In Pursuit Of Balance

by Darren Delmore, March 28, 2012

When renowned sommelier Rajat Parr and celebrity wine child Jasmine Hirsch organize a new wave gathering of Pinot Noir in San Francisco’s Julia Morgan Ballroom, they will come. They being the wineries that froth to be on the coveted wine lists Parr puts together for the Michael Mina restaurant group as well as the comically large waiting list to buy $8K a ton Pinot Noir grapes from David Hirsch’s Cazadero compound. 29 wineries were selected for the elitist eno-derby dubbed “In Pursuit of Balance” on March 19th, many were shunned (see every winery in Anderson Valley), and the result was a ritzy, top floor showdown of small production wine.

The mission statement for this second annual event reads: “The purpose is to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay… to promote wineries who are striving to produce balanced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California.”

Like world champion surfer Kelly Slater, Parr is actively giving balding vignerons the illusion that a slick barren scalp is not only beautiful but better apt at packing in the mysteries of the vine. His well funded wine project called Sandhi stood out to me at last month’s World of Pinot Noir event, and I had a feeling the SF sommeliers and wine trade would be more tipped off by the brand here than in Central California. In an obviously dandruff-less black coat, fresh white collared button up beneath it, and a fly-by-night stubble, he laughed at my question of the retail price of his powerful 2010 Chardonnay called “Bent Rock” from Santa Rita Hills, mentioning a mailing list and restaurant only sales plan, and that if one was able to buy it, “it would be around ninety.” Omitting the word “dollars” brings to mind the real estate world and the fine art auction business. But a chardonnay for less than a c-note by this man who many say has the finest knowledge of Burgundy in the biz and who confessed in his memoir that he has never been drunk in his life seems like a relative steal.

Aside from the California giveaway of dense syrah like color, the Sandhi Pinots were full of Euro character, aka green stem flavors and loads of acidity coupled with lowish alcohols. “How was Sicily?” a nervous fan asked Rajat as his glass was filled with a sample of the 2010 Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. “I just got back. It was amazing.” The S&B was a definite ‘10’ in my book, hailing from the oldest Pinot Noir vineyard in Santa Barbara County planted by a visionary Vietnam Veteran. “What clones are in this?” my friend asked him. “This is old virused Mount Eden clone, grown in a sprawl,” he told him. “I try not to think about clones,” he added. “You just get lost.”

Where do you go from there in such a star-studded suite?

To Calera’s booth right behind us. One look at the tall, lanky legend Josh Jensen in belted-high, bright green hot pants and a flamboyantly pink party shirt on and I got the drift that every other winery at IPOB didn’t get the memo on the gay Mardi Gras theme. This guy was in SF and he was ready to get weird! He and his assistant had three Chardonnays and three Pinots on the table, with older vintages to boot. Unfortunately the 1994 Mount Harlan Chardonnay smelled of some wharf rat’s clam chowder, and the 1998 Mount Harlan Pinot came off like a dimestore novel used in lieu of toilet paper in the Sutro Baths. Good thing his Ryan Vineyard and Selleck Vineyard 2009’s brought the energy. It’s easy to see why the namesake Calera clone is in most of the best Pinot Noir vineyards in California today, and how the limestone soils of that subsection of San Benito County give the wines depth and a rockiness unto themselves. There were some rosy cheek old school Calera diehards hogging the table, looking beyond the fashion statement and thanking Jensen for bringing those stanky library selections.

Time was ticking. We had a little over two hours left. Hurrying over to Hirsch, my old boss David barely recognized me. Moments later, in a back alley sort of way, he asked “What are you doin’ in here?” like I was street scum. I slaved for this man in the wilds of Cazadero for two years until my hands went numb, living in a haunted caretaker’s cottage where I shed 30 pounds and learned how to eat and drink lying down, usually at one in the morning, and here at IPOB 2012 I could barely get him to pour me through the lineup. Then I realized the book I wrote discreetly about the whole experience and the rough draft I’d sent his wife to ok may have ruined my reputation in the eyes of America’s most famous winegrower. Thankfully, after trying the incredible 2009 Chardonnay, he apologized and said that he was out of it. “I almost passed out somewhere around Corte Madera on the way down,” he admitted.

