|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 Bonné.”
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.