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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
11/18/2016
Putting The Cork In The IPOB Movement

By Charles Olken

One of the things that makes me sad about the near-death of blogging is that it now belongs only to the insiders. What started out as a broadening of the reach enjoyed by words about wine has devolved into exchanges of views among the pros only. Take for instance the words of Steve Heimoff about the demise of IPOB (In Pursuit of Balance) as he discusses the pros and cons of that organization. The only folks who have responded are insiders. And yet, IPOB, for better or worse, has generated as much controversy as anything in the wine biz over the last half decade, and its influence on opinions about ripeness, acidity levels, serious intent and the lessening of industrial technique in the making of wine have been fairly enormous and widespread.

While folks, including Heimoff, look mostly at Pinot Noir, perhaps because the increases in quality in that variety are front and center in people’s minds, it is in the making of Chardonnay that we see the greatest and most lasting influence of IPOB. Whether one likes, or used to like, the big, buttery side of Chardonnay (we do), we see changes for the better in that style and a willingness across the board to make brighter, more lively versions.

There were several downsides to IPOB, however, which made that organization out of bounds for us, and we will not miss any of the nonsensical, biased things that came along with the good.

For one thing, whether it meant to or not, IPOB and its professional ringleaders made wines above 14% alcohol into bad children. Raj Parr, owner of RN 74, Sandhi wines and leading sommelier for the Mina group of restaurants, and a very serious and knowledgeable wine person, claims that he was never against 14%+ wines, yet at his own restaurant, he proclaimed that he would not put any Pinot Noir or Chardonnay on the menu if its alcohol was above 14%. In that one move, he gave de facto credence to the notion that IPOB had established a bar for wines above which they lost legitimacy. Now, we see good reason to be concerned that ripeness and not varietal character earns too many wines their high ratings. But, the way to judge wines is by character and not label statements of alcohol level.

Here is the rub, and Steve Heimoff has long argued this point. IPOB does let some wines and wineries into “club” if the winery has a certain “cachet” regardless of alcohol level while it has decidedly and sternly rejected others whose wines more or less met the standards but whose “coolness” did not. In that sense, IPOB became about the likes and dislikes of its leaders. And some of those leaders, like the former head writing boy of the San Francisco Chronicle, were absolutely churlish in their treatment of those they did not like or who had not worshipped at the alter.

And then there was the lingering feeling among those on the outside looking in that IPOB quickly shifted into a marketing organization more concerned about hawking its wares than spreading the word about the style they espoused. Yes, wineries are businesses and they do need to sell their wines to stay in business, but when a marketing organization denigrates that which does not fit their vision, then they lose me. I feel the same way about the marketing of natural wines and the earlier marketing of biodynamic wines.

Wine is not “better” because it is made according to some philosophy but rather because it tastes better. And taste does not belong to one philosophy, to one style, to one set of insiders. In its reliance on its own self-righteousness, IPOB eventually became its own outsider. Its passing is well-deserved because IPOB lost sight of the real reason people drink wine. They find it enjoyable because it tastes good.

I do not mourn its passing even as I salute the good that it has done. In that, IPOB will manage to outpoint Caesar.


 

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Comments

Agree...Mostly....
by TomHill
Posted on:11/20/2016 8:15:13 PM

Charlie,

   Pretty much agree the demise of the IPoB organization elicited a large "ho-hum" and a shrug of the shoulders from me. As you point out, it had largely made their point about the attraction of wines made in a lower alcohol and restrained style (of which alcohol level had become only a small part of their message) and had become (largely) just another marketing organization. .

   True...Raj's dictum of only <14% alcohol on the wine list in his restaurant was pretty silly, but that's certainly his choice...and it eliminated an awfully lot of good wines.

   OTOH, I guess I didn't see any of the missives from the IPoB (marketing) organization as denigrating those wines above 14% alcohol, some of which wines they including in their tastings. Early on, Raj's focus was on alcohol levels above 14%...but that pretty much fell by the wayside early on.

   It, to me, is exactly like two other distinctly marketing organizations. Namely ZAP and RhoneRangers. I don't see their missives as denigrating wines not made from Zinfandel, nor of Rhone varieties. They simplly think Zins and Rhone varietals are the bees-knees, like to show off those varietals in their tastings, and not, that I see, denigrating wines from other varieties.

