Monday, May 30, 2016

Celebrating the Fortieth Anniversary of In Pursuit of Balance: A Look Back

Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr

Forty years ago, back in 2016, the most important movement in California wine came to an abrupt end. In an eerie coincidence, that same year, 2016, was the 40th anniversary of the moment most people considered at the time the most important event in the history of California wine, the Paris Tasting of 1976. Is this the year, 2056, for the next monumental change to wine? One can never know. No more than the unknowing people who were suddenly alerted to the demise of In Pursuit of Balance in 2016 could have known that the following November Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. Though, in hindsight, the choice of Dr. Bill Cosby for his Vice Presidential running mate was inspired. Just recently, one of their old campaign buttons sold for a lot of money at auction. The one that said, “Where da white women at? Trump/Cosby 2016” Hillary lost in a mudslide.

If you were in the wine business in 2016, you were subjected to endless tributes to the Paris Tasting held in 1976. In that overpublicized tasting, conducted blind and entirely rigged, California wines bested some of France’s best wines in their worst vintages. The tasting was put on by a young English wine merchant named Stephen Spurrier. Mr. Spurrier is still with us, albeit as a figure in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, exactly as he was in 2016. A small article on the tasting written by the only reporter present for it, George Taber, and published in TIME magazine (an important publication in 1976, outsold on newsstands of the era only by TV Guide and JUGGS—the only magazine with bigger boobs than TIME) took the wine world by storm. The Paris Tasting clearly demonstrated, it implied, that California wines belonged in the elite company of French wines, which ultimately led to Chinese investors buying up countless French wine estates because they knew they just weren’t that good or valuable anymore. It wasn’t long before the most overpriced wines in the world came from Napa Valley instead of France. No one before 1976 would have believed this possible. The French were the widely admired leaders of overpriced and overpraised wines. But thanks to Stephen Spurrier and the usual overrated expert wine judges, Napa Valley was to rise to the top of obscenely expensive wines no one actually drinks. Nine judges expressing blind and inconceivably stupid opinions? It was the United States Supreme Court of wine. Judges scoring on the 100 Point Scalia.

But right in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Paris Tasting, the next most important event in the history of California wine was coming to an end. In Pursuit of Balance announced it was ceasing operations after five historic years. The timing was poetic. The celebration of the event that put Napa Valley on the map competing with the organization that wanted to erase Napa Valley from the map. Napa Valley was learning what IPOB founder Raj Parr knew all too well. Fame is a Hirsch mistress.

IPOB released a statement one day before the 40th anniversary of the Paris Tasting that explained the origins and intent of the founders of In Pursuit of Balance, the sommelier Raj Parr and vineyard owner Jasmine Hirsch, as well as why they were disbanding the group.

IPOB was founded to show what balance in wine means to us,” Raj explained. “At the time, no one else had a fucking clue. Balance was what you tried to do to your books when you couldn’t sell that stemmy underripe wine you were making. It started as a small event to draw attention to producers who weren’t chasing after ratings from wine critics, though shipping them samples on request and hosting them at their wineries may have made it appear otherwise. It was never meant to be an ideological war. What were we? Natural wine? Now there’s your ideological war, with those crackpots. We just felt that balanced wines weren’t getting enough attention in the wine community, sort of like how ugly people aren’t in enough beauty pageants. So we decided to shine some light on what we were doing. Then we made the mistake of letting a bunch of other wineries join, and, well, you know, we just couldn’t hide that much ugly.”

“There was an information gap,” co-founder Jasmine Hirsch said, “between the full-throttle, high alcohol wines, and the more subtle, more nuanced wines we were making. We thought we’d fill that information gap with hyperbole and innuendo, so in our subtle, nuanced way we created IPOB. We managed to achieve what we set out to do. Balance facts with just the right amount of fiction and outright doubletalk. This very much appealed to young sommeliers as well as Jon BonnĂ©.”

