WITH VIEWS OF CALIFORNIA CHARDONNAY AND CALIFORNIA PINOT NOIR FROM TWO PERSPECTIVES – IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE AND THE UNDERGROUND
This was the second annual In Pursuit of Balance event which was conceived by Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and Sandhi Wines and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards. The goal was to focus on producing balanced Pinot Noir in California. This year also included California Chardonnay and there were 29 wineries in attendance versus 24 last year. (To read my article on last year’s event click here)  With more wineries and more wines (upwards of 150 different wines) it was even more impossible to taste everything this year. Each winery was positioned behind a table pouring their wines. Attendees went from table to table to sample the wines. This type of tasting is fine for getting a general idea of some of the wines, but is not conducive to having enough time to taste and evaluate each wine over an extended period. As a result, my notes are abbreviated and feature only the highlights of the wines that I was able to taste in the allotted time.
Table of Contents
- In Pursuit of Balance California Chardonnay commentary as it appeared in the tasting booklet.
- Underground commentary California Chardonnay based on tasting and drinking California Chardonnays for 40 years.
- In Pursuit of Balance California Pinot Noir commentary as it appeared in the tasting booklet.
- Underground California Pinot Noir commentary based on tasting and drinking California Pinot Noirs for 40 years.
- My abbreviated tasting notes on Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs tasted at the event.
California Chardonnay: Commentary From In Pursuit of Balance and the Underground View
California Chardonnay Commentary: The In Pursuit Of Balance View
Reprinted below is the introduction to Chardonnay from the In Pursuit of Balance tasting booklet as written by Matt Licklider.
“California Chardonnay: A Comeback Story
Is California Chardonnay still relevant?
Chardonnay, it is believed, originated from Burgundy, France where for centuries it was cultivated with an obsessive-like rigor by the Cistercian Monks. Today it is found wherever wine is produced. Chardonnay captivated American wine drinkers in the early 1950’s. In 1990 it surpassed Riesling as the most widely planted varietal in the state. Today, a quarter of the world’s Chardonnay plantings reside in California.
The early trend with California Chardonnay was to imitate Burgundy, but the varietal found broader commercial appeal by pushing the limits on ripeness and oak. “Bigger is better” seemed to be the approach. A peak in Chardonnay’s popularity in the late 1980’s lead to a backlash by wine drinkers who took a strong disliking to its overblown, homogenous style. The “Anything But Chardonnay” (ABC) camp emerged. As America‘s thirst for this variety grew boundlessly, so too did the ABC camp’s capacity for its disdain. Chardonnay became the brunt of jokes. The poster child of passe.
Few of us in the pro-Chardonnay camp would defend the uber-industrial, over-produced California Chardonnays of the last 20 years. Rather we would be quick the make the distinction between wines with integrity and wines without. The “problem” resided not with Chardonnay per se, but rather with the philosophy of how California Chardonnay was being made. The noble Chardonnay wines from France remained unmoved while California Chardonnay was working through its identity crisis.
Today, California Chardonnay is enjoying a renaissance. It has shed the unwanted pounds and with them the stigma of ‘cocktail wine.’ A new movement is afoot led by a generation of winemakers equally at ease discussing Burgundy, the Jura, and the Sonoma Coast. These producers are taking the kind of risks necessary to create truly compelling Chardonnay:
• Farming it in tougher soils and in very marginal climates
• Showing a preference for certain clonal selections
• Experimenting with native yeasts
• Harvesting at lower sugar levels
• Using judicious amounts of oak (some loons have reportedly been using 100% steel!)
The resultant wines, moderate in alcohol and flush with acidity, do what great wines do: give a clear translation of time and place.
The ABC Movement has had its day, and to be fair it served its purpose. Its collective rumbling was no doubt part of the solution. But Chardonnay is back. San Francisco‘s sommeliers have reportedly been buying the stuff again. Long live the king!
We extend our thanks to Mr. Matt Licklider for preparing this text.”