   But the part of your post that I really take exception to is your characterization of JonBonne as "former head writing boy". To characterize a grown adult as "boy" raises, to me, the spectre of the disparging term "boy" that was used by whites in the DeepSouth towards black men, in an era not so long ago. I'm certain that was not your intention to use "boy" as a racial epithet, though I suspect it was  intended to denigrate Jon's tenure w/ the SFChron. But it came across, to me, as an uncalled for cheap shot that was uncalled for in an otherwise good post.

Tom

 

Denigration For The Gander
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/21/2016 12:22:14 AM

Tom--

My obvious distaste for Mr. Bonne derives exclusively from his utter disdain for and denigration of everything in California that was not made in the image that suited his palate. No humility. No open-mindedness.

Charardonnay was "silly". Kosta Browne Pinot Noirs were "for amateurs". Wines not made by his favorite small wineries were dismissed as "big distributor crap". 

So, sorry to offend you, but I am offended by the way that CA wines and those who like them were dismissed out of hand. 

It is one thing to have opinions and to trumpet them loudly. It is another to put down those who disagree with you. 

You can argue that I am doing just that, and I will agree with you. Oh, and when I expressed by disagreement with Mr. Bonne's opinions, he loudly proclaimed that I was waging "jihad" on him.

So, Tom, this is a case of "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander".

ZAP doesn't promote Zin blends
by Bob Henry
Posted on:11/21/2016 1:17:36 AM

Tom:

"It, to me, is exactly like two other distinctly marketing organizations. Namely ZAP and RhoneRangers. I don't see their missives as denigrating wines not made from Zinfandel ..."

ZAP won't allow Zin blends into their events.

Wines such as Ridge "Geyserville" -- a standar bearer for California.

The wines poured for the trade and the public had to be 75% or more Zinfandel, and labeled as such on the bottle.

Source: "When is a Zin not a Zin?"

Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/mar/11/food/la-fo-oldvine-20100311

Excerpts:

Yet the biggest organization of Zinfandel producers in the state, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, or ZAP, forbids wines not labeled "Zinfandel" from being poured at its events.

At a ZAP tasting in San Francisco in January [2010], some of the state's most famous wineries, including Ridge and Ravenswood, broke the group's rules and poured field blends anyway.

"Field blends would be California's main wine if it wasn't for Prohibition," says Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson. "This is a topic whose time has come."

. . .

ZAP is not rushing to support field blend producers. Its board of directors had a long, heated debate last year before ruling that promoting field blends — traditionally called "mixed blacks" by growers not only because that is what the grapes look like, but also because it saves the trouble of hiring a geneticist to figure out what they actually are — would detract from the group's promotion of Zinfandel.

~~ Bob

Rhone Rangers and this Discussion
by larry schaffer
Posted on:11/21/2016 9:28:19 AM

Charlie,

Thanks for your thoughts - always appreciated.

To Tom's point, the Rhone Rangers is an organization that is created to help educate consumers on rhone varieties grown domestically. We have always been very inclusive, and have held seminars where blends containing non-rhone varieties were included.

That said, having a 'stated' requirement list for inclusion is not a difficult thing to do - and most wine organizations are pretty straight forward about this, including the Rhone Rangers. IPOB, on the other hand, seemed to be a bit 'vague' as to who was included and why - and that certainly worked against them to many.

At the end of the day, their 'movement' did move the needle on exposing other styles of wines to consumers domestically, and that is a a good thing to me. That was done as much via 'marketing' as it was with the tastings - and I would LOVE to see orgs like ZAP and the Rhone Rangers get the same media coverage they received. It would make many other lives easier :-)

Cheers!

Chard and IPOB
by Evan
Posted on:11/21/2016 10:40:04 AM

Charlie,

You have been at this a while, I'm sure you have seen the historical curves of Chardonnay and oak/butteriness to austere. When became enamored with wine production in the mid 90s I bought evey back issue of every wine industry mag I could find as well as going to the wine library for research. That historical research tells of that sine-wave. I can see that there was dialogue opened but I think the wave was headed that way anyway. Marketing to that inevitable trend with bombast manifestos was good business.

