2012 In Pursuit of Balance Tasting

Julia Morgan Ballroom, Merchants Exchange Building, San Francisco, California
Tasted Monday, March 19, 2012 by Richard Jennings with 1,579 views


It’s an exciting time to be following the wine industry in California. Things are changing. The dominance of big, fruit-forward, super-ripe wines is starting to fade. The diversity of wine styles available to the consumer is growing.

There will still be plenty of ripe, intense, fruit-forward wines, I’m sure, for those that prefer that style. There will still be oaky, buttery Chardonnays too. Other styles, however, are coming to the fore. This includes lower alcohol, higher acid, more minerally wines that winemakers are striving for by picking earlier, growing in cooler locations, and using less new oak, among other things.

Some have been doggedly going for this style for decades. That includes wineries like Calera, Acardian and Mount Eden, the Santa Cruz Mountains producer I wrote about in last week’s post.

Others have dramatically changed their winemaking style in just the past several years. That includes winemakers like Wells Guthrie at Copain, Jamie Kutch of Kutch Wines, and Pax Mahle, formerly of Pax who is now making wine under the Wind Gap label.

There are also brand new winemakers on the scene who started making wine under their own labels in the last several years determined to make the kind of wines they enjoyed drinking—more classically European styled, food-friendly wines. The ranks of these winemakers include Gavin Chanin (Chanin Wine Company), John Raytek (Ceritas) and Justin Willett (Tyler Winery).

The efforts of many of these winemakers were highlighted at a recent event in San Francisco called “In Pursuit of Balance.”

This was the second year for this event, organized by Rajat Parr, noted sommelier and now a winemaker himself under the Sandhi label, and Jasmine Hirsch, of Sonoma Coast’s Hirsch Vineyards.

The stated purpose of the event was “to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.” Wines and winemakers or other representatives from a total of 29 wineries that make Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir from grapes from California and/or Oregon were on hand, including several that I’ve named above.

I’ve written here in the past few months about the different styles of Pinot Noir (The Many Moods of Pinot Noir) and Chardonnay (Minerality, Tropical Fruit or Butter? The Styles of Chardonnay).

There I mentioned some of the winegrowing and winemaking factors that influence the ultimate style of the finished wine. These include choices as to where to grow or from where to source the grapes—cooler locations like the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley can yield higher acid, more minerally wines.

The clones of Pinot Noir planted also make a big difference—with the Dijon clones from France that have been widely planted in California tending not to ripen as well or have as long a “hang time” in many California climates as so-called “heritage” clones, budwood taken from vines that have done well in California for years, like the Calera and Mount Eden clones.

Cooler weather conditions in the past few years have also aided the efforts of winemakers going for this lower alcohol, less ripe style. While 2008 and 2009 were somewhat cooler years, 2010 and 2011 were both significantly cooler, producing lower yields than usual.

Canopy management, which includes various types of trellising and strategic pruning and leaf pulling, is also being used to ensure that grape bunches ripen more evenly and slowly than was the case in the past.

The choice of fermentation vessel–oak or more neutral vessels like stainless steel tanks, as well as whether and what type of oak is used for aging the wine plays a big role in determining the wine’s style, especially with a more neutral grape like Chardonnay.

Many winemakers in California, especially those in the balance movement, are relying more on indigenous yeasts–i.e., the yeast that exists in the winemaking environment, and to a limited extent, in the field–to take care of the fermentation of the grape into wine instead of adding various types of commercial yeast, which was formerly common in this state. The yeast used also affects the ultimate flavors and sometimes even texture of the wine.

Besides all the winegrowing and winemaking choices, other developments have helped in recent years to expand the market for wines with higher acidities, minerality and balance.

A couple of wine critics are usually cited as giving high scores to super ripe, power-packed California wines: Robert Parker, owner of the Wine Advocate, and James Laube of Wine Spectator. As of this year, however, Parker is no longer reviewing California wines, having turned that duty over to Antonio Galloni. And other critics who favor less ripe styles, like the Burghound’s Allen Meadows, have also become influential regarding California Pinot Noir.

Sommeliers and natural wine bars have also played a major role in promoting lighter, more natural and more balanced styles of wine. It’s very appropriate, then, that Michael Mina sommelier Rajat Parr is one of the founders and organizers of the “In Pursuit of Balance” event.

The producers responsible for the wines that most impressed me at this event—truly elegant Chardonnays with vibrant acidity, and complex, minerally Pinot Noirs—were Ceritas, Chanin, Cobb, Evening Land, Hirsch, Lioco, Miura, Mount Eden, Peay, Sandhi, Soliste, Tyler and Wind Gap. Time did not permit me to taste the wines of two other favorites at this event who make excellent wines in the same style, Copain and Littorai.