California Chardonnay: The Underground View
The above In Pursuit of Balance commentary is a short story of Chardonnay in California. It is a story that I lived from the late 60s/early70s up to the present. With the launch of the Underground in 1979 my friends and I began drastically increasing our tastings of California Chardonnays. In our second issue (October/November 1979) I reviewed some 200 California Chardonnays from the 1976, 1977, and 1978 vintages. Many were made in quantities of only a few hundred cases. I offered the comment “…many of the best seem to prefer slightly cooler climates.” And this was my conclusion: “The Chardonnay grape has found a home in California where it makes a rich, fruity wine. Comparisons are often made with White Burgundies, but the wines are usually easily distinguished. Chardonnays tend to be fruitier and/or less acidic and/or more heavily oaked than their French counterparts. The comparison of French wine deriving tastes from the soil and California wine deriving tastes from the grape seems particularly valid in the case of Chardonnay. “Montrachet-like” comparisons are trite and nearly always lacking validity. Nonetheless, there are a few California Chardonnays that can rank very high by any yardstick of comparison. Unfortunately, there are many more that are rather ordinary, and some really poor ones, being the result of poor grapes, poor winemaking, or both!” And, in my Retrospective Review of that article years later, I had this to say “So, after all these years, it is time for California Chardonnay to grow up and make wine that fits into a few basic styles largely based on the growing areas.” (To read these articles click here )
For years the Underground reviewed thousands of Chardonnays. And, with the dramatic increases in plantings and the number of wines produced we were soon overwhelmed. In those early days I felt the best Chardonnays were coming from producers such as Mount Eden Vineyards, Chalone, Hanzell, Stony Hill, Mayacamas, Long Vineyards, and several others. But, for every really good Chardonnay there were dozens of really not so good ones. This was soon transcended by the vanilla and oak assault. So we then had a lot of very ordinary Chardonnays and increasing number of oak bombs. At that point in time I joined many others in not liking most California Chardonnays. They had evolved from a balanced wine that would complement your food to an over oaked, buttery, vanilla fruit bomb that became the drink of choice for the cocktail crowd. To be sure there were also a few very early examples of that. For a brief moment in time I was infatuated with the Chardonnay from David Bruce that smelled and tasted like honey and buttered popcorn. But soon, I got to where I would drink almost only White Burgundy. And, with the exception some of the older producers growing grapes on low yielding old vines and making balanced wines, I did not drink much Chardonnay. But, there were notable exceptions such as the great Chardonnays from Mount Eden Vineyards.
Today, as the In Pursuit of Balance article states, California Chardonnays are coming back for all the reasons mentioned. But, for me, we have gone so far that many of the current big numbers fruit bombs are undrinkable. In fact, one of the worst Chardonnays I have had in the last few years was a Marcassin “Three Sisters.” (I don’t recall the vintage but it was a current one at the time I tasted it.) It was brought to a dinner and served blind. One smell and taste and my wine was in the dump bucket. Others soon followed. Then came a plaintive cry “I think you guys are dumping the blankety blank points Marcassin.” Off came the bag and that was exactly the wine. It was undrinkable for almost everyone at the table. This is not my style of wine. End of story.
But, thankfully for every over oaked, over extracted, fat Chardonnay that exists there are many more that are now balanced and a pleasure to drink with food. Areas in Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and the Central Coast as well as some areas in Monterey, Napa, and San Benito as well as a few others, are producing more and more of this balanced style of Chardonnay. Interestingly this is coming at a time when the great white wines of Burgundy are plagued with an affliction called Premox that is severely limiting their longevity. (To read about Premox click here ) And, some Chardonnays from the Jura region of France that is mentioned in the above article are stunningly great. (To read my article on some of the great Jura Chardonnays click here) .
But, I digress. Today, the fact is that there is every reason to be optimistic about California Chardonnay and its ability to show balance and complexity and complement rather than over power food. It has been a long road with many ups and downs, but balance is, thankfully, winning the race! Stay the course. Trust you palate and forget the big numbers.
California Pinot Noir: Commentary From In Pursuit of Balance and the Underground View
California Pinot Noir: The In Pursuit Of Balance View
Reprinted below is the introduction to Pinot Noir from the In Pursuit of Balance tasting booklet written with the assistance of Wolfgang Weber.
“California Pinot Noir: A Question of Balance
What is balance in Pinot Nair and why does it matter?
Balance is the foundation of all fine wine. Loosely speaking, a wine is in balance when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol coexist in a manner such that should anyone aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.
The genius of Pinot Noir is found in subtlety and poise, in its graceful and transparent expression of the soils and climate in which it is grown. Balance in Pinot Noir enables these characteristics to reach their highest expression in a complete wine where no single element dominates the whole.
The purpose of this event is to bring together like-minded growers, winemakers, sommeliers, retailers, journalists and consumers who believe in the potential of California to produce profound and balanced Pinot Noirs. This isn’t a rebellion, but rather a gathering of believers. The wines presented here should speak for themselves and lay the groundwork for a discussion on the nature of balance in California Pinot Noir.
This event is meant to open a dialogue between producers and consumers about the nature of balanced Pinot Noir, including:
• Whole-picture farming and winemaking. Artisan winemaking techniques are a given at this point. Looking beyond that, let’s consider farming, or even pre-farming decisions, and the thought process behind identifying a great terroir. How do these decisions affect the balance of the ultimate wine?
