Five Decades of Mayacamas, PBFW

Mayacamas Panel, PBFW

from left: Kim Beto, Andy Erickson, Antonio Galloni, D’Lynn Proctor, Brian McClintic

At Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Antonio Galloni moderated a panel celebration of Bob Travers’s tenure at Mayacamas presenting a five decade vertical of the famed Cabernet beginning with Travers first vintage on the estate, 1968, and closing with his last, 2012.

New Mayacamas winemaker, Andy Erickson, included Travers’s own notes on the vintages tasted, and discussed the history of the property along with the recent shift in ownership. To comment on the individual wines presented through the panel were also Kim Beto, D’Lynn Proctor, and Brian McClintic. From the audience, Joel Peterson, winemaker of Ravenswood, also offered valuable insight to the discussion.

At the end of April 2013, it was announced that Charles and Ali Banks had purchased the property through their investment group, Terroir Capital. The purchase arrived after years of discussion over the possibility between Banks and Travers. Banks’s long term respect for the property, and Travers’s work there drew Banks’s interest in the purchase.

Since the change in ownership, Erickson has spent extensive time speaking with Travers, reading his notes, and studying previous vintages to smooth the change in winemaking.

In fielding questions from the audience, Erickson was pushed to consider the contrast in style between the winemaking he’s shown through other labels, such as his own Favia, and that historically housed at Mayacamas. It was clear from the tenor in the audience that there is trepidation over whether the new team can maintain Travers’s style of site expression. Most revealing of Erickson’s responses, he closed the panel by admitting his work with Mayacamas in 2013 has pushed him to rethink his previous understandings of ripeness. Mayacamas Cabernet picks at lower brix levels than other sites, and ages beautifully.

Attending the Mayacamas tasting and panel discussion was a genuine honor. Receiving a vertical that carved the complete arc of Travers’s tenure from first to final vintage at the site gave an extra sense of elegance and respectfulness to the experience. To say the wines are special is an understatement.

The Cabernet of Mayacamas, 1968 to 2012

Mayacamas Cabernet Vertical 1968-2012click on image to enlarge

Travers’s iterations of Mayacamas Cabernet give a beautifully organic sense of seamlessness. The vintages I’ve been lucky enough to taste celebrate sophisticated rusticity — the dustiness of mountain fruit with tobacco and earth components carried through sometimes rugged, while well-executed, tannin balanced by juicy length. Even the riper vintages aren’t afraid of earth components, refreshing green pepper accents, or tannin born of a view. They’re wines that come with a real sense of life in the bottle.

Joel Peterson commented on the Cabernets of Mayacamas pointing out that with their greater acidity, structural tannin, and rose/floral aromatic line they can readily be compared to Barolo, and perhaps even more appropriately than the stereotypical Napa Cabernet. He continued by noting that Mt Veeder, with its unique environment and expression, really needs to be considered on its own, rather than encapsulated simply as part of the Napa Valley.

In describing the winemaking, Erickson laughed, describing it as “wilderness winemaking.” Travers accomplished his purity of expression with decades old wooden vessels housed in an even older rock building, a road that was sometimes impassable, and very little electrical technology.

Tasting through the Vertical

The vertical began with 1968, Travers first vintage, and a wine made of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Though Traver’s notes expected that the wine “should age until the late 1980s” the wine was still drinking beautifully with energetic structural integrity, and beautiful mineral length. The wine had aged into a delicate flavor presentation with lovely floral aromatics and lift, well integrated with leather and earth components. Erickson shared with us that Travers’s notes stated “suggestion retail $4.50.” The 1968 vintage was primarily Mt Veeder Cabernet from the Mayacamas site, but included some fruit from the Alexander Valley.

The 1973 offered impressive structural integrity, and youthful strength. In a single word, this was a wine of purity. Aromatics of lavender and tobacco flower are joined by light cigar and rose petal, freshly opened green pepper and hints of jalapeno. The palate carries elegant juiciness with a focus on smooth tannic brawn.