California has been blessed for several years now with many excellent Pinot Noirs in a variety of styles, and the great wines I tasted at this event show that those of us who love minerally, lower alcohol, refined Pinots will continue to have lots to choose from in the coming years.

What particularly excited as I left this event was the number of excellent Chardonnays I’d tasted, true alternatives to the oaky, buttery Chardonnays that predominated just five years ago.

While the “ABC” (anything but Chardonnay) movement made sense back when there were few alternatives to the then prevailing style, the Chardonnays from these producers give us reason to rejoice that Chardonnay in California is alive and well.

I’m very wary of dogmatism in wine, as I am in life in general. What is wonderful to me about the balance movement and other new developments is that they’re making the world of wine in California more diverse, with more and better choices for every palate.

My favorite wines of the tasting, wines that I rated 93 points or higher, were:
2010 Ceritas Chardonnay Heintz - 93 points
2010 Ceritas Pinot Noir Escarpa Vineyard - 93 points
2009 Chanin Pinot Noir Le Bon Climat - 94 points
2010 Evening Land Vineyards Pinot Noir Occidental Vineyard - 93+ points
2010 Evening Land Vineyards Pinot Noir Tempest Vineyard - 93+ points
2010 Evening Land Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills - 93 points
2009 Hirsch Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve - 93 points
2009 Miura Pinot Noir Williams Ranch - 93 points
2009 Miura Pinot Noir Pisoni Vineyard - 93 points
2007 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve - 93 points
2009 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay - 94 points
2009 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate - 93+ points
2008 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate - 94+ points
2010 Sandhi Wines Chardonnay Rita's Crown - 93 points
2010 Sandhi Wines Chardonnay Bent Rock - 93 points
2010 Soliste Cellars Pinot Noir Foret - 93 points
2010 Tyler Pinot Noir Q Block Bien Nacido Vineyard - 93+ points

For my complete tasting notes and more details on selected producers, see below.

Flight 1 - Alta Maria (2 Notes)

  • 2009 Alta Maria Chardonnay 88 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley

    Light yellow color; lemon curd nose; tight, tart lemon, mineral, reduction palate; medium finish (1/2 stainless steel, 1/2 neutral & once used oak)

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  • 2009 Alta Maria Pinot Noir 89 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley

    Medium red color; floral, rosehips nose; tart red fruit, rosehips, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium finish (1/3 whole cluster)

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Flight 2 - Anthill Farms (3 Notes)


Flight 3 - Arnot-Roberts (3 Notes)

Flight 4 - Au Bon Climat (3 Notes)

  • 2008 Ici/La-Bas Pinot Noir Les Révélés Elke Vineyard 83 Points

    USA, California, North Coast, Anderson Valley

    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; smoke, tart red fruit nose; smoke taint, tart red fruit, roast pork palate; medium-plus finish (another victim of the California fires of '08; why did they bottle it though?)

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  • 2007 Barham Mendelsohn Pinot Noir 88 Points

    USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley

    Medium cherry red color; floral, rosehips nose; tart red fruit, floral, rosehips palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points

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  • 2009 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Isabelle 90 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; complex, roses, forest floor nose; tart red fruit, forest floor, mineral, baking spice palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points (70% whole cluster; selection of the 50 best barrels)

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Flight 5 - Ceritas (4 Notes)

“Ceritas,” according to this producer’s website, is Spanish for “mineral expression of the soil.” Owner/winemaker John Raytek was assistant winemaker at Copain for six years, and helped launch Rhys, where he was a winemaker from 2002 through 2004. In addition to Ceritas, he currently serves as winemaker for Pfendler Vineyards. John’s co-owner is Phoebe Bass, his fiancée, whose family owns Porter-Bass Vineyard, which was planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1978. Their first vintage was 2005, when they made a Chardonnay from Porter-Bass and a Pinot Noir from an old vineyard called Escarpa. Escarpa is a five-acre vineyard lying in a cnayon above Occidental, just east of the ridge facing Bodega Bay, that was planted to Swan clone Pinot Noir in 1978. John and Phoebe converted it to biodynamic farming methods in 2008. Their 2010s are minerally, delicate, with floral touches. These are admirably balanced wines that should also age beautifully.