• Growing healthy fruit and maintaining natural acidity to achieve optimum ripeness without being overripe.
What is ripeness and what is its relation to balance?
• A question of intention: Can balance in wine be achieved through corrections in the winery or is it the result of a natural process informed by carefully considered intention at every step of the way?
• Reconsidering the importance of heritage Pinot Noir clones with respect to the omnipresent Dijon clones. What do heritage clones contribute to balanced wine?
Pinot Noir grown on the west coast has been the next big thing for a while now, but perhaps that shouldn’t be the case. Popularity is an exaggeration, a distortion of PinotNoir’s defining qualities and a distraction from what makes it truly great.
As Pinot Noir lovers, we face a collective challenge in the search for truly expressive, honest wine: What must we do to achieve balance in California Pinot Noir?
We extend our gratitude to Mr. Wolfgang Weber for his assistance in preparing this text.”
California Pinot Noir: The Underground View
The above In Pursuit of Balance commentary is a great explanation of balance and what many of us love in Pinot Noir when it is balanced and not manipulated and overly extracted. Pinot Noir should be instantly recognizable as Pinot Noir. Wines that are labeled Pinot Noir that taste like Syrah, do not meet my definition of what I like in Pinot Noir. And, remember under California wine labeling laws any wine labeled as a varietal (type of grape) needs to contain only 75% of that grape. In my opinion, this is wrong. I believe that the consumer has a right to know everything that is in wine that they are drinking. This should be spelled out on the labels. And, this starts with the percentage of each grape used. (To read my article on that subject click here )
When the Underground was first launched in 1979, I put a photo of the 1946 BV Pinot Noir on the cover of the first issue as an example of what was possible in California Pinot Noir. (To read that article click here ) Fast forward over thirty years. Think about all the experimentation that has gone on with different geographic plantings and clones as well as wine making and farming practices. Many are still seeking answers. Many successes have also been achieved. But, there are also the Pinot Noirs that do not live up to their potential. And, quite frankly that will always be the case. Why do I say that? It’s simple. Take a look at Burgundy.
Burgundy has been in the game of growing and making wine from Pinot Noir for centuries. It, for me, can be the best wine in the world. Yet for my entire 40 plus years of drinking Burgundy, and 30 years of visiting Burgundy and tasting countless wines, one clear fact remains: Weather aside, there has never been a time when some have not found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This is despite the fact that the best areas to plant Pinot Noir are defined by law and the characteristics of the clones are well known. Over production or sloppy or manipulative (aka innovative) wine making techniques are most often the culprits. This is the product of man. The erratic weather of Burgundy and unripe or damaged grapes to an extent can be controlled and producers today are certainly more successful than they have been in the past. But, the inescapable fact is that there is a lot of variability because of the weather. As Aubert de Villaine, Co-Director of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, so famously said when speaking first of the great 2009 vintage from barrel “We would like to make wines like 2009 every year. But, if we did, we would not be in Burgundy.” (To read my latest article on Burgundy click here ).
So what is the answer for California Pinot Noir? Where the vines are planted and the type of clones is the first thing. Pinot Noir vines are thought to have first been brought to California in the 1850s. In the late 1800s Inglenook made wine from Pinot Noir in Napa and BV followed. In the 1940s, Martin Ray planted Pinot Noir in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the 1950s, Hanzell planted Pinot Noir in Sonoma. In the 1960s, Chalone also planted Pinot Noir in the area now known as Chalone AVA. These were some of the earliest pioneers. Later, there would be others such as Joseph Swan, Ken Burnap, Dr. Stanley Hoffman, Josh Jensen and Richard Sanford. And, in the 70s and 80s, there were more plantings across the state, especially in Sonoma and the Central Coast, and more producers such as Au Bon Climat and The Ojai Vineyard. I was there with the Underground when many of the first wines were being made by wineries such as Chalone, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Mount Eden Vineyards, Joe Swan, and Calera. Chalone made some great Pinot Noirs in the 70s and 80s that are still great today. The same can be said for Pinot Noirs from Mount Eden Vineyards (the successor to Martin Ray), Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Joe Swan, and Calera. What were the keys? First, the right vines in the right place. Second, low yields. And, lastly, non manipulative wine making practices that produced balanced wines without excessive alcohol.
These to me are the answers to the question of What must we do to achieve balance in California Pinot Noir? To chart the future we need only to look in the rear view mirror. Others have paved the way and, if the traditional road is followed, the future is bright ahead.