The years from 2011 to 2016, when IPOB thrived, were years when totalitarianism reigned in the wine business. They were the perfect movement for those divisive times. The wine world was splintered into groups that believed their wines were best, the only wines worth drinking, the only wines worth celebrating and talking about. The Natural Wine movement declared that only their winemaking led to authentic wines. Much as unsanitary conditions in poor countries leads to authentic diseases like cholera and dysentery instead of manmade diseases like high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction. Authentic is just so much better. There was a movement spawned by IPOB that celebrated wines with much lower alcohols. A wine over 13% ABV was viewed with scorn and suspicion. This naturally led to an important change in California wine—people rounding down on alcohol levels printed on their labels to make consumers feel better. Most of the totalitarian wine movements focused on less human intervention in the winemaking process. It wasn’t that many years later that winemakers were seen as bad for wine. Yes, what is so apparent to us now in 2056 was only beginning to be recognized in 2016. We know now that it was the winemakers all along. Some might argue that taking them all and shooting them was a bit of an overreaction, but the results are clear. Wine has never been better.

IPOB disbanded at the end of 2016. In just five short years, it managed to turn the conversation from great wines being the ones you enjoyed the most to great wines being the ones you just might like ten or twenty years from now. It wasn’t so much a movement of delayed gratification as it was a movement of anhedonia. But it worked. It appealed to every wine lover’s feelings that there must be more to wine than simple enjoyment. That part of America’s Puritan streak that insists that pleasure always be mixed with its denial. This was the real balance that In Pursuit of Balance taught wine lovers. That wine is just like life. It’s the denial of pleasure that leads to a place in Heaven.

24 comments:

Molly Hill said...

I'm getting caught up today on all of your posts. What a run of brilliance. So, so good.

Robert Millman said...

some of your very best one liners. And the ending is actually quite serious and alas right on the money. I am curious though about the photograph of Jasmine Hirsch. My how she has changed since I last saw her! Robert Millman

Thomas said...

The most lessed sound I've ever heard
(anhedonia, anhedonia, anhedonia)

The most treasured feeling in a single word
(anhedonia, anhedonia, anhedonia)

Anhedonia. I just got a case of anhedonia,
and suddenly I found
the fruit had turned quite brown
you see

Anhedonia, I'll never stop craving anhedonia,
because it is so bad
I'm feeling rather glad
with glee

Stop me before I become silly.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Molly,
As the overcropped Zinfandel said, You're making me blush. Those are very kind, and probably undeserved, words. One day I hope our paths cross. It would be nice to meet you. Many thanks.

Bob,
Thanks. I think I've often expressed that too many of the lean, low alcohol, weird wines--some of them "balanced," some of them "natural"--were often about the denial of pleasure, not the sort of joy wine can bring. But what do I know?

Yeah, that photo doesn't do Jasmine justice. Though it does make Raj look thinner.

Thomas,
Nice. Though I was thinking more along the lines of Louis Jordan's "Caldonia."

"Anhedonia! Anhedonia!

What makes that big red so dull!"

OK, yours is better.

VinoNovato said...

So another large ego somm, decided to try producing wine and realized how hard his fellow buyers have made selling wine is in a crowded wine world.
An organization with his name attached to promote his weak assed juice to the weak minded, overwhelmed somm population was a stroke of something close to creativity, but, alas, the naked truth was seen by the market.
Now the emperor is probably out buying some new threads. Wonder if there will be enough fruit patterns to cover his balls and his now larger appearing, Kardashian-like, publicity seeking ass.

PaulG said...

I’m starting an organization of aging wine writers called In Pursuit of Ballast. Send us your lean, green, all-too-natural, I-will-Feiring-no-weevil type wines. We won’t review them; we’ll just ship them off to China in return for some holiday inflatables.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

VinoNovato,
If I were going to blame anyone for the influence that IPOB has had, I'd blame Jon Bonne. Without him, I doubt anyone would have cared. As it turns out, Raj and Jasmine have better things to do and have decided to get back out there and peddle their wines to the marketplace without all those other IPOB wineries hanging around their necks. All the talk in the world can't make people buy wines they don't like--well, maybe once, but not repeatedly.

I've always found that sommeliers don't have large egos, but large insecurities. I would not exclude myself from that.

Paul,
In Pursuit of Ballast should take aging wine writers up in a hot air balloon, their own work providing the air, and then ceremoniously toss them over the side when they needed to descend. There's your ballast. Imagine the satisfying splat Harvey Steiman would make.

Duncan King said...

