Balance in Wine: It Means Less (and More) Than You Think

Even before the advent of marketing groups like IPOB, “balance” was a word that was used nearly omnipresently by wineries to describe their wines. Because of this, balance had as many definitions as it had folks employing it. For each “overwrought trophy^” that the owner thought was balanced, there is now a “light and watery” example that is thought to be balanced as well.

Though the IPOB manifesto describes a wine to be in balance IPOB logo

when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed….

the shorthand for this elusive quality has come down to alcohol content. Supposedly, wines that are greater than 14% alcohol are inherently unbalanced while those that do not cross that graceless meridian maintain their magical symmetry. As with any shorthand, much of the nuance and drama are lost in the reduction.

I had the opportunity to participate in two seminars and taste Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the 33 member wineries of IPOB in San Francisco yesterday. I learned much from the speakers – winemakers from Santa Barbara County and the North Coast – and learned even more from the many stunning wines available to taste.

Within a relatively narrow range, there are many ways to make great wine. While those wines are generally products of doing less rather than doing more, it is in the details of how fruit is farmed and the winemaking techniques used that these offerings reach their stylistic and qualitative peaks.

Some producers age their Chardonnay on the lees but don’t stir as in the case of the wines from Failla. Others stir the lees, presumably to bring out a touch more palate richness and complexity of flavor as in the wines from Liquid Farm. Others inoculate their fermentations while the wines from Matthiasson and Littorai are fermented with native yeasts. Some ferment in stainless steel, some in concrete, some in barrel – small and large.

I have a specific vision in mind for each wine I make, and I do only those things that I need to do to try to bring that vision to bear in nose and mouth and mind. And while the techniques I use (and of equal importance, the sources from which I acquire fruit) may differ from other winemakers, it is the balance of effort to vision that separates the great from the good.

^Quotation from the Keynote Address presented by erstwhile SF Chronicle writer, Jon Bonne. 

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Oh, Cabernet Franc!

  • Cabernet Franc is one of the classic Bordeaux varieties where it makes up significant percentages of the best wines and on the Left Bank and is the majority in the finest wines of the Right.
  • It is the 17th most widely planted red grape variety in the world;
  • The 14th biggest in terms of tons crushed in California in 2014;
  • The parent to Cabernet Sauvignon (with Sauvignon Blanc) and Merlot (with Madeleine
    cabernet franc grapes

    Cabernet Franc

    Noire des Charentes) and Carmenere (with Gros Cabernet);

  • And it accounted for nearly $27 million worth of grapes sold in California in 2014.

Using these factoids to describe Cabernet Franc is -as someone said- like trying to reason your way to an orgasm. Cabernet Sauvignon is about structure and prestige; Pinot Noir about the intellect and matching outcome to a specific patch of dirt; Cabernet Franc, in its purest form, is all about sex.

From the silkiness of its texture, to the exoticism of its aromas; from the raciness of its acidity to its emotion-prodding “it-ness,” Cabernet Franc is terrifyingly and wonderfully naughty.

As with all great wines, Cabernet Franc is a product of where it is grown. The classic models – Bordeaux and the Loire – produce radically different wines, and not just because one is a blend and the other pure. Cabernet Franc – again, at its qualitative peak – has a relatively narrow range of temperature in which it has the capacity to produce a pure (again, that word!) expression of the varietal.

The grape seems to flourish in cooler temperatures, not Pinot cold, but certainly not

Cab Franc - Loire Valley appellations

Cab Franc – Loire Valley appellations

Zinfandel hot. My vision of the making of the wine is the challenge of walking just on the right side of the pyrazine tracks. Unripe, and CF becomes a weedy, thin, acidic shell. Over-ripe, it lolls around lazily on your tongue, bereft of its floral perfume, the exotic notes of a next-day-fire on the beach, and the tantalizing and frankly, coquettish, arrow of acid that ties the best examples together. And like Sauvignon Blanc, its vinous bedmate, Cabernet Franc takes to new oak like a cat to water. All that toasty caramel, tobacco, and coffee obscure the earthy, fruity, sometimes funky, always mystifying eau de CF. I want to make sure that the fruit in our Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard hangs just long enough to synthesize green notes but not so long that it loses the varietally-correct herbal notes that help give it its absolute individuality.

