An Unexpected Twist in CA’s Wine Culture Wars

Since 2011, In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) represented one side of a philosophical debate over what California wine should, and could, be. Now, with the sudden announcement that the group will dissolve later this year, Jon Bonné reflects on its brief history and asks: Did IPOB achieve its goals?

Few wine events have drawn as much attention, and controversy, as In Pursuit of Balance, a gathering of California producers of pinot noir and chardonnay who sought to show a different and more subtle style of the state’s wines.

IPOB, as it’s called, became a road show for some of California’s most talented winemakers. But the attention came as a result of the key philosophical question it sought to answer: Can California do something different? Defenders of the riper, higher-alcohol wines that once largely defined the state derived a certain satisfaction from savaging the group and its supporters. One prominent winemaker accused it of “sowing seeds of confusion or discontent,” while a writer at Wine Spectator asked: “Surely we’re not falling for this again, right?”

This persistent battle over the style that best fits California will have to find another field, because IPOB is closing shop. The group’s two organizers, Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch, announced Monday that it will be dissolved by year’s end, after one final farewell event this fall in San Francisco.

“We never planned this to be anything more than a discussion,” Parr told me. “We’ve taken it to the limit and internally we’ve found our answers, and now it’s up to other people who will continue in a different form. But the discussion will never end.”

Hirsch finishes that thought: “Neither Raj or I believe the conversation is finished. There’ll just be different ways to carry it forward.”

Certainly, they could be excused for wanting to move on. IPOB had a lot of fans, including many prominent wine buyers, but the contentiousness also meant that its events could never be just about the wine and winemakers in the room. The gathering “was supposed to be intimate,” in Parr’s words, but quickly it became less so; from a 2011 debut in a packed San Francisco room, it received a disproportionate amount of attention and media coverage, including a clear-eyed recounting of a New York whistle-stop by Jay McInerney in the Wall Street Journal.

(I rarely mentioned IPOB in print myself, although it was certainly in my wheelhouse, for two reasons: (1) I agreed to sit on their tasting committee, which gathered annually to consider new members, and also frequently moderated panels for the group, so it seemed wise to steer clear; and (2) the group advocated for a style of wine that I also liked and was advocating. Why provide extra fuel for the trolls?)

Indeed, the group seemed to attract no end of attention, which also meant that, as a symbol of change, it served a stalking-horse role for those angry about, or fearful of, change—namely those who had been profiting from a bigger, riper style of wine. Wine Spectator, whose writers seemed particularly intrigued by the group, also posited that it was “less genuine movement and rather more clever marketing.”

It was marketing, of course, in that it introduced its members—emerging wineries like Matthiasson and Wenzlau Vineyard—to an attentive audience with money to spend. But it was also a movement, in the way that any reactionary form of music—from grunge to punk to gangster rap—exists in both commercial and aesthetic spheres. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another wine event, aside from some of the French natural-wine fairs, that’s been weighted with so much philosophical import. By definition, the wines featured at IPOB tended to be fresher and lower in alcohol, although amply ripe wines could be found. In fact, the oft-repeated bromide that IPOB prohibited anything north of 14 percent alcohol was just that: an urban legend, derived from a decision Parr made about the wine list at one of his restaurants.

That role as a philosophical touchstone is why IPOB’s swan song, unexpected as it was, strikes me as noteworthy. Had the group and its members made the points about “balance,” a complicated idea at the best of times, that they hoped to? Certainly the proliferation around the world of what I’ve called the “New California” generation of wines bolstered that conclusion. Or had IPOB, well-meaning as it was, capitulated to the haters? Had it lost steam? Had it yielded the floor to that brasher California style?

Those questions will occupy message boards for a while, but clearly Parr and Hirsch could have continued, and the ending was undoubtedly a shock to the group’s members. IPOB was hardly on the wane: Membership continued to expand, up to 36 members this year from an original 23; dozens of other wineries, including some of California’s most successful labels, have submitted wines to the group’s annual blind tasting but haven’t been accepted. It was a wine event fully in its prime. By contrast, most wine gatherings tend to overstay their welcome, often struggling to freshen their acts, like a jam band that keeps touring years after it’s stopped producing new material.

But given the sheer volume of personal affronts lobbed in the direction of anyone involved with IPOB, it’s understandable that five years in the spotlight could wear anyone out. Parr, for instance, decided he would rather focus on making wine. “Not that I’m afraid of controversy and afraid of argument, but no one needs it,” he says. “We don’t need this constant bickering.”

After those five years, just what did IPOB accomplish? Even its creators seem unsure. “I don’t think that the wine industry has significantly shifted away from the core values that IPOB was started to discuss,” Hirsch says, which is to say that a lot of the big, ripe wines that became the counterpoint to IPOB are still doing quite well. On the other hand, last week it was announced that Copain, one of the original members, had been purchased by Jackson Family Wines, the parent company of Kendall-Jackson. Reports of the sale almost uniformly made reference to IPOB. Hirsch says she views one of the world’s largest wine companies buying one of the group’s darlings “to be a reassuring affirmation” of that quieter style of wine.

It is an affirmation, of course, but it’s also a Big Wine buy-in, as if to say: We can play in this realm, too. And, depending on your view of the world, it might be a cautionary tale. If IPOB represents the indie world, suddenly its members are signing with major labels.

That, perhaps, is the greatest sign yet of how quickly the world of California wine has changed since 2011. Back then, there was certainly interest in wines different from the style of the 1990s and early 2000s, but those wines were fringe. And IPOB seemed like a far more radical idea.

In fact, it was originally intended as a sort of alliance between young rebels and an older generation of stalwarts. It’s often overlooked that Parr’s Sandhi and other wineries at the first IPOB, like LIOCO, were joined by winemakers like Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen and Calera’s Josh Jensen, who had sworn by a more restrained approach over the years and been critically battered for it. In Parr’s view, IPOB was “born out of a halo effect from the older California wines. We only connected the past with the future.”

Move ahead five years, and the IPOB style, if you will, has become a modern California canon of its own, at least among what we’ll call wine influencers—sommeliers, prestigious buyers and so on. The older, riper style is certainly around; if anything, it’s more commercial than ever.

That’s not me being abstract, incidentally. In the past year, some of the most vocal opponents of IPOB’s message have been sold to large wine companies. Notably, Sonoma’s Patz & Hall recently sold to Chateau Ste. Michelle, the largest winery in Washington state, and Adam Lee of Siduri, who famously switched out a pinot noir during a public tasting with Parr to make a point about that 14-percent alcohol limit, sold his label to Jackson Family Wines. Also, slightly down the prestige scale, the Wagner family, makers of Caymus, sold their Meiomi brand to Constellation Brands for $315 million. So the tangle is no longer just about ripeness and alcohol; it’s also about Big Wine versus the indies.

And it’s also about a lot more than the group’s relatively narrow roster of wines. California wine’s culture wars were always broader than IPOB, even if the group was occasionally portrayed as a sole symbol of change. The state has enjoyed a renaissance with things like cabernet and syrah, to say nothing of outliers like trousseau and chenin blanc. But those other wines were, deliberately, not welcome at the group’s events, even though its members rendered very good examples. Mission creep was not allowed.

All of which is to say that IPOB has, for better or worse, served its purpose. Its work was important, for sure—where California pinot and chardonnay are concerned, it’s a very different world than it was five years ago—but the constant bickering over style has become tiresome. The counter-reformers made their point. Both sides think they’ve won. And the market is still figuring out what it wants. In another five years, I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more of the types of wines that IPOB championed, both from the indies and the major labels. In the meantime, the conversation has to evolve.