Chardonnay Tasting Notes
2010 Arnot-Roberts Chardonnay Watson Ranch Napa Valley.
Light yellow color. Lovely perfume – floral, spice, citrus nuances. Balanced. Lovely fruit. Nice crisp finish. Highly Recommended.
2011 Arnot-Roberts Chardonnay Trout Gulch Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – Barrel Sample.
Light yellow gold color. Great perfume. Floral. Peach. Citrus and spice. Lovely balance and flavor. Hints of citrus spice and pear. Long crisp finish. Outstanding Potential.
(To visit the Arnot-Roberts website click here )
2010 Calera Wine Company Chardonnay Central Coast.
Light yellow color. Lovely perfume. Floral. Citrus. Hint of pineapple. Lovely fruit. Balanced. Nice crisp finish. Highly Recommended Plus.
2010 Calera Wine Company Chardonnay Mt. Harlan.
Light yellow color. Gorgeous perfume – floral, citrus, and mineral. Lots of fruit. Hints of mineral. Has depth and flavor. Balanced. Outstanding.
2010 Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast.
Light yellow gold color. Nice perfume – floral, tinge of citrus and mineral. Nice fruit. Balanced. Crisp. Highly Recommended.
2010 Failla Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard Napa Valley.
Light yellow gold color. Lovely perfume – floral, tinge of vanilla. Lovely fruit. Rounded. Supple. Nice crisp finish. Highly Recommended Plus.
(To visit the Failla website click here ).
2009 Miura Vineyards Chardonnay Talley Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley.
Light yellow gold color. Deep perfume – tropical, citrus, peach. Lots of fruit and flavor. Rich and rounded. Balanced. Lovely crisp finish. Outstanding. ***
2010 Sandhi Chardonnay Rita’s Crown Santa Rita Hills.
Light yellow gold color. Lovely perfume – floral, vanilla, peach, and apricot. Lovely fruit – citrus, peach and vanilla. Balanced. Very pure. Nice crispness on the finish – Outstanding.
2010 Sandhi Chardonnay Sanford and Benedict Santa Rita Hills.
Light yellow color. Lovely perfume – floral, tinge of vanilla. Nice fruit. Flavorful. Good backbone. Balanced. Just a bit restrained. Highly Recommended.
2010 Sandhi Chardonnay Bent Rock Santa Rita Hills.
Light yellow color. Deep perfume – hints of spice, peach, and pineapple. Lovely fruit and flavor – citrus, peach, vanilla. Balanced. Nice crispness on the finish. Outstanding.
(To visit the Sandhi Wines website click here ).
2009 Tyler Chardonnay Clos Pepe Santa Rita Hills.
Light yellow color. Gorgeous perfume – floral, peach, citrus. Lots of fruit. Rounded. Supple. Lush. Nice crispness underneath. Long crisp finish. Outstanding.
2010 Tyler Chardonnay Dierberg Santa Maria Valley.
Light yellow color. Lovely perfume – floral, citrus, vanilla. Gorgeous fruit. Very pure. Elegant. Long crisp finish. Outstanding.
(To visit the Tyler Winery website click here ).(To read my article on Tyler Winery including notes on these wines tasted from barrel click here )
Pinot Noir Tasting Notes
2011 Arnot-Roberts Pinot Noir Peter Martin Ray Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – Barrel Sample.
Deep color. Great perfume – berry, spice. Lovely fruit – berries, spice, faint smokiness, Balanced. Flavorful. Has elegance and depth. Well structured. Good backbone. Nice finish. Outstanding Potential.
(To visit the Arnot-Roberts website click here )
2009 Calera Wine Company Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard Mt. Harlan.
Very nice color. Lovely perfume – floral, vanilla. Nice fruit. Balanced. Crisp finish. Highly Recommended.
2009 Calera Wine Company Pinot Noir Selleck Vineyard Mt. Harlan.
Very nice color. Lovely perfume – floral, berry, vanilla. Has richness and depth. Lots of fruit. Flavorful. Balanced. Outstanding.
(These two wines were tasted from barrel last year. To read those notes and my article on the Calera Wine Company click here .)
2009 Chanin Wine Company Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley.
Deep color. Lovely berry perfume. Faintly floral. Gorgeous fruit. Very elegant and finesseful. Rounded and balanced. Nice underlying crispness. Very pure. Outstanding.
(This wine was reviewed last year prior to release. To read that review and my article on Chanin Wine Company click here) (To visit the Chanin Wine Company website click here) 
2010 Evening Land Vineyards Pinot Noir Occidental Vineyard Sonoma Coast.
Deep color. Great perfume – blackberries and spice. Rich and rounded. Supple. Lots of fruit and flavor. Balanced. Outstanding.
