A Question of Balance (and Not Hating on California Wine)

Vinted on December 6, 2010 binned in California wine, commentary

“To learn as we grow old

The secrets of our souls.”

– Question, Moody Blues

My intention today is not shock you into your Monday morning with cheesy Moody Blues lyrics (though I’ll admit to jamming out the bass line to Question dozens of times when I was in high school and songs like Question seemed really, really deep and important), but to call your attention to a blog post today by my friend, Wine Enthusiast editor Steve Heimoff.

The more astute reader will immediately recognize that I refrained from calling Steve a colleague, since in my mind that would actually be insulting him, though now that I think about it maybe I should have done that and then asked him for a small fee to remove the reference… anyway…

In said blog post, Steve talks about a recent Napa tasting in which he tasted some big-ass Cabernet wines and walked away thinking that many were, on the whole, quite balanced despite their, uhm, generous sizes. In reflecting on the tasting, he hits on what I consider the king-among-princess of a wine’s better qualities:

“Among all these impressionistic words… I think the most important is balance. Balance is central to wine’s quality.”

On this point, Steve and I are, using a term of which one of my friends is particularly fond, in “violent agreement.”

For my money, nothing, and I mean nothing, in a wine’s lineup of admirable qualities – including things like place of origin and pedigree – trumps balance…

It’s why personally I can shower the love on large Napa Cabs, but diss overly-acidic whites, or give a high grade to very sweet wines.  If they’re balanced, then almost nothing else matters.

Notice I say “almost” – sometimes the quality of one attribute of a wine (for example, depth, purity and focus of the fruit) trumps other aspects to the point where it needs to be celebrated.  But if I had my druthers, I’d pick a a balanced wine over any other style just about every time.

I’ve told this story many times but it bears repeating: at a dinner event earlier this year celebrating a friend’s WSET diploma program graduation, I had the good fortune of trying wines of various styles, pedigree, and age (including a Haut Brion from the late `20s).  I was seated with a group who included a fair amount of Francophiles, to the point where they actively praised a white Burgundy that was clearly faulty (hello sauerkraut!) and disdained a fairly well-balanced CA Cab without tasting it, passing their judgments based on a quick sniff after hearing that the wine was over 14% abv.

My reaction was more or less: “Uhm… ooookaaaaay…  Delude yourself much?

I felt kind of sorry for those people at the time – not in an arrogant way (they all had deeper wine knowledge than I did), but just genuinely saddened that they’d let themselves be manipulated so much by their preconceptions instead of trying to find the relative merits of each wine on its won.  A faulty wine is almost never balanced, but a high abv wine certainly can be balanced, given the right amount of fruit, acidity, etc. that the wine also presents.  It’s for that very reason that I can lower my ‘score’ for an expensive wine that I find faulty and at the same time praise one that has high booze but high everything else and so achieves a pleasing balancing act.

Balance rules.  And it matters more than a wine producer’s history, more than their vineyard location, more than the scores a wine has achieved in previous vintages, and – most importantly – it matters a hell of a lot more than our preconceptions.

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Colorado Wine Press


    Preconceptions might just be the biggest problem in the wine industry today. What's on the label, whether that be brand, alcohol, varetial or region, all too often trumps what's in the bottle.

    • 1WineDude


      Totally agree, CWP. I struggle with this mightily because I rarely taste wines blind (reasons documented ad nauseum elsewhere on this site), but having said that I **always** say "let's see what this sucker has got" and then first evaluate if the wine is sound (faulty, etc.), and then if it has typicity (place, variety, etc.) before getting into the subjective stuff. This has resulted in me grading wines higher even if I don't like them, or lower even if they are expensive and have received boku awards and 95+ ratings from others (in fact, I had three instances of those things happening in the past week alone).

      On the consumer side, I just want to enjoy what I'm drinking and so preconceptions are totally your enemy in that respect,because they get you deciding if you've enjoyed a wine or not before ever even tasting it, which just seems wrong on every level. :)

  • Jon Troutman


    You hit the nail on the head with this one, Joe. At a time when the alcohol discussion / debate has never been higher, I violently agree with you. Balance trumps all whether 12% or 16%. I think Diddy wrote a song about this years ago…

    "it's all 'bout the balance, baby"

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Jon – nice Diddy ref… :)

      I should note that I'm encouraging everyone to read Steve's post – there are further insights in there that I haven't touched on here. I just decided to spin-off his post as he decided not to get into the abv thing (and so I did :-).

      Cheers!

  • Wayne Young


    Joe-
    This has really become a pet-peeve of mine recently. I cant tell you how many people come to my table at a tasting and taste the wine only to spin the bottle around and complain about 13.5% alc. by vol…. I can't understand why if the wine is pleasing and BALANCED with 13 or even 14%, that there's any reason to complain.
    Wines of a certain style would seem hollow and thin without that alcohol. There's even this market pressure (at least in Italy, but I think globally as well) to limit wines to the magic number of 12.5%, without even considering the effect on balance. NOT TO MENTION how many industrial producers are filtering out alcohol to reach that magic number…
    Thanks for the VINdication…Rock on!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Wayne. You might enjoy reading this: I've had wines over 15% abv that I thought had good balance, and I've had Rieslings in the 11-12% abv range that were totally unbalanced wines, just aggressively acidic (instead of vibrant) even with food.

