IPOB A Year On
A year ago today, In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) held their first and, as it turned out, only tasting in London. Mission accomplished, IPOB wrapped up its operations at the end of last year. With co-founder Rajat Parr from Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte visiting us this week, we thought now would be a good time to take a look at IPOB and its legacy. What was the message of IPOB? Founded in 2011 by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards and Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte, the aim of IPOB was to challenge stereotypes of California wines, especially Pinot Noir. Every wine lover has experienced it at some point: an overly ripe, sweet, heavy fruit-bomb with alcohol levels beyond 14%. These wines, if they make it across the pond to the UK, often come with big scores from the American critics, and a hefty price tag. Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr, like so many others, never really found joy in drinking, let alone making this style of wine. They favour wines that show restraint, elegance and freshness and which possess less alcohol. In their opinion these wines are better balanced, go better with food and are true expressions of their terroir. Several discussions on the state of Californian winemaking later, Jasmine and Raj organised a tasting in San Francisco with their favourite producers. All shared their vision for raising awareness of their style of winemaking in the USA and around the world. Why did IPOB shut down and what was its influence? Both Raj and Jasmine emphasised that the series of tastings, debates and public talks that were held around the world were to facilitate the dialogue between the producers and consumers on their style of winemaking and Pinot Noir. As a result, the IPOB managed to break with the stereotypes that put people off Californian wines. The tastings showed consumers that there is a strong alternative movement in Californian winemaking, led by people who care about balanced, lower alcohol and elegant wines. By no means was this style of winemaking, nor the people who made these wines, a new phenomenon in California – but rather an overlooked category that had been there all along. After five years if IPOB, the discussion on the different styles of wines coming out of California is stronger than ever before. Wine critics, journalists, wine-lovers, wine ‘newbies’, sommeliers, buyers and retailers are now much more aware of both the wines and the debates around elegant US Pinot Noir and unoaked Chardonnay. With the IPOB now history, the discussions, tastings and write-ups are being done by people who over the years have attended these tastings in cities like London and San Francisco, facilitated by the wine importers that have picked up and partnered with these producers on the way (Roberson Wine among them!). In London you can now find the wines of Hirsch, Sandhi, Matthiasson or Wind Gap at your local wine store, at wine bars such as 10 Cases and Noble Rot, as well as in some of the most exclusive restaurants of the city like Fera, Coya, Zuma and Ducasse at the Dorchester. Wines that had largely been overlooked by most critics and journalists are now featured regularly. Praise such as ‘sensational’, ‘exciting’ and ‘impressive’ by wine writer heavyweights Jancis Robinson and Jamie Goode are now a regular occurrence, and Decanter even included an IPOB wine in their Top 50 Wines of 2016. Although the IPOB tastings are no more, the discussion around the style of wines coming out of California (in particular Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), and the dialogue between the producers and consumers around the world, is still very much alive and flourishing – challenging stereotypes in the US and Europe alike.
Pioneering Spirit - Hirsch Vineyards
Last week we hosted a fantastic tasting with the truly inspiring Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, downstairs in the London Cru winery. Our guests were treated not only to eight glorious wines from the 2013 and 2014 vintages but to the incredible story of Hirsch Vineyards, a story which filled me with the positive feeling that the great American pioneering spirit is still alive and well, at least in the far flung reaches of the Extreme Sonoma Coast. There have been times in the last two decades when Californian wine producers seem to have lost their way, when the region has forgotten its sense of innovation and adventure. Too many wines have become stuck in a stereotypical style of too much ripeness, too much extraction and too much oak. Even before this period the region struggled to deal with the tension, as Jon Bonne describes it, between winemaking as a cultural expression and winemaking as a commercial endeavour. With pioneering scientific research in the post-war period, UC Davis inadvertently influenced the industry into making ferment-by-number wines which lacked imagination. It’s hard to overemphasise just how devastating Prohibition was for the Californian wine industry. Before Prohibition there were more than 700 commercial wineries in the region. Despite repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933 it wasn’t until 1986 that the number of wineries reached that level again. But the real damage was not economic but the loss of culture, tradition and knowledge. A push toward technocratic wines filled this void as California struggled to regain an identity. Interestingly though, if it wasn’t for Prohibition, Italian grape varieties might still dominate rather than the French varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which were introduced in the 1960s. Jasmine’s father David moved from New York to Sonoma in 1978 and at first had no intention of planting vines on the remote 400ha former sheep ranch he purchased. At that stage, nobody dreamed of growing grapes that far out in Sonoma. Aside from the remoteness, the preconception was of an area with too much erosion, too wet and too cold to ripen grapes. But when a vintner friend of his suggested it could work David’s adventurous spirit won through. In 1980 