The 1981 vintage offered the only wine that showed a sleeping phase, wanting time in bottle to show itself. Still, it carried recognizable kinship to its brethren giving lavender, cherry blossom, and light jalapeno aromatics rolling into an especially tannic focus on an earthy (though not fully showing) palate with a light menthol edge.

By the late 1980s, Travers was incorporating Cabernet Franc and Merlot into his Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromatics of the 1989 offered leather and light cigar accents coupled with creamy, delicate earthiness and light rose. Through the palate, the wine brought a vibrant, lifting red with silky, strong tannin, and a juicy crunch. This is a wine with lots of power that fills the palate giving a pert and vibrant lift.

With 1992, the wines began to shift from the fully integrated, while lively earth and leaf, flower and mineral elements of the first half of the tasting, into more apparent youthfulness of fruit still coupled with earth and flower accents. The red fruit focus of the 1992 married itself to the grounding elements of white truffle and oregano oil accented by evergreen carried through silken tannin, and a pleasing plush mouthfeel.

Beginning with light aromatics, the 1999 gave incredible juiciness on still such a young wine. The wine carried beautiful balance, long long lines, red fruit and redwood forest with less apparent flavor differentiation. The wine showed as less varied in that sense than earlier vintages but with the structural verve that will keep it developing well beyond Bob’s typical predictions.

With 2007 youthful red cherry perfume, red plum, and rose potpourri began to carry too the darker berry elements of young Cabernet. The vintage showed a beautiful purity of fruit expression on a body of fresh, juicy elegance and silken tannin. It’s a yummy, luscious wine with a bit riper fruit and a lot of structural focus.

The Mayacamas vertical was completed with a barrel sample of Travers’s last vintage, 2012. The dark berry focus of young Cabernet swirled through aromatics and palate here alongside fresh smashed cherries married to the lift of licorice blossom, redwood forest, and wet gravel on a body of plush tannin focus.


To read more on Mayacamas in the last year:

From Eric Asimov:

From Jon Bonné:


With enormous thanks to Bob Travers for his dedication to Mayacamas.

Thank you to Antonio Galloni, Andy Erickson, D’Lynn Proctor, Kim Beto, and Brian McClintic.

Thank you to Charles and Ali Banks.

Thank you to Sarah Logan.


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A Look at the Idea of Vine Age

The morning at In Pursuit of Balance began with a fascinating seminar on Vine Age, facilitated by Alder Yarrow. The panel proved particularly special for its participants, and their wealth of experience both in winemaking, and with vineyards that have helped define the possibilities for California terroir, including the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir vineyard in the state. The panelists included Michael McNeill of Hanzell, Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson, Adam Tolmach of Ojai, and Pax Mahle of Wind Gap.

The center piece of the discussion came in distinguishing between three general age ranges of vines.

Young vines have yet to adjust to their site, and as such show a lot of exuberance in their growth and crop production but not a lot of balance with the conditions offered by the particular site. As Matthiasson explained, with young vine vineyards a lot of work is done to mimic appropriate adjustment to the site — reducing crop size, dealing with canopy growth, removing excessive shoots, etc. Matthiasson likes to say because these younger vines haven’t gone through multiple vintages yet, it’s as if they don’t have memory of various climatic conditions effects on their growth, and thus how to respond to them. In the panel, he compared young vines to a teenager — they have a ton of exuberance but not a lot of self-control. By ten years these vines tend to have reigned in their excessive growth somewhat and as a result express some innate responsiveness to the place in which they are growing.

Matthiasson elucidated the issues with young vines pointing out that by definition they have shallower roots. As a result, they have less physical potential for handling stress in their environment. As a result, Matthiasson said, “you can really hurt a vine letting it do what it wants when it’s young.” From a viticultural point of view, then, a lot of work goes into maintaining young vine vineyards. Looking at it from the wine side, there are also flavoral differences. The panel agreed that younger vines tend to be more fruit focused in their flavor expression.

