Pursuing Balance: An Interview with Jasmine Hirsch

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-16-2014

jasmine hirschIn 2011, Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch teamed up to create an event celebrating the “wineries striving to produce balanced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California.”

They dubbed it “In Pursuit of Balance.” The event wasn’t without controversy.

In showcasing those producers who eschewed ripeness and power and in favor of restraint and elegance, Raj and Jasmine created an exclusionary event – one that had no room for the producers most favored by prominent wine critics. Last year, for example, Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman proclaimed that he “[resented] the implication that richer, more full-bodied wines can’t be balanced.”

Of course, Raj and Jasmine have also helped counteract the notion that California only makes fruit bombs. They’ve helped bring much deserved attention to producers that make precise, focused wines — wineries like Ceritas, Littorai, and Peay. And for that, they deserve everyone’s praise.

This year, IPOB will visit New York on February 4 (tickets here) and San Francisco on March 10 (tickets here). Both events will be fantastic.

Earlier this week, Jasmine and I chatted about IPOB. Check out the interview below!

David White: What inspired you and Raj to launch IPOB?

Jasmine Hirsch: When I got started in the wine business, which was in 2008, I had been living in New York and drinking amazing Burgundy — just kind of diving into old Burgundy and being blown away by what they were able to achieve with Pinot Noir in the Old World.

When I started working for my family’s winery, Hirsch Vineyards, I started to taste a lot more California Pinot. Raj and I were friends and we were hanging out and having this extended conversation about wine and one of the questions I was asking him was, “why can’t we produce wines like this in California? Why can’t we make wines like these Burgundies in California?”

He said, “well, we can, and some people are making these wines.”

He then started to introduce me to the wines of Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. And I knew the wines of Littorai and was tasting them more. Raj was starting to make his own wines. So we originally had the idea to get all of these producers together and do a cool-climate Pinot Noir thing. That came out of the discussions that Raj and I were having and the tastings we were doing.

Then I think it was Raj who noted that it is not just about climate, it’s about intention, it’s about balance. If you look around the world — not just California — you can see that while climate is hugely important, of course, you can make wines that are incredibly ripe and fruit forward in relatively cool climates. You can make fairly restrained and elegant wines in warmer climates, too.

So it’s not so much a question of climate, it’s more a question of what are you intending to achieve in your Pinot Noir. So we kind of shelved the idea for a year and then I found an old email that I had written to him about this. So I said “hey, do you want to restart this conversation?”

We met for drinks at drinks at RN74 and we literally wrote down names of the wineries we would like to invite on the back of a napkin. So it started really casually and informally, and we held our first tasting in 2011 at RN74, where they were kind enough to provide us with a venue. It was packed I can’t remember how many producers we had — I think around 20 or 25 – but it was just this amazing, amazing dynamic event with so much energy around it. And people were really excited about the idea and it grew from there.

There’s been pushback over your use of the word “balance.” Harvey Steiman wrote a stinging piece last year, where he wrote, “my view is that there is a wide spectrum of legitimate approaches to the grape that can be called ‘balanced.’ The word is not a synonym for ‘light and crisp,’ and frankly I resent the implication that richer, more full-bodied wines can’t be balanced.” To his point, I’ve never met a winemaker – not even in Napa – who doesn’t go out of his way to talk about how his wines are balanced. No winemaker will ever tell you that his wines are unbalanced. What’s your response to Steiman? Can you make a ripe, fruit-forward wine with generous use of oak that’s still balanced?

Well I think the word is hugely problematic — I don’t deny that.

But the controversy around the event has come out of not just the use of the word “balance,” it’s come out of the entire endeavor. The word “balance” is subjective and polarizing — and from a marketing point of view, maybe that’s a good thing because it gets people talking. The fact that Harvey Steiman was so offended just goes to show that the event is having an impact and that the conversation is relevant. That people feel so strongly about the event goes to show that this is an important debate in the wine community.

To answer your question more specifically, I have my own, personal idea of what makes for balanced Pinot Noir. I think that most discussions around balance end up talking about style. Style is an important question in Pinot Noir, but for me the most important discussion we should be having in Pinot Noir is about terroir and the intention of your wines.

What you said about no winemaker would ever say her wine is unbalanced, no Pinot Noir winemaker would ever tell you that she isn’t trying to make wines of terroir. That’s true as well.

The reason why I think that restraint and ripeness in Pinot Noir is important is that 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.