2010 Evening Land Vineyards Pinot Noir Tempest Vineyard Santa Rita Hills.
Deep color. Great perfume – floral, berry. Lots of fruit. Rounded. Supple. Balanced. Elegant. Really lovely. Outstanding.
2010 Evening Land Vineyards Pinot Noir Tempest Bloom’s Field Santa Rita Hills.
Deep color. Lovely complex perfume – plums, berries, floral, spice. Rounded. Supple. Lush. Balanced. Has depth and richness. Loads of fruit. Outstanding. ***
(To visit the Evening Land Vineyards website click here ).
2010 Failla Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.
Nice color. Lovely perfume – berries. Fruity. Elegant. Rounded. Balanced. Tasty. Very nice. Highly Recommended.
2010 Failla Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch Russian River.
Very nice color. Lovely perfume – floral berry. Elegant. Rounded. Supple. Balanced. Lots of fruit. Well crafted. Lovely wine. Outstanding.
(To visit the Failla website click here )
2010 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir McDougall Ranch Sonoma Coast.
Very nice color. Gorgeous perfume – berries, floral, spice. Great fruit. Lots of flavor. Supple. Rounded. Balanced. Has depth and richness. Gorgeous wine. Outstanding Plus.
2009 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.
Deep color. Lovely perfume – floral, berry. Very nice fruit. Spice tinge. Rounded. Balanced. Highly Recommended Plus.
2009 KutchWines Pinot Noir McDougall Ranch Sonoma Coast.
Deep color. Lovely perfume – floral, berry. Lots of fruit. Flavorful. Rounded. Has depth and richness. Balanced. Outstanding.
(To visit the Kutch Wines website click here )
2009 Miura Vineyards Pinot Noir Silacci Vineyard Monterey County.
Deep color. Nice berry perfume. Rounded. Supple. Balanced. Lovely fruit. Highly Recommended.
2009 Miura Vineyards Pinot Noir Williams Ranch Anderson Valley.
Very nice color. Deep perfume – berries, spice. Nice fruit. Floral. Supple. Rounded. Balanced. Highly Recommended.
2009 Miura Vineyards Pinot Noir Pisoni Vineyards Santa Lucia Highlands.
Deep color. Lovely perfume- berries, floral, spice. Loads of berry fruit. Has depth and richness. Balanced. Highly Recommended Plus.
2010 Domaine Eden Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains.
Very nice color. Lovely berry perfume. Nice fruit and flavor. Balanced. Rounded . Highly Recommended.
2010 Sandhi Wines Pinot Noir Evening Land Tempest Santa Rita Hills. Deep color. Nice perfume – berry, spice. Nice fruit. Faintly toasty. Flavorful. Has richness and depth. A bit restrained. Highly Recommended.
2010 Sandhi Wines Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict Santa Rita Hills.
Deep color. Lovely perfume. Hint of spice. Has richness. Nice fruit. Faintly herbal. Crisp finish. Recommended Plus.
2010 Sandhi Wines Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills.
Deep color. Nice perfume. Faintly earthy. Nice fruit. Touch of spice. Rounded. Crisp finish. Recommended Plus.
(To visit the Sandhi Wines website click here )
2010 Soliste Cellars Pinot Noir Foret Sonoma Coast.
Deep color. Gorgeous perfume. Lots of berry fruit. Rounded. Very flavorful. Has depth and richness. Very pure. Balanced. Outstanding
2009 Soliste Cellars Pinot Noir Sonatera Vineyard Sonoma Coast.
Deep color. Great perfume – blackberry. Rounded. Flavorful. Berry fruit. Floral. Supple. Balanced. Outstanding.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Presidio Vineyard Santa Barbara County.
Deep color. Lovely perfume – berry, floral, spice. Great fruit – berry, plum. Supple and rounded. Quite rich. Very flavorful. Balanced. Outstanding
2010 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Santa Barbara County.
Deep color. Gorgeous perfume – berry, floral, exotic. Great fruit. Rounded. Lush. Supple. Flavorful. Balanced. Outstanding.
2009 Tyler Winery Pinot Noir Clos Pepe Santa Rita Hills.
Deep color. Lovely perfume – berry, plum. Lovely fruit. Very pure. Elegant. Supple. Rounded. Flavorful. Balanced. Outstanding.
2010 TylerWinery Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County.
Very nice color. Lovely perfume – floral, berry. Very nice fruit. Rounded. Balanced. Highly Recommended.
2010 Tyler Winery Pinot Noir Bien Nacido – Q Block Santa Maria Valley.
Deep color. Great perfume – berry, plum, floral. Lots of fruit. Has richness and depth. Supple. Balanced. Outstanding.