Flight 6 - Chanin (4 Notes)

Gavin Chanin started this label in 2007 at the age of 21. He learned winemaking working harvest for Hamilton Russell in South Africa, Bell Hill Vineyard and Carrick Winery in New Zealand, and starting as a cellar rat at Au Bon Climat and Qupe, the wineries where he’s now assistant winemaker. He’s also the nephew of Tony Chanin, one of the original founders of Zaca Mesa Winery in 1978. He has sought out older vineyards with particular soils in the Santa Barbara area, and picks his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir earlier than others in the area. He then ages in largely neutral barrels for about 14 months. The results are very impressive: complex wines with lots of flavor, minerality and vibrant acidity. The ’09 Le Bon Climat Pinot was particularly stunning, one of the best wines of the tasting.

  • 2009 Chanin Chardonnay Los Alamos Vineyard 92 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    Light yellow color; appealing, tart pineapple, apple nose; tasty, tart apple, pear, tart pineapple palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish

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  • 2009 Chanin Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard 92 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley

    Light yellow color; very nice, tart pear, baked pear nose; tasty, flavorful, tart pear, baked pear, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points

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  • 2009 Chanin Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard 92 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley

    Light medium red color with pale meniscus; appealing, ripe cherry, strawberry, light sous bois nose; tasty, tart cherry, tart strawberry, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (40% whole cluster)

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  • 2009 Chanin Pinot Noir Le Bon Climat 94 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley

    Light medium red color with pale meniscus; tart red fruit, tart cherry, tart strawberry, mineral, floral nose; tart cherry, tart raspberry, rosehips, floral palate with medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (really excellent)

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Flight 7 - Cobb (5 Notes)

The Coastlands Vineyard is located on the Sonoma Coast a few miles north of the Marin-Sonoma County border and just one ridge over and four miles east from the Pacific Ocean. The vineyard was planted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The vineyard is owned and managed by the Cobb family. Together, the blocks of the vineyard comprise 15 acres, and range in elevation from 900 to 1200 feet. The grapes were sold primarily to Williams Selyem through the 2000 vintage. At that time, brothers Ross and Stephen Cobb and their parents David and Diane founded Cobb Family Wines, focused on Pinot Noirs from five Sonoma Coast vineyards. Although they continue to sell some of the Coastlands grapes to Williams Selyem, they now produce a Coastlands Pinot of their own, along with Pinots from four other vineyards: Rice-Spivak, Emmaline, Joy Road, and Coastlands-Diane Cobb. Ross Cobb is the winemaker. He began his winemaking career at Ferrari Carano, later moving on to work with Randal Graham at Bonny Doon. His last gig before co-founding Cobb Family Winery was as assistant winemaker under Burt Williams at Williams-Selyem. He also worked with Bob Cabral when Bob took over as winemaker after the sale of Williams Selyem and the retirement of Burt Williams. Robb is also the winemaker for Hirsch. The first vintage of Cobb Family Coastlands Pinot Noir was 2001.

Flight 8 - Evening Land (3 Notes)

Mark Tarlov established this brand in 2005, based on 140 acres of estate vineyards in the Sonoma Coast, Santa Rita Hills and Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills. He assembled a team that includes consulting winemaker Dominique Lafon, Isabelle Meunier (winemaker in Oregon) and Sashi Moorman (winemaker in California, pictured below). They have since expanded to Burgundy as well, with winemakers and vineyard managers on site in each region creating distinctive Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. All three of these Pinots from two vineyard locations were excellent, with strong fruit that balanced the high amount of whole cluster well.

Flight 9 - Failla (4 Notes)

Flight 10 - Flowers (5 Notes)

Flight 11 - Freeman (3 Notes)


Flight 12 - Freestone (3 Notes)

Flight 13 - Hirsch (4 Notes)

David Hirsch purchased the 800 acre, remote, former sheep ranch near the Pacific Coast in Cazadero that ultimately became the site for Hirsch Vineyards in 1980. Through the 1990s and into the mid-2000s, 72 acres were planted, 68 of them to Pinot Noir. The grapes were sold to some of California’s most esteemed Pinot producers, like Littorai and Williams Selyem. In 2002, the family started also making their own wine, with Peay’s Vanessa Wong making the wine for the first two years. The current winemaker is Ross Cobb. They typically pick early, totally destem and use about 40% new barrels. The truly exceptional wine in this group for me was the 2009 Reserve, but the 2010 Chardonnay and 2009 San Andreas Fault Pinot are also terrific.