he decided to give it a go and the first vines went down. It wasn’t until 2002 that Hirsch built a winery on the site. Until then he had remained in the clothing business and sold the grapes as a cash crop to famous names such as Kistler, Littorai and Williams-Selyem, who started to put the Hirsch Vineyard name on the map. But David is now fully committed to farming the land and releasing Hirsch estate-made wines. To emphasise the remoteness of the new winery, Jasmine Hirsch recalled having no running water up there and only 12 Volt electricity – not enough even to run a hairdryer. Even now the Hirsch vineyards are very isolated. Recent heavy storms have meant that they couldn’t get any wine out of there for their clients for weeks. They even have their own bottling line, something of an expensive luxury for a small production winery, simply because getting a bottling truck up the dirt tracks would be almost impossible. There is a lot to be said for making wine in such remote and extreme areas. It pushes the boundaries of conventional wisdom about where and how grapes can be grown, leading to new and exciting flavours and qualities. It pushes the growers and winemakers to try to understand the uniqueness of a place and to innovate to produce true representations of the land. Hirsch Vineyard’s soils are extremely varied. The collision of the tectonic plates at the San Andreas Fault pushed the old seabed up to the surface, exposing millennia of geological complexities, and David is obsessed with decoding their intricacies. So what of the wines themselves? In my opinion, they just keep getting better, year on year. The tiny production Chardonnay from two small plots is mineral, yet rich, with smoky lemon flavours and a finesse to be savoured. There is no vanilla ice-cream characteristic found in so many Cali Chardonnay, but neither is it taught and zingy, which some Burgundy and Californian producers are going for. It is truly unique and delicious. The Pinots balance unmistakable Californian juicy fruit with a sappy, savoury undertone. They are balanced, elegant and very fine. There is a beguiling characteristic in the reds which makes them unique. It is hard to pinpoint, but Jon Bonne describes it best – as ‘Hirschness’. Jasmine was a founding member of the now retired In Pursuit of Balance organisation, set up to promote the growing band of winemakers in California questioning the old norms, making wines of purity and balance and pushing frontiers. It did its job and now people have taken notice of the ‘New California’. While David and Jasmine might humbly decline to be labelled ‘pioneers of Sonoma Pinot Noir’, there is no doubt that their spirit has propelled the reputation of the area to new heights. They continue to push the boundaries with wines of complexity, elegance and quality never before seen in California.
Reasons to Love February
I love February. Not in itself, but for its promises: lighter mornings, the earliest primrose, the arrival of new vintages from the USA. This month three of our top Californian wine producers are in town. Jasmine Hirsch, Raj Parr and Pax Mahle will be showcasing their finest. Highlights include: the 2014 Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay which Jasmine will be pouring in a private tasting at our very own London Cru; and a Raj Parr masterclass at 67 Pall Mall, with verticals from Domaine de la Côte ‘La Côte’ Pinot Noir and Sandhi ‘Bentrock’ Chardonnay. We know you can’t all be there, but we don’t need much excuse to share the love. Watch out in mid-February when we will have a selection of their wines on offer for just a couple of days to celebrate their trip. If drinking great wine and dreaming of Cali sun is still not reason enough to love the last month of winter, how about drinking that wine in one of England’s most beautiful locations? Our partners Beachspoke have an amazing portfolio of holiday properties decorated with natural rock, scaffold planks, boat chains and driftwood. At the end of the month there’ll be a letting discount, exclusively for Roberson Wine customers. I can’t guarantee sunshine, but I can promise great wine in a really wow property. What’s not to love?
This week the latest vintage of one of Italy’s most iconic wines was released, and while it is not a blockbuster vintage, the 2014 Sassicaia is not to be overlooked. Although Tuscany does have to deal with some vintage variation it is not as extreme as the likes of Bordeaux, and the Tenuta San Guido stable produce thoroughbreds year on year. The story of Sassicaia is the story of the immutable passion and dedication of proprietor Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. It was his vision that spearheaded the abandonment of the draconian Chianti DOC rules and the use of international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Mario started his experiments as far back as the 40's and, with a half century of perfecting their craft, Sassicaia remains the original and best 'super-Tuscan'. The name Sassicaia derives from the Italian word 'sasso' for stone. This is a nod to the discovery by Mario that the terrain of Bolgheri was not too dissimilar to that of the 'graves' or gravel of the great Bordeaux estates. The Cabernet was a success in the Tuscan soil and climate, achieving a pure expression of the grape that rewarded patient cellaring. Despite an initial reluctance to release the wines to the general public, in 1968 the first official vintage of Sassicaia hit the market and the world took note. At the official launch this week the new release 2014 vintage was tasted alongside the 2002 for comparison - that vintage apparently having similar qualities to 2014. The 2002 was tasting magnificently - polished, elegant and beautifully complex. It bodes very well for the future of the latest release. Sassicaia is a wine which transcends vintage variation. You will never have a bad one. It is always a good bet to pick it up on release as once it hits the shelves and begins to be consumed the price tends to increase. We have limited availability of the 2014 vintage but if you would like to make a purchase please email us.