Most of the panel overtly prefered old vines for the complexity and completeness they show in the final wine. In considering the differences, Mahle described wine from old vines, compared to young, as “less overtly fruity with more umami, more broad and expansive.” He went on to clarify that when comparing the two really “the picture is completely different. It’s fascinating to me. It makes wines more interesting. [Old vines wines are] more reserved, and broad, less extroverted.”

Tolmach, however, emphasized that there is value to be found in wine from young vines as well. He distinguished the expression of the two vine ages. In Tolmach’s view, wine from young vines tend to give “a little more linearity and freshness” while older vines offer “a little more breadth.” He stated too though that he believed farming adjustments could be made to help young vines mimic the qualities of old vines. Tolmach also said that it is not only the farming that needs to differ between old and young vines. Picking times must also be adjusted. More recently he has also begun to treat the two differently in the cellar.

Mature vines, on the other hand, have adjusted to their site and hemmed in their vigor to a more reasonable balance with what they can support thanks to the nutritive conditions of their environment. After ten years, vines have become more steady. However, the panel agreed that the move from young to mature vines doesn’t simply happen guaranteed at the ten year mark, and in fact is likely older.

Tolmach emphasized that when a vine moves into a new “age group” depends largely on the particular vineyard. That is, the overall health of the vines, the climate and soil conditions of the place in which it is grown, and the farming all factor into the overall development of a vineyard. Maturity happens when a kind of stasis occurs in the vines — their growth and crop development have come into balance with the nutritive conditions of the site. To put it another way, mature vines express healthy opportunity for that sites production levels. They are no longer overly exuberant to the point of damaging themselves, and they are not yet hampered by disease or excessive impediment.

The advantage of mature vines is that they are more self-regulating. As McNeill emphasized, however, the important point in these discussions comes with distinguishing mature vines from old vines. There is a tendency in the California wine industry to begin to pull vines a little after the twenty year mark. However, one of the implications in the panel discussion was that twenty years would not be adequate to claiming “old vine” status for a vineyard. The simple reality, then, is that there are few old vine vineyards in the state simply due to current farming practices. Further, because of the AXR rootstock disaster of the 1990s, most vineyards that could potentially have slipped by now into old vine status were pulled and replanted to new rootstock. (Interestingly, Mahle works with still healthy AXR vineyards for some of his wines.)

When considering when we can begin to count a vineyard old, Mahle clarified that the question proves site specific as well. Building on Tolmach’s point about stasis in mature vines, Mahle added that “when vines hit that stasis they are also very site dependent.” That is, the kind of balance seen in mature vines shows their healthy understanding of what the site can offer them for growing potential but that same balance also indicates that the vines’ growth has become dependent on the particular conditions of that site. In other words, how vines grow in one set of growing conditions differs from how it would grow in another. What counts as the balance of a vine is site dependent. As a result, what counts as old vine proves site dependent as well. Thus, a particular age number is not adequate to claiming a site to be old vine.

Thanks to the complexity of old vine wines, there is an easy fetishization that occurs for old vine vineyards. However, such sites tend to be rather peculiar in their growth patterns and as a result demand mostly hand farming, and more specific attention. McNeill stated that vine care in old vine vineyards is best left with highly knowledgeable crew with not only ample experience, but experience with those particular vines.

With this in mind, Matthiasson pointed out that health is what distinguishes old from mature vines. He clarified that by the time vines are moving from mature into old vine status “they tend to have a lot of problems.” Contrary to the shallow root conditions of young vines, old vines tend to have incredibly deep roots, which, to put it simply, means a huge distance from the bottom of the roots to the top of the vine. While we tend to talk about deep roots as an asset, at the same time such distance means genuine vulnerability. Matthiasson points out how much can happen underground to damage or pinch off such roots.

Along with root issues, old vines have also been getting pruned annually for much longer. Matthiasson states that those pruning cuts act as scars that impede water flow through the vine. Older vines have more impediments. Pruning sores also open the vine to virus and disease. “Old vines are just eeking along dealing with being old,” Matthiasson says.

