blake Gray said...

Robert: Raj Parr is co-author of the book "Secrets of the Sommeliers." He's acknowledged by all who have tasted with him as having a great palate. If wine aficionados were going to name 10 sommeliers, I'll bet he would be on most lists.

Surely that's not the same level of stardom as proven, accomplished stars like Snookie or Paris Hilton. But it's something.

Brian Loring - Loring Wine Company said...


I'm asking because I think most people would infer from your blog that the Cabernet Sauvignon specialists, Bubbly makers, Large companies, and Flocks of wines over $100 that you mention had been rejected by the IPOB tasting panel as not producing balanced wines. I don't think that's true.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought the IPOB's sole focus is on Pinot and Chardonnay, and some Syrah. So mentioning the others seems unfair and misleading.

W. Blake Gray said...

Brian: So you are just yanking my chain.

I can't help what you infer. I can defend what I actually wrote, but not any straw man you want to set up based on it. I don't believe you actually inferred anything, but if so, infer away.

Brian Loring - Loring Wine Company said...


I'm not trying to yank your chain. Nor am I setting up any straw man. My impression was that the wines you listed weren't ever considered to be in IPOB. Like I said, I could be wrong. If I am, then I apologize.

W. Blake Gray said...

Fair enough, Brian. I don't actually know what wines they considered. It couldn't have been comprehensive, because the tasting was just one day.

Personally I find the lack of sparkling wines an omission, which is why I mentioned it.

But it is also somewhat beside the point. If IPOB is influential, then it could grow in scope and ambition. If it's not, it could stay as a small tasting. I'm writing here about what could happen, a reasonable possibility based on the splash the first tasting made two years ago. It is a great idea -- a short "white list" of wineries that make balanced wines, that don't compete with each other for the highest rating. A consumer guide, easily accessed.

Whether or not it becomes simply another walk-around tasting is up to the organizers and the public.

IPOB could really help its case with a better website, though. If something is more easily accessed from my blog, given my lack of computer skills, that's a problem.

W. Blake Gray said...

By the way, along those same lines -- imagine if Eric Asimov had published such a list in "How to Love Wine." Maybe he will do such a thing in a second book. There's definitely a market.

Brian Loring - Loring Wine Company said...


I mistook what you meant by your list. If you meant that you were surprised that none of those had been considered, then we're on the same page.

The idea of cross promoting wineries that you share a vision can be a positive thing. We've done it for years, although not in an organized way as IPOB strives to do.

W. Blake Gray said...

I got the following comment from a winemaker who requested anonymity:

"I make wine at a small winery and am not sure if any of my wines are on any of the lists that Raj Parr oversees. I’d certainly like him to carry the wines, which is part of the reason I am writing this with hopes of anonymity.

While the In Pursuit of Balance tasting sounds like a fantastic tasting and one I’d love to attend, I am confused about the Blind Tasting process. I know that our winery wasn’t asked to submit wines for consideration. And, in checking with my friends, they weren’t asked either.

Do you have any idea how wines were solicited? How many wineries were tasted and rejected? I know that tasting all of those wines is a lot of work, but I assume the point of tasting blind would be to taste a range of wines and decide which wineries can participate based on who meets certain standards. If only certain wineries (previous attendees, etc) were invited then it sees to make the process somewhat superfluous. And it makes your idea of this becoming another standard of reviewing wines impossible."

winedoofus said...

"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?"

Blake, I assume you are aware that Parr's Sandhi wines got high scores from the big wine pubs?

Unknown said...

Hey there. Thanks for the post, Blake, and for all the comments from the readers. Just wanted to respond to some of the comments and questions.

IPOB started as literally a back-of-the-napkin idea by Rajat Parr and me. We put a list of wineries together one night and that was the basis for the first IPOB event, in 2011. It was casual and small. The only parameters we limited ourselves to were California and pinot noir. In 2012 we expanded it to include chardonnay.

Along the way we started to get requests from other wineries who were interested to be involved. In order to accommodate them and be inclusive (which is absolutely our wish) we decided to formalize the selection process for the 2013 event. All of our existing wineries were required to submit samples to our tasting committee (currently comprised of Jon Bonne, Wolfgang Weber, Ehren Jordan and Raj). I kept track of the wineries who had reached out about being involved, and they were also invited to submit samples. This past summer, our tasting committee sat down and did a blind tasting of all of the wines. The committee voted on each winery to decide if they would be included in 2013.

Any winery who wishes to be involved in future IPOB events is welcome to send me an email and I’ll put them on the list for the tasting to determine the 2014 wineries.

One other point. Most of our wineries’ wines are not $100 (if we’re talking retail prices). You can check out their individual websites and for exact prices.

In closing I would like to say that our intention is to be inclusive and celebratory. We wish to bring together like-minded producers making fantastic wines, and to celebrate their efforts and the delicious results. We also hope to foment dialogue and debate, which is why it’s a pleasure to see all the comments posted on this blog and elsewhere.

If you are not able to attend the event, we are live-streaming the seminars starting at 10am PST on Monday, February 4 ( Viewers can post questions to the panel via Twitter using the hashtag #IPOB.