What’s the point of growing one of the most fickle, challenging, and expensive grapes in viticulture if not to serve its higher purpose, which I believe is to express place? So for me, perhaps we misnamed the event. Maybe we should have called it “In Pursuit of Terroir.”

I mean, some people would ask if we even have terroir in California. And we don’t know, we’re trying to figure that out. For me, balance serves intention and the intention at Hirsch Vineyards is to make wines of place. So we feel that more restraint in fruit ripeness and oak helps to serve that greater purpose.

I have some follow ups to that, but first, let’s talk about how you actually select the wines for IPOB. What’s the process for determining which wineries are included? I know there’s a committee — does the committee taste blind? Are there established criteria with regard to oak treatment or alcohol levels? I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the criticism about the event is this is really just Raj’s and Jasmine’s friends; these are the cool kids.

So initially, we did get criticism around the selection process — and it was legitimate criticism. We really did start out with a very informal list – the names were simply written on the back of a napkin.

Because the criticism was valid, we realized we needed to formalize the process for wineries that wanted to join and be a part of IPOB. So we created a committee that is comprised of people in different parts of the wine business. (Editor’s note: The committee is comprised of San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné, wine writer Wolfgang Weber, winemaker Ehren Jordan, sommelier and wine educator Christie Dufault, and Rajat Parr.)

That committee meets once a year and they taste blind. The only thing they know is if a winery has submitted both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — we identify each winery by a number, so the committee members will know they’ve tasted the Chardonnay from winery number one and the Pinot Noir from winery number one, and then they’ll discuss. The reason for that is that the wineries are chosen based on the merits of both varieties, if they make both. But you don’t have to make both in order to be a member –but if you want to show both at the event, you have to submit both.

So when we decided to institute this selection process, we asked all wineries that were in IPOB that wished to continue to submit wines. All wineries that wished to join also had to submit wines.

We actually lost some wineries and we gained some wineries as a result of that process.

Can you say which wineries were dropped?

It’s something that you could figure out, but I’d rather not answer that one. But I do understand the criticism that the IPOB is a club and that the selection process is exclusionary. But our point is to celebrate these producers.

Some of them have been fighting this very hard fight for a long time, like Jim Clendenen and Ted Lemon. They’ve been making a style of wines that was relatively unpopular — especially with critics — for a long time, because it’s what they believed in.

I feel we can be a forum in which those wines can be highlighted and celebrated. It was never intended as a way to criticize other people’s wines. Life is short, drink what you like. And don’t drink the wines of IPOB because somebody told you to drink them. On the same token, don’t drink the wines that a wine magazine or a wine critic tells you to drink. You should use your own palate. And we thought that IPOB could be a forum in which people could discover these wines and judge them on their own merit.

You mentioned earlier that your revelation with Pinot Noir was while living in New York, drinking a lot of Burgundies. And that’s what motivated your conversation with Raj about finding wines like that in California. But there’s certainly ripeness and oak with some Burgundy producers — Faiveley and Henri Jayer come to mind. Ever thought about how some of these producers would do in your blind selection process?

Well it’s fascinating, because we do have some wineries that push that.

You asked if there are specific criteria around oak treatment and alcohol to be a member of IPOB — there are none. And if you have been selected by the committee to be a member of IPOB, you can show a wine that’s 15 percent alcohol. We select wineries, we don’t select wines. We take it on good faith that if you’re selected by the committee you’ll show wines of a similar character at IPOB, but we’re not interested in being police.

You know we talked about asking wineries about how their wines made — manipulation is important to us, estate versus negociant, alcohol level, oak treatment, all that kind of stuff – but  we decided to leave it open. That there is no specific set of criteria that you can put on paper that’s going to make a balanced wine.

Let’s also talk about quality. One of the things about IPOB is that we look for quality, as well. It’s very important that the wine not just be “correct,” they also must be very, very good. Again, we’re getting into the reality of wine which is that whatever a laboratory or a scientist may say, there are certain things about wine that are indefinable.

Then, coming to your question about certain Burgundy producers, when I say I was tasting a lot of great Burgundy we again come down to personal choice. What I consider to be great Burgundy may not be what somebody else considers to be great Burgundy.

There have been tremendous stylistic variations in Burgundy and ripeness variation. I don’t think it’s as big as it is within California Pinot Noir, but there’s absolutely both quality and stylistic variation within Burgundy — there’s no question about that.

