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Pinot Noir Recalibrates

Last week in San Francisco a group of about 25 California pinot noir producers assembled their wines in a concerted gesture of restraint called “In Pursuit of Balance,” a tasting sponsored by the restaurant RN74 and curated by Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. The tasting and preceding seminar occurred nearly one year to the day after one devoted to California syrah called, in a similar vein, “A Question of Balance.” Clearly, something is in the air, and it is not the heady smell of overripe grapes.

Placed together, these events must be seen as another indication that California winemakers have reached the limit of their tolerance for untenable ripeness levels, blowsy textures and high alcohols. They no longer want to “fix” devitalized fruit character, or resort to adding water or tartaric acid to correct overripe must, or remove alcohol, as is frequently a last resort. They’re the latest signal that the age of “bigger is better” is coming to an end.

The seminar was moderated by Food & Wine Magazine’s senior wine editor Ray Isle, who introduced the topic by remarking on the aptness of the use of the word “pursuit,” since it implied the fluidity, the “hard-to-pin-down-ness” of balance in wine. Balance, after all, is a relative state, particularly for growing things, which respond to a season’s privations with repeated lunges toward equilibrium, the last of which, theoretically, is captured by the winemaker at harvest, thrown into a bin, and made into wine. Or not. Balance may be a desired state, but it’s hardly a preordained outcome.

The winemakers assembled — Jeffrey Patterson of Mount Eden, Wells Guthrie of Copain, Sashi Moorman of Evening Land and Vanessa Wong of Peay — have each pursued balance for a long time; each in very different locales, and each with a different approach.

Pinot Noir Producers for 'In Pursuit of Balance' Tasting
San Francisco, March 28, 2011, RN74
Alta Maria Vineyards
Au Bon Climat
Calera Wine Company
Chanin Wine Company
Cobb Wines
Copain Wines
Evening Land Vineyards
Flowers Winery
Freestone Vineyards
Greg Linn Wines
Hirsch Vineyards
Kutch Wines
Littorai Wines
Miura Vineyards
Mount Eden Vineyards
Peay Vineyards
Sandhi Wines
Soliste Cellars
Tyler Winery
Wind Gap Wines

Moorman and Wong, it might be said, represented pursuit through vineyards planted in places so extreme that ripeness itself was a marginal prospect. Moorman manages a vineyard for Evening Land called Bloom’s Field, perched on a Santa Rita Hills bluff, where its vines bear the brunt of chilling, unrelenting ocean breezes. Four hundred miles to the north, Wong’s Peay Vineyard, on the outer coastal hills of Sonoma County, is situated in a similarly extreme aspect.

Both winemakers are lucky if they get a ton an acre — a puny yield, by any measure. But when the fruit achieves full ripeness at the end of a long season, it’s done so without desiccation, without its sugar levels spiking and its acid levels plummeting. In the best years the fruit will exhibit both vigor and poise, a measure of completeness that requires neither much correction nor manipulation in the winery.

Patterson and Guthrie seek a similar endpoint, but their pursuit is perhaps more of a choice (though their vineyards are still in marginal, cool climate regions). Both winemakers described the deliberation that went into their picking decisions, often before all of the fruit’s discernable flavors are apparent, picking instead based on its structure, turgidity, what Guthrie referred to as its “energy” and “kinetic” properties. Both point to Burgundy as their North Star, a region in France whose window of ripening is so narrow it sometimes requires chaptalization — a bag or two of sugar — to push it over the top.

That of course, is rarely a problem in California, and it begs the question whether the balance sought with Burgundy as a model is in fact a false reading, or at the very least, an abstraction. To wit, what’s to keep a big wine from being balanced? To borrow from Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap’s volume specialist, why can’t a wine with the treble and bass knobs pushed to 11 be in balance? This, in a sense, is the argument presented by winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri, who at the recent World of Pinot Noir conference famously pulled a switcheroo on sommelier Raj Parr, pouring a wine purported to be a modest 13.6 percent alcohol by volume, when in fact it was another wine altogether, clocking in at 15.2 percent. Lee felt vindicated when Parr, who categorically eschews high alcohol wines for his wine list at RN74, praised the wine, without knowing it was more high octane than advertised.* Apparently balance can deceive too.

Mostly, though, balance isn’t so much deceptive as elusive. We grasp at the concept with feeble metaphors that, when voiced, feel airy and useless. Much of the seminar was spent in this weird semantic fuzz, where various commentators strove to get to the heart of a very subjective, very ephemeral idea, one which may, in the end, be platonic at best. As Mount Eden’s pragmatic Jeffrey Patterson put it: “Balance may only happen once a decade, if at all.”

And yet these are dramatically different wines than we’ve come to expect from California pinot noir in the last decade. They’re typically lighter, for one thing, in color and flavor, the color spectrum tending toward ruby cranberry, the fruit spectrum by and large red, limpid, and brisk. They can seem tense and restrained at first pass, as if, to paraphrase novelist Hilary Mantel, someone has knitted the wine and pulled its stitches too tight. But in texture and tone they are also invigorating, not so much light as unheavy.

Perhaps most compelling, in their youth these wines trace a line forward, toward their potential. They promise things: You taste a wine like this and are energized by its grace and line, and while your palate luxuriates your mind wanders toward the wine’s future, where it is going, how the matrix of fruit, alcohol, acid and tannin will recalibrate and reconstitute this experience one year, two years, five years from now, how the wine will resolve, the way a sonnet resolves, the way a phrase, in a Mozart sonata, finds its way to the only place it can go.

There is a reason that we love proportion and harmony, in music, in verse, in architecture and artistic composition. No matter how hard it is to define, balance remains a guiding aesthetic principle, and in wines made from perhaps the world’s most expressive varietal, that principle is no less vital, no less unwavering. Finally, after years of seeming to be lost in a haze of excess, there is evidence that California pinot noir has recovered its sense of direction.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Rajat Parr’s alcohol policy as applying to all Michael Mina restaurants. He enforces an alcohol limit only at RN74.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photo: The panel at the “In Pursuit of Balance” conference. Credit: Dan Fredman

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.