Exiting Dry January
How has your Dry January been? I stopped drinking a couple of hours into New Year's Day and I have to say, I've never felt better. I am radiating self-satisfaction. Of course, my professional obligations meant I had to make some exceptions. Wine, for example. And because I am unfortunate enough to live in a hard water area, beer is necessary for hydration. Then there was the Roberson Christmas party, which always takes place in January, and a handful of other special events - lunch, Sunday, the successful delivery of a new dishwasher - that sort of thing. Overall, it's been tough, but the good news is it's over, and unlike last year when we all had to cram half a year's alcohol consumption into just ten days, this year we've got four full weeks until Lent starts on the 1st of March. After a period of abstinence, the first glass always tastes much better then usual. Your brain has almost forgotten how delicious wine is and is surprised and delighted to rediscover it. So make it a good wine - it will never taste better. I'm going for something by Marcel Deiss. These Alsace wines have such crystal clarity, beautiful balance and piercing flavours, they're the perfect way to jolt you into the new wine year.
On Comedy and Wine with NATYS creator Roland Muldoon
Roberson Wine is sponsoring the 30th edition of New Acts of the Year awards (NATYS) on Saturday 29th January, and Max took the opportunity to interview NATYS’ creator Roland Muldoon on comedy and wine. Max: Tell us a little bit about the New Acts of the Year (NATYS), what can people expect from this year’s event? Roland: We are the longest running live comedy event in the country. The entire idea of the NATYS is to keep comedy live, give young talent a break and, of course, to make the audience laugh. Essentially we want to keep live entertainment alive, and that is where our emphasis is. We will put on a great comedy show, with everything from stand-up and sketches to magic and music that people can watch while having a glass of wine. Last year the 14 acts were outstanding, but this year they are even better! Max: The Guardian once called it “the most important new Comedy showcase of the country!” How important is comedy in everyday life? Roland: Really important! Not just because we all need a good laugh once in a while. Comedy is extremely varied and every artist has their own idea, style and reason behind their comedy act. A little bit like in wine, where every winemaker and wine is unique, and different. But comedy is also a voice of progressive thinking. Comedians can ask important questions, tell anecdotes and stories or ask questions about the big stuff or the everyday. It is important to have pertinent material and make people think and laugh about topics at the same time. However, at the end of the day we want everyone to have a bloody good time out! Max: There is a long friendship between Cliff Roberson and yourself, and he has been a long-time fan of NATYS. Where do you see the connection between comedy and wine? Roland: Our focus is to get people to come together and have a good time. We want to see people laugh, discuss and interact with each other and the material they get. Wine is a very social thing as well. Why would you want to sit at home and watch a rehearsed, sometimes censored comedy show on TV or YouTube, if you can go out with your friends and watch new and exciting acts? It is far more fun to see fresh talent that you haven’t heard of yet but who will give you a lot for your money! Apart from me enjoying a glass of wine at a comedy show more than anywhere else, wine is very much the same. You don’t want the same old wine you find in supermarkets; neither do you want to drink all alone by yourself at home. You want something exciting and new at a good venue with some of your best friends and family! Max: We tour Europe looking for new winemaker talents, undiscovered wines and regions, and trying to introduce something exciting and different to our UK markets. You essentially do the same, just with comedians. What are the current trends in comedy? Roland: To be fair we are more interested in performances than trends in comedy. Comedy will always reflect what is happening in the real world, what the current topics and debates are, and how comedy is consumed. But comedy is more than Gender, Brexit and Trump jokes. Everyone has their own angle. Sometimes it is also good to counter a trend or topic. NATYS for example is one of the most active and vocal in bringing back and encouraging live acts, as opposed to recorded comedy on TV. If you pinned me down on a trend I would probably say that comedy is not just a political theatre, but that there is a trend towards escapism now too. People are happy to not always get bombarded with political humour. Max: Many people still perceive wine as conservative, stuck-up and a little bit boring. Do you think there should be more humour in wine? Roland: I never understood that, after all Bacchus was a fat old bloke dripping with happiness. There is too much joy in a good bottle of wine that is being shared with your friends for it to be taken all too serious. This is another reason why NATYS’ comedic counter culture works so well with Roberson Wine’s ‘wine over the counter’ culture. Perhaps it will start to lighten up some of the more conservative wine folks. Generally speaking, however, I don’t think wine culture is too conservative or boring at all. As I said, I had some of the greatest times with friends and a bottle of wine around. And Cliff is probably the best example that wine can be entertaining and different! He is excited by life and always makes me laugh. That is partly why we are good friends now! NATYS: Roberson Wine Top of the Bill variety event will be held on Sunday 29 January 2:30pm @ Leicester Square Theatre . Tickets can be purchased at Leicester Square Theatre's website or by phoning the box office on 020 7734 2222.
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