Brisk Chardonnays
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/21/2016 10:57:59 AM

Hello Evan-

Point well-made. Long before IPOB and its "bombast leaders" arrived on the scene, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement had taken up the chant of "too ripe, too oaky", and folks were responding. Morever, the increasing acreage in cool-area vineyards like Freestone and Petaluma Gap up north and Sta. Rita Hills down south also contributed to that trend before IPOB's beginnings.

Frankly, the trend toward brighter balance was and is a good thing, and truth be told, the most expensive white Burgs have always had their share of ripeness and oak. But CA is not Burgundy and I have never understood why people think we have to make imitation Burgundy here, nor have I ever understood why wineries like Marimar, Dutton Goldfield, Grgich Hills, among others were not celebrated for their long-standing commitment to wines with higher acid balances.

But, ultimately, I and CGCW have always taken the "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach and not proclaimed one style as the holy of holies to the exclusion of all else. It is that sharky attitude that pushes my buttons, and I will happily say that not all IPOB leaders adopted that nasty, self-righteous tone. But the tone and the folks who worshipped at that altar of exclusion that did deserve and still deserve our opprobrium.

Snarky Attitude
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/21/2016 11:02:56 AM

SNARKY, not sharky. 

The Greater Challenge
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:11/21/2016 11:21:35 AM

Charlie--

I am in total agreement about the "100 Flowers Bloom" approach towards wine criticism (or as I like to say, "A Rising Tide Lift All Boats"). Why some wine writers find the need to bash one segment of the wine world in order to make a point about their preferred wine is what I find most troubling about where wine criticism is going. Here we are fighting many battles (rise of cocktails/craft beer culture, anti-alcohol forces, taxes, shipping laws, distribution channels) and rather than try to make a wider world for wine, we are yelling at each other and being divisive. 

I have always tried to remind myself as a retail buyer and seller to consumers that folks are looking for a reason TO BUY wine, something positive. They don't want to hear about why they should not buy wine. They want a positive experience. If all we do is stereotype and make fun of those folks who like wines considered to be "bad" by the wine elite (you should hear the outright horrific things the trade will call folks who like Rombauer chardonnay) we will not fix the greater challenge--how to bring more people into the world of wine that we love so dearly.

Heyward Contact
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/21/2016 11:43:00 AM

Hi Chuck--

Thanks for your note, and for making the point that seems so obvious to me and you but apparently not to some "bomb throwers", or should I say, "self-aggrandizing bomb throwers".

I note that my email address for you is out of date. Please send me an update at cgcw@aol.com. Thanks.

I have an NZ question for you.

Oh, and re Rombauer Chardonnay. The winery told me that it was not sweet. Oh well, I guess residual sugar does not taste sweet. But, I also remember being at a winewriter dinner at which a well-regarded writer chose Rombauer off the list and then discovered that it was sweet and was embarassed. To her credit, she did accept that the wine was not made in the usual Chardonnay style. Some versions of that wine have had pretty good acidity and OK fruit, and when they do, they can have great utility with some dishes. 

Charlie

Rombauer Chard
by TomHill
Posted on:11/21/2016 11:43:32 AM

Chuck sez: "you should hear the outright horrific things the trade will call folks who like Rombauer chardonnay".

Chuck,

   For a good many yrs, the Rombauer Chard has been held up as the poster-child for over-oaked/soft/fat/full-ML/buttery Calif Chards. I don't know what the Rombauer Calif Chard (or even if they still make one) is now like, but the last 4-5 vintages of the Rombauer Carneros Chard is awfully good drinking...modest oak, bright zippy acidity..everything you want in a great-drinking Calif Chard..a very attractive wine...if a bit pricey at $34/btl.

   I used to be a full-fledged member of the ABC Club and looked down my nose at those heathens who would drink that stuff. But over the last 4-5 yrs, I've been drinking a lot more Calif Chard and finding a lot to like about them. I, of course, give full credit to Raj & IPoB for this turn-around in quality of Calif Chard!!  :-)

Tom

 

And By The Way
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:11/21/2016 12:30:49 PM

Hey Mr. Olken:

In sending you the email you requested, I drifted off and came to an observation best printed on your blog....