Flight 14 - Kutch (3 Notes)


  • 2010 Kutch Pinot Noir McDougall Ranch 91 Points

    USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast

    Light medium cherry red color; floral, forest floor nose; tart red fruit, roses, mineral, tart cherry palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (50% whole cluster, 50% new French oak)

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  • 2009 Kutch Pinot Noir Falstaff Vineyard 91 Points

    USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast

    Medium cherry red color; intriguing, complex, floral, forest floor, tart cherry, cinnamon nose; tart red fruit, hibiscus, rosehips, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (30% whole cluster, 30% new oak, 13.1% alcohol)

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  • 2009 Kutch Pinot Noir McDougall Ranch 91 Points

    USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast

    Medium cherry red color; forest floor, light brett, savory nose; tart red fruit, cranberry, forest floor, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (50% whole cluster, 50% new French oak)

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Flight 15 - Lioco (4 Notes)


Flight 16 - Miura (4 Notes)

Emmanuel Kemiji is a master sommelier who partnered with his college roommate Byron Kosuge to create the Miura label in 1995. The name is taken from a breeder of highly prized Spanish fighting bulls. Atlhough Kemiji has gone on to launch other wine projects, including two in Spain, his focus with Miura is Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. These were very good wines across the board, and the Pisoni bottling was terrific–one of the best Pisoni bottlings I’ve ever tasted.

Flight 17 - Mount Eden (6 Notes)

Mount Eden and their elegant, terroir-driven wines with a track record for ageability were the subject of my last blog post here. The Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs they poured at this event were very much in keeping with their long established style, and some of the best wines of the tasting.

Flight 18 - native9 (2 Notes)

Flight 19 - Ojai (4 Notes)


Flight 20 - Peay (5 Notes)

I have been a fan of the flavorful, elegant, terroir-driven wines of Peay for a long time. Nick and Andy Peay, pictured above, planted their first vineyard, in the extreme northwest corner of the Sonoma Coast AVA, in 1997-1998. Nick married Vanessa Wong, a winemaker who not only graduated U.C. Davis, but also worked at Burgundy’s Domaine Jean Gros and Peter Michael Winery. Vanessa left Peter Michael in 2001 to make Peay’s first vintage. Peay declassifies barrels not up to their standards for the estate wines, using most of that wine for a second label called Cep. As usual, the Peay wines in this tasting were very solid and ageworthy. My particular favorites were the 2009 Charonnay, the 2009 Scallop Shelf Pinot and 2010 Pomarium Pinot. They also make some of my favorite California Syrahs.

Flight 21 - Sandhi (6 Notes)

Sandhi is a Sanskrit word for “collaboration.” Its partners are Rajat Paar, Sashi Moorman and Charles Banks. I think they are making some terrific Chardonnays, using limited amounts of new oak–20 to 25% for 11 months. The wines are left on their lees, but the lees are not stirred. The 2010 Rita’s Crown and 2010 Bent Rock Chardonnays were some of the most elegant and minerally of the tasting. The Pinot Noirs, however, are very much showing their 100% whole cluster inclusion for me (only 50% on the Santa Rita Hills appellation bottling). I got virtually no fruit character on the 2010 Evening Land Tempest and Sanford & Benedict bottlings, with the whole cluster inclusion giving forest floor and herb flavors (cumin and curry powder predominating on the Evening Land bottling). I really wonder how well these Pinot Noirs are going to age.

Flight 22 - Soliste Cellers (4 Notes)

Soliste is named after a Burgundian term for a special barrel reserved for family and friends. The owners are Claude Koeberle and Donald Plumley, who are based in Petaluma. They are very much inspired by Burgundian models, and have been producing wine since the 2005 vintage. They make Pinot Noirs, a Pinot rosé and a Sauvignon Blanc. I was particularly impressed by a 2010 Sonoma Coast bottling set for summer release called Foret, but all of their wines show a high level of grape selection and winemaking skill.

Flight 23 - Twomey (5 Notes)

Flight 24 - Tyler (5 Notes)

Justin Willett, owner/winemaker of Tyler Winery, worked as assistant winemaker to Joe Davis at Arcadian until 2007. He started this label in 2005. His winery website states that “Tyler is dedicated to producing wines of delicacy and balance, where structure and nuance are favored above all else.” The focus is solely on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, from select sites throughout Santa Barbara County. I was knocked out by the very Burgundian and appealing 2010 Bien Nacido-Q Block Pinot Noir. The other wines were quite good too, with complexity and vivid flavors. Justin’s decision to focus on older vines, pick early and use new oak sparingly (no more than 20% for the Chardonnays, and 20-30% for the Pinots) definitely appears to be paying off.

Flight 25 - Wind Gap (4 Notes)