However, these conditions are precisely what support the complexity found in old vine wines. Matthiasson states, “We already know that vines need struggle to develop complexity.”  By the time a vineyard is old, each vine has become not only deeply expressive of its site — it has enough of what Matthiasson calls vintage memory to know how to respond to varying climate and soil conditions — it has also become utterly unique compared to its neighboring vine.

McNeill agreed with Matthiasson’s account while emphasizing what has gone well with old vine vineyards. “By virtue of having old vines, there is something there. The thing about old vines is that someone got it right, whether by luck or by brilliance.” If the vineyard is intact and healthy, someone “got good budwood that grows well, and survives.”


To watch portions of the discussion (technical difficulty lost part of it):

Part 1:

Part 2:


Thank you to Alder Yarrow, Michael McNeill, Steve Matthiasson, Adam Tolmach, and Pax Mahle.

Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to



IPOB Panel on Ripeness: Considering the question of ripeness

The admirable Jamie Goode flew in from Britain to moderate a panel at In Pursuit of Balance this year. In participating he was able too to select the panel topic. With his wealth of knowledge and experience in wine, bringing him to the event proved a smart addition. He selected the topic of Ripeness for discussion, and immediately broadened perspective on the issue. While conversations around ripeness levels in the U.S., and especially California wine, have tended to quickly steer into discussion of alcohol levels, Goode immediately placed the question of ripeness within a broader context.

In explaining what led him to select the subject, Goode said, “I think ripeness is one of the most important factors in terroir.” The insight behind this statement came in him discussing his views of terroir. “There is no single interpretation of terroir. We can have several different intelligent interpretations of a site. The question is if this [particular wine] is an intelligent interpretation of the site.” He then went on to compare the idea of interpreting terroir to a conductor directing an orchestra’s performance of a composition.

I appreciate the insight offered by Goode here as it brings the appropriate complexity to an idea — terroir, or site expression in wine — that is often treated overly simplistically. To belabor the point behind Goode’s comments, the composer has written a piece, but with the music merely noted on paper, the conductor must interpret the best presentation of those notations. There are multiple possible ways to make such an interpretation. It is impossible to decide which is the best interpretation without having first assumed a collection of values that allow one to judge the success or failure of the performance.

Similarly in wine, when discussing ripeness levels, there is a range of potential picking decisions that could be made that fall after overtly green fruit and before the onset of dehydration. How one determines the point of optimal ripeness depends on what kind of wine a person wants to enjoy, that is, what kind of wine they value.

In the ways we talk about wine, it can be easy to insert judgments of optimal ripeness as if it simply is true that a certain style of wine is the best style. Goode’s point that there are multiple intelligent interpretations gets at the point that such judgments are not simply true, they are a matter of preference. It’s a matter of what we want to drink, not of what it’s right to drink. Still, his point retains the importance of parameters as well. That is, the implication behind Goode’s statement that the question is whether this is an intelligent interpretation of site retains the important point that a winemaker can easily go too far and lose site expression in their wine as a result. Some wines just needs grapes, they don’t care for where those grapes came from.

To give example to how a wine can go to far, Goode discussed the role of alcohol in relation to esters. “Certain levels of alcohol masks the aromatic expression of the wine. Alcohol masks the esters.” He then went on to compare such a phenomenon to drinking whiskey. Some whiskey lovers add a bit of water first because doing so changes the alcohol proportions slightly, and in lowering the overall alcohol level the whiskey shows a different aromatic effect. He also explained that studies have been done changing the alcohol levels on the same wine. The study showed that at different alcohol levels the same wine showed distinctly different flavor and aroma.

Ultimately, he stated that wine experience depends upon a synergy of elements — mouthfeel, flavor, alcohol, acidity — and no one factor is adequate to summing up our expectations with wine. In looking at ripeness, Goode selected a kind of galvanizing rod for other aspects to discuss in wine.

