In Pursuit of Balance: 5 Years of Wine Ideology Comes to an End

Posted on Aug 18, 2016

Sunlight through glassIn Pursuit of Balance (“IPOB”) is the creation of rock-star sommelier and now winery owner Rajat Parr and vineyard owner Jasmine Hirsch. Just exactly what is IPOB is not easy to answer. A group of like-minded California wine-makers? A marketing collective? A wine seminar producer? An ideological movement? It is all of the foregoing, or at least it was, but 5 years after being created, and arguably at the height of its power and popularity it has suddenly, and of its own volition, decided to end its existence at the end of 2016.

IPOB is, at its very core, an ideological movement. Set up to expand the dialogue around the nature of balance in California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir it ostensibly existed to promote its own ideology about what constituted balance in those wines. Members (wineries) were recruited and tastings were organized to showcase that ideology through its member’s wines.

The IPOB website posts its Manifesto of Balance which, in our opinion, offers a pretty good definition: “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 any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.”

In pursuit of balance logoIPOB initially recruited 23 wineries as members, and that number has since expanded to 36. Its tastings, held around the world have sold out. It has received the attention of the press as well and become the subject of numerous press articles. Without doubt it has certainly achieved its objective of expanding the dialogue around the nature of balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It has helped propel that conversation beyond California and beyond just those two varieties.  Why, when success has been so obvious, did the organizers decide to shut it down?

The party line has been that IPOB has achieved its objective, that the conversation has been started by them will now be continued on its own. But perhaps there is more to it than simply achieving its objective. No doubt the demands of Hirsch and Parr’s growing wine businesses had some influence in the decision. Whether or not it is a part of their decision, the fact remains that IPOB became more than just an advocacy for “balance”, it became an advocacy of their version of balance. Balance exists to some extent in the eyes of the beholder. IPOB and its followers clearly placed the fulcrum in a spot that favoured restraint and elegance over high impact wines. The movement was largely thought of as champions of lower alcohol (less than 14% often cited as a line not to be crossed), earlier picking, higher acidity and less oak.

Pinot Noir Clone tastingBut Parr showed much more balance than that during an interview with the Wine Spectator’s James Laube back in 2012. In the article, Laube heaped praise on Parr and IPOB. Interestingly, as the years progressed, IPOB became seen as a crusader against the Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, both labeled by their detractors as advocates of riper, higher alcohol and out of balance wines. Parr showed empathy for both sides of the equation and neutrality on the issue of balance: “Everyone has their own idea of what balance is,” he told me [Laube]. For example, he said, “There are two different styles of Pinot Noir produced in California. The opulent style is a different motivation, with greater intensity, richness and power.”

Grape JuiceLaube goes on to say: “He is an advocate of dialing back ripeness and alcohol levels (he is often cited as being at the center of the debate about what constitutes high alcohol and the 14 percent line of demarcation). But he insists that’s a misnomer.” Parr answers, “Alcohol is not the issue. There are plenty of [great] wines over 14 percent and [In Pursuit of Balance] has nothing to do with it. It’s not a goal to take something down. I hope no one takes it out of context. There are,” he said, “riper, juicer Burgundies and leaner Burgundies.”

Perhaps that gives more insight into the closing of In Pursuit of Balance. IPOB came to be seen as symbolizing one particular style of wine that took the side of restraint against opulence in a topic that was the subject of frequent (and often heated) debate. Over the years IPOB became more associated with low alcohol than with the concept of balance. It seemed that the message shifted away from balance and neutrality to restraint and partisanship. What started out as a catalyst for dialogue gradually became a symbol for dialectic. Sides were drawn and argument replaced discussion. Gradually the mission became distorted as the needle shifted and pointed to restraint instead of balance. While wines of restraint may be interesting to Parr, Hirsch and other members of IPOB, perhaps even favoured, that still does not mean restraint equals balance..

Looking through the wine glassAt AdVINEtures we have found many wines that were restrained and balanced and just as many that were opulent and still balanced. We would disagree with the notion that one style had a greater claim to balance than the other. Balance is about proportion, not style. A wine exhibits balance when fruit, tannin, acidity and alcohol all come forward in a measure that is appropriate to the others. That can happen with restraint and elegance and can just as easily happen with boldness and opulence. Traditional Rioja can exhibit balance and great restraint while Napa Cabernet can exhibit balance and great opulence. Both can be delicious and neither has a greater claim on balance by virtue of their style.

Palates evolve. What you liked a few years ago may be different than what you like today. Tastes change. Perhaps Parr had occasion to enjoy a big, opulent red from Paso or Napa and found that, like many others, he enjoyed the style. Perhaps he found he could appreciate the balance that exists in well made opulent wines too. Maybe it occurred to him that what he had been advocating was not balance but restraint in winemaking style. And maybe it occurred to him that the world of wine is not bi-furcated into restrained versus opulent wines with one set being somehow better than the other. Regardless of their motivation for ending their organization, Parr and Hirsch succeeded on a huge scale in promoting the dialogue about balance in wine. At the end of 2016 when IPOB is no more, the dialogue about what makes good wine will continue. Kudos to them for pushing it along.

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