We have producers that make wines that have more oak, that have higher alcohol, that would be considered “riper” than our other producers, but we feel that the wines are still balanced and that they achieved greatness. Look at Hanzell and Calera. While I wouldn’t say they’re in the majority of our wineries, I guess the point is that we don’t look for all the wines to be stylistically the same. And they’re not.

You mentioned that, in part, IPOB was created to celebrate the producers that critics weren’t too interested in. I would assume that you would agree that the pendulum has certainly shifted. Thanks to organizations like IPOB, producers like Hirsch and other folks on the coast and cooler climate areas, things have certainly changed. Talk about that for a bit. How have you seen things change just in the past three to five years in the U.S. wine market?

I have to be honest; I’ve only been in the wine business for five years, so that’s maybe a challenging question for me. It would be a better question for someone who’s been in this business longer.

But I think the single most interesting change in our business is that the consumer is more open to using his or her own palate to decide what he or she likes. Consumers are less dependent on what the major critics are saying. I think that that is partly, to a small degree, because of events and organizations like IPOB.

The biggest change has been the proliferation of critical voices within the wine industry — and that includes social media. You might care more what your friend is drinking than what a major critic is drinking.

The American consumer has become more knowledgeable and more sophisticated, and therefore, more confident. So they’re interested in coming to an event like IPOB to taste the wines and are able to make up their own minds. The kind of consumer that comes to IPOB does not ask what score did you get in the Wine Spectator. These are consumers make up their own minds and are curious and want to learn. For me, that’s what creates the possibility a greater divergence in style in California wines.

I don’t think that people should stop drinking the wines that they used to drink if they still like them. Maybe they can expand the repertoire of the wines that they drink, but certainly, they should decide for themselves what they like.

What I did see and I still see it is that the major critics celebrate the Pinot Noirs that are, let’s call it a “more robust” style. Those are considered to be the “best” Pinot Noirs in America. So those wines have a voice, and what we’re trying to do is give a voice to other wines so that people know there’s a choice.

Let’s talk about the future of IPOB. It’s limited to California right now. Do you envision expanding, maybe including producers from Oregon or even the Finger Lakes?

I think that’s a really interesting question. We’ve also gotten the question as to whether or not we’re going to expand it to other varieties. Personally, as Jasmine Hirsch, I don’t think it’s my place to think about other varieties or other places. So to answer your question, probably not, we probably won’t expand it to other regions or varieties at this point.

Another thing is, California was facing an identity crisis. The view of California wine around the world was over ripe, over extracted, too much alcohol, too much oak. So for us, it’s been kind of like “hey hey, that’s not 100% true. There is a group of producers that are making wines that are more restrained, more elegant, and with more tension and focus in their wines — what we would call more balanced.”

So I think that whether or not it’s true, Oregon enjoys the reputation of making lean, elegant, balanced wines. I think Oregon is more complex than that, but that’s the reputation they have, so I don’t know that they need an event such as IPOB. But if they do, it’s up to them.

So what is the future for IPOB? It’s obviously getting bigger and bigger each year, so where do you see it going from here?

Well, Raj envisions a future where we won’t need IPOB anymore — and I think that’s a wonderful statement. Have we made our point? Maybe, so maybe we don’t need to hold IPOB anymore.

I would like to take the event to markets where perhaps the discussion hasn’t started or it’s still in its infancy. I think in New York and San Francisco, to be honest, we’re preaching to the converted a little bit. The community of sommeliers and retailers in New York and San Fransisco understand the debate. They know a lot of our producers — most of our producers, probably — so maybe the question is, do we start to take IPOB to other cities and to other countries? But you know, I have a day job, so it’s tough.

I guess that’s pretty much it. Anything you want to say about the upcoming events in New York and San Fransisco?

We still have tickets to both tastings. In San Francisco, we have two really great seminar topics this year, vine age and ripeness. They’re almost sold out, but we’ll be live streaming them online.

Comments (3)

  1. Great interview, David!

    One thing I wanted to be sure and mention: Raj tastes with the committee but he does not vote with it. The other members you mentioned decided which wines enter IPOB.


  2. [...] 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. [...]

  3. [...] want to talk about the maturity of the American palate. I was talking with Jasmine Hirsch recently about IPOB, and I got the sense that she thinks the battle is over in San Francisco and [...]