The Wines and Winemakers for Discussion


Justin Willett of Tyler Winery presented two 2011 Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara County with the goal of showcasing the distinctness between two appellations of the region, as well as to show what a cool vintage in California looks like. Both sites offered older vines from own rooted plantings.

His Sanford & Benedict Pinot, planted in 1971, offered the intense juiciness and core of strength signature of the Sta Rita Hills with light fruit spice and pepper integrated through raspberry bramble and fruit. The Bien Nacido Pinot, planted in 1973, showed restraint with still ample juiciness compared to the Sta Rita Hills, giving the focus on fruit known to the Santa Maria Valley. The wine offered raspberry and strawberry with hints of rhubarb and integrated fruit spice.

In discussing how he makes his picking decision, Willett explained that he is definitely looking at the juice, rather than just raw fruit. As he points out, in Santa Barbara County the focus is more often on letting the acidity soften, as it is naturally so high through that area, rather than looking more singularly at sugar levels.


Josh Jensen of Calera in Mt Harlan brought two 2013 barrel samples from the same vineyard picked at different times, as well as his intensely vibrant Versace jeans. (His pants were the ripest wine of the tasting.) As he explained, he likes to dip his toe in at harvest and pick some fruit earlier than he expects to pick in general just to see how its developed. With this in mind, he offered a barrel selection from his 2013 first pick, clarifying that he felt it showed flavors from jumping the gun too early.

The first sample, picked at 22.9 brix, had a nice acid to tannin balance and lots of length showing through flavors of strawberry and crushed green strawberry and strawberry leaf. The overt green notes Jensen felt showcased the idea of picking too early, though he also pointed out that in time such flavors do actually fade (though he implied this would happen over decades).

The second sample, picked at 24.2 brix, gave a strawberry perfume with herbal, red currant touches through the palate. When asked which the attendees preferred, the room overwhelmingly voted in favor of the second, with people also commenting the second wine seemed more complete.

In discussing his views on alcohol and age-ability in wine, Jensen emphasized that the question is still a work in progress. His belief is that higher alcohol levels likely do inhibit age-ability in wine. In considering how he determines picking times he admits they do look at the numbers but the decision is largely based in the flavors of the fruit.


Katy Wilson of La Rue brought two different vintages of Pinot from the Rice-Spivak Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast in order to showcase vintage contrast, with the 2010 being a markedly cold year for the region, and 2012 comparatively more normal.

The 2012 Pinot offered peach perfume, with a raspberry-peach and peach skin palate moved through with red cherry and strawberry accents. There was a pleasant acid-tannin balance, and nice length. The 2010 carried a more red-pink focus with strawberry-cherry floral nose followed by a strawberry-cherry mouth with kirsch accents and a touch more pepper. The 2010 offered a stronger core of tension, a ton of juiciness and length.

In explaining her picking decisions, Wilson explained she is not picking based on ripeness and numbers as much as considering each vineyard in relation to the particular vintage and location. She states that she’s turned out to make different decisions each year but one that responds to the fruit showing in that year. For Wilson, the flavor development of the fruit turns out to be an important guide. She says she is looking to pick somewhere between strawberry and cherry in the flavor development of the grapes, but then she jokes that the most important part is getting on your grower’s picking calendar.


Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines offered two differing vintages of Pinot from the Kiser en Bas Vineyard in Anderson Valley. The 2010 gave raspberry and evergreen aromatics leading into a perfumed palate with dark edges and light fruit aspects of cherry and raspberry. Though none of the wines on the panel were overtly fruity, the Copain wines proved the most enigmatic of the selections also giving a bit more tannin, while still in good balance to acidity, than the other wines.

The 2007 Pinot showed a light cigarbox and cedar aromatic followed by good tension with dark edges and rubbed raspberry oil leaf with strawberry and raspberry backnotes on the palate moved through a long juicy finish.

Guthrie explained that when picking he likes to think of the grapes as fruit you’d be happy to eat. If you’re trying to pick too early you don’t want to eat the fruit — it’s too pert and firm — but at the moment of ripeness the grapes become something you want to bring home and eat. Past that point and the fruit has become shrunken.