Besides my letter of which I sent to all of the ipob wineries a week before which obviously made a huge impact on all of their lives, #IPOB is also being overrun by the Indigenous People of Biafra.. On a side note, I hope for one day wine will attain the same level of objectivity that music does; I want to know what wine's middle C is.

Winebroad said...

Fear not, Ron, IPOB's sister organization, iPOO (In Pursuit of Oak) is still going strong!

gbrezic said...

While I've been tempted many times to be a common-tater, I've been happy to remain a common voyeur. This piece and its glorious one-liners (even the Zin-blush line in one of your responses) made me laugh too much to not finally say thank you for putting the vast world of wine and its often contrived, lofty airs in perspective the way only you can. Working right in the heart of it every day, including with several letters after my name on my business card, I love laughing at it, and sometimes myself, and can't thank you enough for not being another wine-related writer blowing smoke up where many wine industry people's heads are. . .

Dave Miner said...

I thought it was in pursuit of boners??????

Unknown said...

If you tasted many of the wines and looked at the accompanying price tags (or were these ransom demands?), you would understand there was a big imbalance with IPOB.
*****
Given the malnourished nature of many of the wines, did I-P-O-B stand for "In Pursuit of Boredom"?
*****
Five grape vintages is 35 dog years, which may account for the tasting notes reading "woof" with respect to a number of the wines.
*****

ANONYMOUS I

David Pierson said...

Ron, that photo of Jasmine looks suspiciously like you.. I once made fun of a pompous arts turd reporter when he spelled Marilyn Monroe in the Canadian fashion Munro.. shurely the sister of Alice..

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Duncan,
I know, I Googled IPOB once and got that Biafra group. Pretty funny, in a weird way. Undernourished people, undernourished wines...

Tina,
IPOO! Yes, what a relief...

gbrezic,
Thank you. Those are very kind words, and much appreciated. Trust me, not everyone likes what I do, but I truly do it just for the creative rewards. I don't have an agenda, just an itch to write. I often wish the wine biz didn't give me so many targets, so many buffoons and con men and ignoramuses, but it does make the satire easier. Thanks for reading and finally giving in to being a common tater.

Dave!
For the pursuit of boners, my friend, you need Boner in a Can®! It's a thank you gift when you pledge at the $15/month level.

Anonymous 1,
They never said they were great wines, they said they were balanced. Like when the food is terrible, but it was well-seasoned!

David,
Jasmine and I were separated at birth. She got the money and the looks, I got the bile ducts.

Charlie Olken said...

I know Jasmine Hirsch; Jasmine Hirsch is a fried of mine. You, sir, are no Jasmine Hirsch.

Bob Henry said...

Charlie,

"You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of [in-]decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of [in-]decency?"

Bob Henry said...

Tina Caputo:

IPOO (In Pursuit of Oak) . . . also known as "buttoak" (buttock)?

Chris said...

Long time reader, first time tater.

"100 point Scalia" is more layered than the cake wine or a Trump comb-over. Though I suppose both of those things actually have less than one layer. Effing brilliant.

Cris Carter said...

C'mon Charlie. If we painted Ron's fingernails red and took pictures of his hands holding bottles of Jamet or Clos Rougeard, we'd be pretty close to Jasmine Hirsch. Bob Henry, I'm pretty sure I need a link to support my case. Please provide.

Bob Henry said...

A link? Certainly!

Did you know that Ron used to do open mic stand-up, testing out his TV writing "material" down here in La-La-Land?

That sommelier gig at Pacific Dining Car restaurant selling Jordan to doctors from nearby Good Samaritan hospital was just slummin'

http://i.onionstatic.com/avclub/5579/10/16x9/960.jpg

Bob Henry said...

Then came rehab:

http://endlessfacts.com/upload/img/mVD5114386568462.gif

Bob Henry said...

This was the best photo I could find of Ron's current "hand model" career up in the Bay Area:

http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/hand-holding-bottle-wine-san-francisco-63466980.jpg

(Vanna White's gig is not endangered.)

Bob Henry said...

Cris, you let the cat out of the bag!

And now Lettie Teague over at The Journal is blabbing all about Clos Rougeard in this weekend's wine column.

You want a link? I'll give you a gawd damned link:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/eureka-a-cult-wine-that-lives-up-to-its-hype-1464879767

Cris Carter said...

Informative as always Bob;)