I have always enjoyed your commentary. Even if it is just to the trade these days, you make points that need to be discussed and debated. The trade needs a community, a forum where we can chat about the topics of the day that concern us the most… These days, we all work in our own little world, you at the computer screen, retailers moving boxes, even somms have to uncork wines….. We don’t see each other, let alone talk to each other and that has allowed wine writing to become a “us vs. them” proposition. It's a window that showcases the divisions that exist in the industry, at the expense of why we all entered the business in the first place. It's now everyone fighting to protect their slice of the wine world.

Maybe it's just part of a maturing industry and some of us oldies long for the times when the debate about wine was simpler, more of an us ("the new world of wine") vs. them ("the heathens who don't know about wine"). But not having folks like you, and even Heimoff, remind us of the bigger picture along with a needed dose of historic perspective would make the wine world a bit more incomplete.

Thanks, Charlie, for fighting the fight.... 

History
by Evan
Posted on:11/21/2016 1:34:13 PM

What is even more interesting if you go even further back you will find that there was a complaint about the chardonnays not having enough oak. It always seems some people want what they don't have. I appreciate this newer style and make it in this style mostly due to allergy reasons(though there is some new science that will let me do it either way now, but we have a house style). Yes everyone should drink what they want but there is plenty of room for defining trends and commenting on those trends, we need this as consumers as it drives curiosity in an often stodgy environment. I only wish for it to be done in a more positive fashion.

Residual sugar in wine
by Bob Henry
Posted on:11/21/2016 2:04:23 PM

From the Napa Valley Register

(November 3, 2016):

"Sugar is Our Friend"

Link: http://napavalleyregister.com/wine/columnists/dan-berger/sugar-is-our-friend/article_6f71fcd3-1870-5987-b954-05a94718ce5a.html

By Dan Berger

"On Wine" Column

Excerpt:

"Not all wines are as they seem to be.

"Among the most the fascinating of topics is that of sugar in what putatively are dry wines, in most cases to allow them to be appealing to the broad American public.

"This is not a new subject. It arose some 30 years ago when allegations were raised that some wineries we’re making chardonnay with residual sugar, and that such a tactic was an abomination.

"And yet some of the most expensive chardonnays made at the time had such low acidity that they actually tasted just a little bit sweet. It was a trend that continued for well over a decade, and even to this day, I taste a number of fairly expensive chardonnays made this way.

"Indeed, it has been widely reported that one particular Napa Valley chardonnay is consistently made to be sweet, and it has achieved wide success throughout United States, based on this very trait, according to many reports."

 

History
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/21/2016 2:07:01 PM

Evan--

For the most part, these discussions are pretty civil, even the ones that take sides. The new writer at the SF Chron, while perhaps not as experienced as Mr. Bonne, does have opinions that get backed up with discussions from other sources rather than through brickbats thrown by the author.

She may not have Bonne's influence,but she has shown that it is possible to make a point without being a bomb thrower. 

As Chuck said, the conversation is the thing. Thanks for joining in. Don't be a stranger.

Charlie

Bonne
by William
Posted on:11/21/2016 2:30:09 PM

No reason to apologize for JB comments JB.  You would have to be literally blind to think that “former head writing boy” was racially tinged as opposed to a comment on JB’s maturity.  I went to a small tasting with JB as part of his book tour; he spent twenty minutes “explaining” why all Russian River Valley pinot was worthless syrup (it started to sound like the SNL “if it’s not Scottish it’s cr@p” skit) and that all RRV pinot vineyards should be ripped up.  He seemed to be trying to convince himself he was brilliant, but it just served to demonstrate that he is not a serious person. 

I always found JB to be more strident than IPOB founders Rajat Parr or Jasmine Hirsch were, but then again charm goes a long way.  Maybe RP’s label-switching experience with Adam Lee gave him a little humility, but recently he seemed to be espousing the “these are the types of wines I like, and I hope you like them too” line but without condemning all pinot over 14%. 

I enjoy many of the IPOB pinots, but they sit side-by-side in my cellar with wines that IPOB would have never accepted - I do wonder if Williams Selyem’s Hirsch pinot clocking in at 14.1% alcohol is purposeful reporting….. 

Thanks for your commentary, always insightful.   

 

 

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