      Generalizations are killers when it comes to wine! :)

  • Tai-Ran Niew


    Agree to a large extent. Agree balance is all important.

    BUT a whiskey is different to a port, and which in turn is different to a wine at 13% abv. It is of course possible to achieve balance at 16% abv, but it will be essentially a different drinking experience. A BIG wine is not BAD, but it is BIG.

    The problem with a lot of wine debate, is the need to establish a universal definition of "good" – a function of perhaps of the points system. We forget the subjective nature of experiencing a glass wine. There is nothing wrong with liking a balanced big wine, nor with not liking it.

    If we can all just forget the need to establish what is "right", or worse, "fashionable" or "implies having good taste", and judge wines you drink against your own benchmark but not impose those benchmarks on others. Perhaps then we can embrace the diversity of this wonderful drink, and not argue about it?

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Tai-Ran!

      I like to think that sites like 1WD are doing that, in small ways. While I do 'grade' wines, I don't come to it fromt he standpoint of wine #1 being inherently 'better' than wine #2 other than from the most basic of what I think are more objective characteristics (flaws, typicity…). The rest is a bit subjective, which is why it's important that we take those grades/scores/stars/etc. with a grain of salt and trust our own preferences as much as possible. E.g., I will naturally score balanced wines higher than other people who are critiquing wines – so if that's your thing than by all means listen to me and let me help you BUT…

      …always trust YOURSELF first.

      Hopefully 1WD is helping people to also trust themselves more.

      Which introduces a potential alternative tag-line for the blog:

      "GIVING LUSHES COURAGE SINCE 2007!"

      ;-)

  • El Jefe


    "Along the coast you'll hear them boast
    About a light they say that shines so clear.
    So raise your glass, we'll drink a toast
    To the little man who sells you thrills along the pier."

    I just think someone needed to come by and stand up for the Moodys a little…;)

    Also, does the balance of an acidic white change if there is a plate of Hog Island Sweetwaters on the half shell next to it?

    • 1WineDude


      Perhaps, Jefe… Perhaps…

  • Kathy


    Thank you Joe. You are my hero. I am worried that the 'misconceptions' you're referring to are actually personal wine preferences being passed off as the new gospel by a few wine writers and celebrity somms which, in turn, negatively influence others. When are we, as a wine community, going to "get it" that we all are given the divine right to drink what we enjoy, regardless of what others think. More people would drink and enjoy wine if we didn't make it so damned difficult to do so.

    Long live the well-balanced wine!

    • 1WineDude


      Kathy – you need to raise your hero standards! :)

      You make a great point, in that personal preference trumps all – and so, I think we all have the responsibility (if we want to change the status quo) to find those critics with whom we most agree and with whom are won personal palates most align, and celebrate and promote those folks. THAT is what will change things (when we vote with our wallets!

      Cheers!

  • Tim Hanni


    Three blind bloggers were asked to taste a high-scoring Napa Cabernet and describe the balance of fruit, oak and alcohol of the wine to a universe of spectators. The first blind man was a hyper-sensitive taster with over ten thousand taste buds, the next a sensitive taster with 2,000 buds and the third a tolerant taster with somewhere around 500 taste papillae. All were wine lovers, passionate and oh so knowledgeable, but they were unaware of their physiological sensory equipment and radically differing perception. Each of them tasted the wine and spoke in turn:

    “Yech, this wine is horrible – the jammy fruit, burning alcohol, excessive oak – how can anyone drink an unbalanced, over-the-top wine like this? It would ruin any meal,” said the first blind blogger.

    The second blind blogger weighed in, “This wine is representative of the style I have grown tired of – have learned to seek wines of greater finesse and that is why I joined the Anything But Cabernet movement.”

    “Ah, nirvana!” quote the third expert. “Full, rich and powerful; smooth and hedonistically satisfying with a sweet fruit core. 95 points!”

  • Tim Hanni


    The spectators looked on in confusion. Bewildered, they silently wondered which of these mavens was right – what should they look for, how on earth should they make decisions and who could they turn to so they could make a smart buying decision? It was as if each of the blind bloggers were describing a snake, a tree trunk and a rope.

    Tuuuueessdaaay……aaaaafternooooon; I'm just beginning to see…

    • 1WineDude


      A powerful vision, Tim!

      "I'm looking at myself reflections of my mind,
      It's just the kind of day to leave myself behind…."

  • Tim Hanni


    There is a song in my head and it won't go away!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Make it stop, PLEASE make it stop!

    • 1WineDude


      I've moved on to "Ride My Seesaw" now…

  • Richard Scholtz


    I think one of the big problems is that people associate high alcohol with a lack of balance. I've had people tell me they thought a wine was boozy, and then look at the label and it's at 14% abv. I've also had really big wines with abv pushing 16% that you couldn't tell it was that high. Yes, even alcohol can be in balance at different abv levels.