To watch the full discussion:


Thank you to Jamie Goode, Jordan Mackay, Josh Jensen, Wells Guthrie, Katy Wilson, and Justin Willett.

Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to



Attending a Paris Popup at Penrose in Oakland

Laura Vidal

Laura Vidal preparing the team on wine selections, Penrose, Oakland

Last week Laura Vidal and Harry Cummins were kind enough to invite me to their Paris Popup at Penrose in Oakland. The duo began the events while working together in Paris at Frenchies, taking over restaurants around the city. What would be a regular night off for the business would become a special treat for the owners — seeing their facility through the eyes of another team. The Paris Popups would open for one night only to a range of guests within an already established restaurant space, and provide dinner to the owner in exchange for using the space.

Laura Vidal and Harry Cummins

Laura Vidal and Harry Cummins

Originally from London, Cummins had returned home to visit friends and saw that a new style of food event — popups — were happening around the city. Returning to Paris he realized he hadn’t heard of them taking place on the French side of the Channel. He and Vidal decided to design their own, and Paris Popups were born. The venture developed organically. After their first successful occasion, restaurants around Paris began reaching out to the team offering to host. Paris Popups popped up all over the city, until the pair decided to take a year to both share and learn food and wine culture all over the world, beginning what would become a Popup world tour.

Harry Cummins

Harry Cummins

Unleashed from the team that was integral to their work in Paris, Cummins and Vidal have found their world tour defined by collaboration. The duo selected their route, then reached out to venues, wine distributors, and chefs in cities around the world. In each location they have sought to work intimately with area chefs to develop the menu with consideration for local ingredients, and bring in winemakers or distributors whose work they wish to support. Part of the point is to celebrate the unique offerings of a particular area. In selecting wines too, the people behind the wines are invited to participate, offering guests direct contact not easily afforded elsewhere. Evan Lewandowski of Ruth Lewandowski wines, Raj Parr of Domaine de la Cote, and Anthony Lynch of Kermit Lynch wines all poured, for example, in Oakland.

Paris Popup

Halibut, clams, blood oranges

The menu development occurs as a kind of ongoing conversation. Vidal selects wines in advance allowing for a progression through a multi-course meal. By this point, the chefs have already begun to brainstorm ideas, but now coordinate in concert with consideration of the wines as well. Vidal’s and Cummin’s expertise shows in listening to their process. Their skill in designing a meal in advance of an event reflects their experience with flavor and pairing. For the Penrose event, Cummins and Vidal were able to work with Bones Restaurant’s James Edward Henry and Austin Holey, as well as Charlie Hallowell, the chef of Penrose in the kitchen and to develop the menu.

Paris Popup

Sweetbreads, poached egg, Périgord black truffle

Each city’s food culture comes with a different infrastructure and dynamic. Where New York relies on ordered formality in a restaurant team, California’s Bay Area approaches evening meals with a more relaxed service style. Recognizing and working with the different styles of service for each location, then, becomes integral to the world tour.

Paris Popup

Uni, fermented squash, kumquats

The Oakland popup included two nights in Penrose, serving a seven course meal including wine pairings. The team accomplished an impressive, and well-executed menu showcasing the experience of pairings at their best. My favorite of the night rests strongly in the second course. We were greeted with a glass of Raveneau 2001 1er Cru Chablis then coupled with a dish of Dungeness crab, grapefruit, and artichokes. The pairing gave a beautiful example of how flavors can synthesize. While one of my favorite wines, Raveneau carries incredible strength, approaching the edge of pleasurable intensity on the palate. Similarly, the dish carried a strength of flavors with the richness of the crab absorbing the force of the grapefruit. The food followed by the wine, however, created a sense of elegance through the mouth that was truly beautiful.