“Too much Mississippi John Hurt on the sound system?” I asked.

“No no. I don’t know what’s happenin’.”

David still has the knack for taking care of the women in the tasting audience. Sommeliers love this guy too. What’s not to like about some Jewish dude from the Bronx who pioneered Pinot Noir on the true Sonoma Coast and compares farming decisions to John Coltrane albums? It was hard to maneuver in to try the rest of the wines, but I did. The last wine was a revelatory reserve from 2009. We moved on without saying goodbye.

David’s new winemaker Ross Cobb, formerly of Flowers and Williams-Selyem fame, was pouring the Cobb wines that he makes for his father. He had four 2008s out for the tasting, as well as an indefatigable denial of the smoke taint upon them. Maybe the only purple libation he’s been on is of the kush persuasion. Good thing he had an amazing Chardonnay. When describing one of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs to me, he brought up the fact that it was organically farmed and that he wanted to put that on the label. Since the use of the word “organic” on high-end wine has become a confusing, industry wide no-no, I questioned where he would have placed it on the label. “Would you have put it on the front or on the back?” I asked him.

He brought his face right up to mine and barked, “I would’ve put it in my mouth!” then patted me on the shoulder and laughed. Some say the man is funny, some reckon he is eternally smitten with himself. I like him and would say he was safe here in The City, but on Meyers Grade Road at sunrise might be another story.

Quick highlights:

• Chanin Wine Company — Get in on 20-something Gavin Chanin’s artfully packaged Bien Nacido Vineyard beauties.

• Failla — One of the best buys in the game, the $34 2010 Sonoma Coast, is relatively a small production item at 1500 cases produced, and is made from vested vineyards as varied as their estate on Fort Ross Road, Hirsch, and Occidental. They’ve never really released a wine from Mendocino County, but sweatered assistant winemaker Matt mentioned that “one of the best Chardonnays we’ve ever made came from Anderson Valley.”

• Kutch — I was surprised that Jamie Kutch was so real and cool, especially whilst having a 917 area code as his contact number for ordering wine. I left his table wanting to support his project. His 2009 McDougall Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir hit the 10 point realm. I’d heard that he almost ended up in the Pacific Ocean in a brake-smoldering flatbed coffin overloaded with five tons of fruit that year when he descended toward highway one.

• Littorai — Ted Lemon is the Sebastopol-based translator of Anderson Valley poetry, but his wife’s quarter ounce pours of Savoy and Cerise didn’t allow them much discernable justice at this event.

• Wind Gap — Pax Mahle’s rebound project is full of experimental wines, making me wonder if money is no object.

I appreciate the garigiste thread running through the portfolio, including skin-contact fermentations of Chardonnay in a three-tier vessel regimen of oak, steel tank, and glass, especially the show stoppin’ 2009 Woodruff Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains. I dug it so much I asked what barrels he was using. He spied my name tag, which mentioned “Winemaker” instead of “Wine Buyer,” and smirked and said, “Some really fancy Francois Freres barrels.” The Pinot from the same vineyard had me wondering if this was a Santa Cruz Home Winemakers exposition: cloudy, brown-red colored, with trippy herbal aromatics. If any average red wine lover ordered a bottle of this in some restaurant for its $80 price tag it would probably be sent back as flawed. But it was compelling artisan wine, and I found myself smelling my empty glass and appreciating it more and more. The Gap’s Crown 2010 was more user friendly, using 40% whole uncrushed clusters in the fermentation and maturation for a year in old barrels. This was also a trend at IPOB: less new oak.

Though this exclusionary, conceptual gathering is on its way to NYC, and was packed with the highest caliber Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays California currently has to speak of, I wonder about its lifespan and overall impact. Celebrating Euro-alcohol levels in Cali-Burgundian varietals appears to be the focus, which the climes of 2009 through 2011 naturally gave our wines for the most part. But what happens when a scorching year like 2004 or 2006 blazes through the cane trellised vines? In pursuit of water and tartaric acid?

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