The Grapevine

Finding balance in the vineyard

Special to The TribuneApril 25, 2014 

Laurie Daniel

“Balance” continues to be a hot topic among wine lovers, especially as it applies to pinot noir. The question is a tricky one, because balance is in the eye of the beholder. While I like wines of restraint, with some savory nuances, and consider them to be balanced, you might prefer a wine with more power or one with super-rich fruit.

Producers of more elegant pinot noirs have achieved enough momentum that they’ve formed an organization called In Pursuit of Balance. The group was created by Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina group of restaurants and a vintner in his own right (Domaine de la Cote, Sandhi), and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast appellation. It holds tastings and seminars in San Francisco and New York, and wineries are selected by a small committee, based on blind tasting. The first event was held in 2011 in San Francisco. Although the original focus was on pinot noir, the group has been expanded to include chardonnay.

The organization has a “manifesto of balance” on its Web site, http://inpursuitofbalance.com, which talks about achieving balance in the vineyard and discourages manipulation in the cellar. But there are no hard-and-fast requirements, no checklist.

As Jasmine Hirsch told me, “Raj and I, after much debate, have decided there is no criteria” for membership, except for the blind tasting. For example, she’s often asked whether the group allows wines with more than 14 percent alcohol to be poured at its tastings. “There is absolutely no alcohol requirement,” she says.

There’s no question that winemakers who try to make more restrained wines, with grapes harvested when sugar levels are lower and acidity levels are higher, are balancing on a knife edge. Winemakers can’t just say, “Let’s pick a week earlier this year.” Conditions vary according to vintage. Vineyard practices affect how quickly the grapes build flavors and sugars. Pick too early and you risk excessively green flavors and harsh tannins.

Winemakers who are pursuing wines with more freshness and restraint will tell you stories about times when they picked too early. Josh Jensen, proprietor of Calera Wine Co. in San Benito County, says that in 2005, he picked half of his Mills Vineyard too early. At a recent seminar, he said that he made the same mistake in 2013, calling it “an example of jumping the gun.” (The seminar is on the group’s web site.)

Still, Jensen and other winemakers on the panel said that, in general, they would prefer to pick a little too early rather than too late.

Some of the pinot noirs on offer at the recent In Pursuit of Balance tasting in San Francisco did, for my taste, display a little too much ripeness, with jammy flavors and not enough liveliness.

But there were some outstanding wines, too. Among the producers to look for if you’re interested in fresh, elegant pinot are Calera, Ceritas, Cobb, Copain, Domaine de la Cote, Drew, Hirsch, Kutch, Lioco, Littorai, Twomey.

Pick of the week

Eos Estate 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20)

If you’re grilling up some burgers, this cab would be a great partner. It offers plump black fruit, accented by a savory note of olive. The finish is smooth, with fine tannins.

Laurie Daniel’s column is special to The Tribune. Email her at ladaniel@earthlink.net.

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