I made my first vintage of Cabernet Franc in 2005, but came to be obsessed with the grape’s potential in 2007 with the first vintage of Lineage | Livermore Valley. In addition to the 100% versions I make for my Steven Kent Winery brand, CF is an indispensable part of the blend of my flagship brand. A natural blending partner in Bordeaux, in my wine Cabernet Franc is the id…(hopefully) relentlessly and lubriciously driving flavors and aroma and structure forward to a very long conclusion.

The divinity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir have been acknowledged already. The “next big red” sobriquet has been variously used on Syrah and Sangiovese in California. But there is reason to believe that it is Cabernet Franc that might be the next great red hope. Should this happen, there will be a great many mind-blowing wines out there to fall head over heels in love with. I can’t hardly wait!

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Wine is Only as Simple as You Want it to Be…or The Wonderful Complication of Tasting

I had the occasion recently to talk to my tasting room team about evaluating the bottles that we pour for our guests at the Winery. We tasted three or four bottles of each of the different vintages that we had opened and noticed that there were subtle variations from redox diagrambottle to bottle.

What started as a conversation about quality control soon morphed into talking about the role of oxygen in wine, reduction/oxidation, corks, the varying oxygen transmission rates in different closures, and how do we efficiently reconcile this complication so our guests get the best tasting experience possible.

Underlying this “inside baseball” detail, though, is an inescapable AND wonderful truth mock blendsabout wine and wine tasting: its only as simple as you want it to be. While I have observed in restaurants and tasting rooms that most drinkers prefer less detailed information to more, and the simple pleasure of enjoying a nice glass of wine shouldn’t be mocked, those who are passionate about great wines have a nearly unequaled subject upon which – in those relatively few vinous gems –  to lavish their enthusiasm.

I would contend, that by its very nature as a living substance, wine must be complicated. And like people and great works of literature, the more one dives into it, the more our wonder and awe at its bottomlessness grows.

shakespeareIn his book The Shakespeare Wars, Ron Rosenbaum refers to the bottomless quality of the playwright’s work in its ability to give the passionate reader an unending set of discoveries each time a play is read. This sense of depth, this sense of vastness as personified by the infinitely capacious consciousness of Hamlet (and his creator) circumscribes all of the horrors and miracles of creation while also leaving one subject to the “unbearable burden of infinitude.”

If not so freighted as Hamlet, a great bottle of wine still gives irreducibly of its secrets. From terroir to farming to philosophy to the effects of age to the associations it conjures, we can never truly get our minds completely around the beauty and enormity of it. And that’s just the first sip. I want more people to drink wine, to experience the simple pleasures of the family meal made better with a bottle well-sipped. At the same time, not only do I think it is appropriate to celebrate the complexity of great wine (certainly, what we aspire to with Lineage | Livermore Valley), I think we do these rare beauties (and our capacity to feel and contemplate so much) a disservice to deny our enthrallment to them.



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The Lineage | Livermore Valley Blend: Revealing Inherent Perfection

Putting together a world-class wine blend is about shaving off the edges of failure, until the harmonious roundness of success is all that is left.

I have been making wine for nearly 20 years now, and putting blends together for almost exactly the same amount of time. Though a blended wine like Lineage | Livermore Valley can be exceedingly complicated, there is nothing particularly complicated about the term.Lineage_Label2

If one starts with Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, in a variety of different barrels, the act of putting a grouping of those barrels together (while discarding others) is, by definition, blending a wine. Each barrel has a role in the play; each contributes something individual that exalts the whole. It may be a flavor contribution or the adding of texture or length, but each barrel sacrifices its individuality to the greater good. In some cases (due to the need for a specific volume) the act of blending can be one of “good-enoughs.” In that example, there isn’t a barrel that is so disparate that it too greatly affects the final wine in an adverse way. This is the easier blend.

mock blends

A series of mock blends.