    By the way, the wine bar at Ristorante Panorama was quite impressive. I could easily drink more there than my wallet would allow.

    • 1WineDude


      Richard – same here!

      Glad you enjoyed Panorama!

  • El Jefe


    Ron, are you channeling John Lilly or Raoul Duke?

  • 1WineDude


    And who did Norah hook up with? THE BASS PLAYER!

    Just sayin'. :)

  • Charlie Olken


    Joe, in the midst of a debate about balance, Hanni drifts in with this nonsense about only people with no taste buds liking CA wines.

    I am disappointed that you did not dismiss that nonsense for the unfounded, biased silliness that it is.

    Tim Hanni is a good guy and a friend. I think he makes too much of his pet theories, but then we all do. But when he drags themin to suggest that only people with dull palates could appreciate CA Cabs, then he goes too far.

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Charlie – I didn't take Tim's comment to be a broadbrush stroke against CA wines (but I might not have been paying enough attention…).

      • Charlie Olken


        I am happy to hear from Tim about this, but, frankly, how can the story be interpreted ant other way. Only the third blind blogger, the one with no taste buds, likes CA wines. It may have been Tim's attempt at a joke, but Tim takes himself and his tastebud count theories pretty seriously so I don't think he was just cracking wise. He was making a statement about the world as he sees it.

        And what he sees is that only blind bloggers with no tastebudes like CA wine. That would suggest that 95% of all Californians are borne with fewer taste buds than average. Sorry, Joe, but that kind of logic cannot be left unchallenged–even from my good friend, Mr. Hanni.

        • 1WineDude


          Fair point, Charlie. If that's the case then I'm okay to be in the small-count tastebud group! :0

  • Jon Bjork


    Also totally agree on balance. It is the one word I'd have with me on that desert island to describe a great wine.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Jon – hadn't thought of the dessert -island angle before but I like it!

  • Tim Hanni


    Sorry – I was over looking at the petty sniping from Charlie over at his site!

    Charlie – shame on you. And your 'report card' giving me an F on your blog, dismissing something you know nothing about as, "utter bunk". Petty, narrow minded and unfair to say the least.

    I was having fun with my response (I like to have fun BTW) and my comment was a gross overgeneralization about human sensory physiology, sensitivity and perception that is also very valid. If you would quit sniping and complaining and take the time to have lunch or talk with me (like Joe did) you MIGHT even go, "cool – never thought about that." I will even cook your favorite dish!!!

  • Tim Hanni


    More for Charlie:

    Then you go on to say, "Hanni drifts in with this nonsense about only people with no taste buds liking CA wines." I never said said 'no taste buds' or anything about California wines. You are taking some really big liberties with the conclusions you are drawing.

    And this – "And what he sees is that only blind bloggers with no tastebudes like CA wine. That would suggest that 95% of all Californians are borne with fewer taste buds than average." is completely the work of your imagination. As a matter of fact, there are way more people at the Sweet and Hypersensitive end of the spectrum, they are mostly not drinking wine or embarrassed by the lack of understanding and 'tolerance' of the wine community. Please quit sniping, handing out failing grades and drawing wild conclusions to something you won't even take the time to discuss.

    I'm looking at myself, reflections of my mind.
    It's just the kind of day to leave myself behind.
    So gently swaying through the fairy-land of love,
    If you could just come with me and see the beauty of …

  • Tim Hanni


    Dude – I am addressing Charlies unresearched and negative criticisms in detail over at his site where he chooses to further attack my work. I can post my ridiculously long posts again here is you like or if you don't mid the highjack send people who are interested (or very bored this weekend) over to that discussion. If it is OK you can post his site address – he starts with a glowing report of your original post before he goes of on my 'bunk'.

    "I think he makes too much of his pet theories" – well, I have based my career on my 'pet' theroies!

  • 1WineDude


    Tim & Charlie – as always I appreciate the debate and respect you both, but I do also say thanks for transferring the discussion if it is getting to the tete-a-tete point. Cheers!

  • Tim Hanni


    One last little bit on 'balance' and the shift away from what was so…

    “We are working with the Sauternais to 'Liberez les Sauternes' or free Sauternes from it's labeling as a dessert wine and I instinctively feel that you might be able to help us. The Sauternais drink their wines with fish, roast meats and spicy foods as well as with dessert – they can't understand why the world insists on drinking it only with sweet dishes, cheese or foie gras… The 'anti-sweet' phenomenon is frustrating and confusing to them. They sense that, if left alone to choose, most people would prefer to drink sweet wines much more frequently and your research suggests that this might be the case. If there is anything that you can send to help our mini-movement I would be most grateful…”

    • 1WineDude


      The anti-sweet movement (if it can be called that) is frustrating to the Germans as well. In their own country, people are looking over some of the greatest wines in the world, simply because they contain some residual sugar. More for me I suppose, but still… if we can change that perception, then we should!

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