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?

IPOB Wine Tasting

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.

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  • Joel Burt

    I am going to miss it! I was wondering why we didn’t have one in SF this spring. The event was pretty elitist, but it was nice to taste all of those wines in one place; and it wasn’t so many wines that it became overwhelming to taste them all.

  • tkoby11

    Jon great breakdown, win-win for (almost) everyone, most importantly the consumer who gets more options!

  • ChrisFleming

    I was surprised and a bit disappointed to hear that IPOB is coming to a close at the end of the year. I understand that IPOB’s founders (Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr) have wineries to operate, and I suspect that the planning, internal communications and logistics necessary for the group were becoming a burden. As a journalist who has covered IPOB New York 2014 (for SOMM Journal) and 2015 (for SOMM Journal and World of Fine Wine), I have had an interest here, but aside from writing work, I found the IPOB movement attractive as a “plain” wine buyer, someone either facing a row of bottles in a shop or scanning the list in a restaurant.

    IPOB has been a hot topic in the press and I have no doubt that the controversy surrounding the group has helped its “brand mentions” in no small measure. However, IPOB’s overall success was a direct result of the efforts of Jasmine and Raj to create a forum, a platform. (It also helped that the wines were very good to excellent, across the board.) Not just social media hype, a significant part of IPOB was a serious, open discussion about wine growing and winemaking. In general, this discussion has been absent in the wine trade and in wine media. The dozen or so IPOB winemakers I spoke to expressed a uniform desire to avoid acrimony, saying they were not putting down so-called “Big Flavor” wines but instead wanted to offer wine buyers another style, another option. Justin Willett of Tyler told me about how a founder of one California’s most famous Cult-ish Pinot properties got in his face and berated him at an event. For her part, Jasmine told me she did not care for the polemic and vitriol, almost wishing they had named the group In Pursuit of Terroir.

    Many mainstream wine publications have begrudgingly given IPOB coverage, most of this cursory, at best. It seems this has had little to no impact on the awareness and success of IPOB since many young wine directors, sommeliers and buyers don’t consider these publications necessary resources for their livelihoods.

    IPOB has prompted recognition from a new audience for veteran winemakers like Jim Clendenen and Josh Jensen, who have worked to make balanced, elegant wines for decades. In fact, for years, many California wineries outside of IPOB have turned out excellent wines that are fresh, low alcohol and show a sense of place. Activity around the group, and the discussions it has engendered, has helped consumers discover these, many of which are made from grapes other than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

    The recent purchase of Copain by Jackson Family Wines is a validation of the brand in a business sense, but whether this is good for consumers remains to be seen. As with the banking, airline and telecomm industries, a consolidation among wine producers which results in fewer options for the consumer is not a welcome trend. BTW, I’ve heard from a few California producers that numerous “cult mailing list” wines that used to be unobtainable are now available and not allocated. From what I’ve seen in stores and restaurants in and around New York City, wines that cost $25 and above are not selling through nearly as rapidly as they did a few years ago.

    Has IPOB accomplished what it set out to achieve? There is now a discussion, a conversation, and a context, about how California wines are made and about what should be important. This noble pursuit has often been difficult yet I hope it continues. It has the potential to help the wine industry.

  • himichael

    I think one could argue that the style of the 1990s and early 2000s was (is) really just a big aberration. I try not to romanticize the Old World, but who in the old wine-drinking regions drinks stuff like that? almost nobody. I think the more wine culture one has, the less one wants to drink those wines.

  • Jason Lewis

    Jon, as usual, a great write-up of IPOB, and the broader state of the California scene. As someone who entered the trade back in 1969, I’ve seen (and tasted) California wines follow the path of seemingly ever-increasing weight, ripeness, and alcohol. Yet when I entered the trade, 12½% abv was the norm . . . because the +/-1.5% leeway covered anything up to 14%, when the tax rate changed. So who knows what the alcohol levels really were? (Paul Draper once told me that, back then, if the abv was indicated by a fraction, it was a fib to try and avoid the extra tax.) But the elegance, balance, and age-ability was certainly there. And then they started getting bigger, bolder — and by the 1980s, people began taking note, and began to speak of “food wines,” craving the elegance and subtlety of a seemingly by-gone era . . . and the reactions were similar. (“‘Food wines?’ What were they made to go with before, linoleum?” barrel broker Mel Knox once famously asked during a forum discussion.)

    IPOB brought that discussion back to the table, albeit in a more organized and better presented package. And given the current state of political discourse, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the vehemence and negativity that IPOB “provoked.” But it *is* a real issue, and one that isn’t going away — or rather, as with nearly all things in the wine “industry,” it may disappear for a bit, but it will be back. The California wine trade has long struck me as a on a pendulum rather than on, say, a railroad track: issues and styles come and go, only to return as the pendulum swings back again . . . .

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