The harder blend is one of “not-good-enoughs.” These blends, like Lineage | Livermore Valley, comprise only the best barrels – those barrels that are irreducibly and profoundly great. The joy of making Lineage is in taking only the barrels that express the purest potential of each individual variety AND then making sure that each expression of individuality contributes an even greater level of purity when it is part of something larger. The allusion in the beginning of this post refers to the act of making blend after blend after blend that we realize is just not commensurate to the final wine’s potential. There were 28 failures in 2013, 28 sandings of rough edges, 28 not-good-enoughs before my sense of the best wine was realized.

For the Lineage Wine Company there is only one wine each year.  The final wine is meant

All that's left of a failed blend.

All that’s left of a failed blend.

to be a triumph, organoleptically and emotionally. Not emotional in the sense that each of the wines is like one of my children, but emotional in the sense that each wine has a natural and inherent potential to express the perfection of the growing year; the perfection of sunlight, of rain, of tannin and acid and sugar; the perfection of vision.  And it is my job to discard all of the extraneous, all the “not-good-enough,” keeping only the most complex, most alive, most beautiful, most inherently perfect elements. Being human, perfection is not to be attained. However, the desire for it and the working toward it never ceases.

In the end, we winemakers will be cursed always by the very quality that makes wine the bottomlessly interesting and heartbreaking thing that it is: all of its moments of perfection and all that we have done to express it are transitory, mutable, and in the process, already, of being transported to the past. Any measure of greatness that may have achieved will have been – by the time the glass is empty – sacrificed to implacable, uncaring Time.

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I am fortunate to be working in the Livermore Valley, a too-little known gem that is
demonstrating – at its best – the ability to grow Cabernet Sauvignon as great as any in the cropped-lineage-capsule-cropped-small.jpgworld. I’m also fortunate to have been born into the oldest winemaking family in America – a family for whom wine has been a singular professional focus for nearly 160 years.

Lineage|Livermore Valley is meant to be one of the great Cabernet-based wines in the world. I apologize in advance if the preceding statement sounds immodest. It is meant only to describe the intended trajectory of a life-time mission. My thinking is that If I’m going to devote my career to trying to accomplish one thing, It might as well be a BIG thing.  I’m going to follow the Boss’s advice here and walk tall, or don’t walk at all.

What really gives this personal bet a chance of paying off—in the end—is the spectacular viticultural quality of the Livermore Valley. Oriented east-west, and situated between two ranges of mountains, 30 miles east of San Francisco Bay, our Valley is warm during the day and really cool during the night. This dramatic diurnal temperature range describes and circumscribes the sugar-producing photosynthetic activity of day and the maintenance of balancing acidity that happens in the cool of the dark. Only the best regions have this dramatic range, and coupled with a multiplicity of soil types (there are six alone ribboning through one of our estate vineyards), and microclimates afforded by an elevation range of 500′ to more than 1000′ above sea level, Cabernet and its Bordeaux cousins thrive.

Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard Image

I am most attracted to wines that are elegant and beautiful and balanced. Lineage|Livermore Valley must be compelling; it must have vitality and movement, depth and length and complexity. More than any individual characteristic, though, is that the wine must have a sense of cohesion (and with a blend of the five classic varietals, this is one wonderful challenge); it must seem inevitably of one piece.

The intricacies of getting five different grapes from several different vineyards – from those vineyards through the crush pad and fermentors into barrels and onto the blending table and finally into bottle where the life of Lineage|Livermore Valley begins is what obsesses me. This blog will take you on that journey with me.

VI adorns the wine’s capsule and label. It marks six generations of winemaking and stands as the aegis under which all of my winemaking energy and love will fall.

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