"If a Pinot Noir is overwhelmed with fruit -- or, indeed, by any element, like oak, fruit extraction, fruit ripeness, or alcohol -- you're going to lessen the possibility that the wine can express essential place. And for me, Pinot Noir is all about essential place."
If any grape demands contemplation, it's Pinot Noir. The great ones translate time and place, clearly expressing the characteristics of their vintage and the soils and climate in which they're grown.
So I wasn't surprised to hear these words from Jasmine Hirsch, as her father, David, planted what is considered one of America's top Pinot Noir vineyards nearly 35 years ago.
We were chatting about an annual wine event she launched with Rajat Parr, a celebrity sommelier, in 2011. Dubbed "In Pursuit of Balance," it applauds the California winemakers who eschew ripeness and power in favor of restraint and elegance.
The event has helped counteract the notion that California only makes fruit bombs. And it's brought attention to some of California's top Pinot Noir producers.
In Pursuit of Balance traces its roots to 2008, when Hirsch entered the wine industry by taking over sales and marketing for her family's winery. At the time, she was living in New York and had fallen in love with Pinot Noir, so it made sense to join the family business.
But the wines that stole her heart came from Burgundy. She was continuously "blown away by what they were able to achieve" in France.
When she started working for her family, she began drinking more California Pinot Noir. Too often, she didn't enjoy the wines. They were, quite simply, too big. In ripeness, alcohol, and oak, they lacked the subtlety and poise she'd grown to love in Burgundy.
Around that same time, Hirsch developed a friendship with Rajat Parr, the wine director for the Mina Group, a restaurant management company with a global reputation for its wine program. Parr was known for his obsession with Pinot Noir, so Hirsch asked him why California couldn't produce more elegant wines.
Parr showed Hirsch that the state could. Indeed, a handful of producers had been making Pinot Noir that achieved the grape's higher purpose -- translating both time and place -- for decades.
The two friends soon hashed out a plan for a formal tasting for sommeliers, journalists, and eager consumers. The first brought together nearly 25 California producers and generated tremendous buzz.
At that time, Hirsch said, "California was facing an identity crisis."
Most oenophiles believed what Hirsch thought just a few years prior: that California wines were over the top. Parr and Hirsch sought to debunk this notion.
The wines they showcased weren't always popular. Then, as now, the best-known critics gave their highest ratings to ripe, powerfully concentrated wines. While this praise is certainly defensible, such wines were the antithesis of what Parr and Hirsch looked for in Pinot Noir.
Naturally, the event stirred controversy. By presenting a limited number of producers, Hirsch and Parr created an exclusionary event. Plus, the word "balance" -- which refers to fruit, acidity, structure, and alcohol coexisting harmoniously, with no single element dominating -- is a lightning rod. Last year, Wine Spectator's Harvey Steiman proclaimed that he "[resented] the implication that richer, more full-bodied wines can't be balanced."
Hirsch and Parr acknowledge these criticisms. Today, wineries that hope to join their tasting must first pass muster with a panel of judges who taste blind. And Hirsch admits that the event might have been misnamed.
For my palate, the wines that Hirsch and Parr have chosen to celebrate are among America's most exciting and delicious. Producers like Copain, Littorai, and Peay make precise, focused wines that are full of charm. The wines from Hirsch's own property and Rajat Parr's two labels, Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote, are similarly stunning.
Pinot Noir is one of viticulture's most fickle grapes. It's challenging and expensive to grow. By bringing attention to the California wineries that work hard to achieve Pinot Noir's higher purpose, Hirsch and Parr deserve everyone's praise.
David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Grape Collective.