Paris Popup

Oysters (served alongside the Rib eye)

Paris Popup

Rib eye

My other favorite pairing brought Les Palliéres 1999 Gigondas alongside a course of Rib eye with a side of oysters, and a green salad of citrus dressing. Rib eye is a classic suggestion for Gigondas, but the oysters nicely celebrated the sea-air freshness I find in the nose of older Les Palliéres, and the citrus note brought out the bright red elements of the wine on the palate, showing off the youthful vibrancy of the 1999. The combination was beautifully done.

Paris Popup

Apples, Penrose tonic ice served with Neige 2011 Apple Ice Wine

The other pairings throughout the night showcased differing approaches to marrying food and wine. Where the two courses mentioned celebrated an approach of complementing flavors, others focused on contrast. The sweetbreads, poached eggs, and black truffle dish brought a real richness to the palate that was cut through, and refreshed by the red fruit and black tea spine of the Domaine de la Cote 2011 Bloom’s Field, an elegant expression of what Sashi Moorman calls the Heart of Sta Rita Hills. Throughout the courses, I was impressed with the focus on texture. Each dish showcased a blend of varying levels of firmness, and push so that the pleasure of the palate was more than just taste. Such attention to texture showed in the way the wines paired as well. The light grip from skin contact maceration in the Ruth Lewandowski 2012 Fox Hill Vineyard Chilion Cortese Zero, for example, brought a vibrant citrus flavored texture alongside the slippery give of the uni and fermented squash with kumquat dish.


The Penrose Paris Popup had a collaborative menu developed by James Edward Henry, and Austin Holey from Bones, Harry Cummins from The Paris Popup, and Charlie Hallowell from Penrose. Wine Selection was done by Laura Vidal.

Rajat Parr, Eric Railsback, Anthony Lynch, and Evan Lewandowski helped with wine service, while the Penrose team provided floor service.

La Face Cachée de la Pomme has sponsored the Paris Popup since its arrival in Montreal.


All photos in this post are the work of Diane Yoon, and used with her permission.


Thank you to Laura Vidal.

Thank you to Anthony Lynch.

Thank you to Diane Yoon.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


Tasting and Talking with Jasmine Hirsch

Looking North from the West Ridge of Hirsch Vineyards

looking North from the top of Block10A, Western Ridge, Hirsch Vineyards

We’re sitting at the top of a steep hill looking North. It’s taken me a little over two hours to drive to the site from my daughter’s school though both reside in Sonoma County. The roads to Hirsch Vineyards lift and fall over the mountain range along Sonoma’s Coast. There is no shorter route to build.

Jasmine Hirsch has driven me down the length of what they call the Western Ridge, then hiked me to the crest of a spine that divides Blocks 10A and 10B to show me exactly where the Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay is grown. After tasting, I sit down to take a photograph. She sits down too and we begin a conversation about balance.

Along with her friend, and well-known sommelier, Rajat Parr, Hirsch began in 2011 what became an annual event celebrating the idea of balance in wine — In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB). In its first year they simply wanted to host a tasting celebrating Pinot they both enjoyed from California. The idea was to bring together what otherwise proves ephemeral — wines that express terroir — as a way to expand a conversation. — what is it about these wines? what are they trying to do with Pinot Noir? The ephemeral is why I’ve met with Hirsch, to see if I can understand her.

Mt Eden Pinot in the Maritime section of Hirsch VIneyards

looking thru 1980s-planted Mt Eden Pinot to the Ocean, Hirsch Vineyard

In its first year, IPOB was treated simply. Hirsch and Parr brainstormed the wine brands together on the back of a napkin then gathered them for a casual event at RN74 in San Francisco. The timing proved fruitful, as below the surface interest in the wine community had already been burbling around questions of ripeness, style, and balance in wine. IPOB 2011, then, became a kind of lightning rod for focusing a conversation that had been wanting to start.

Controversy also began almost immediately. At RN74, Parr had instituted a policy of pouring no Chardonnay or Pinot Noir above 14% alcohol. He wanted to show a lighter approach to the fruit. Though alcohol was never an overt concern in IPOB, Parr’s restaurant policy became associated with the event. Many still assume it to be the point of the tasting.

To address some of the concern, Hirsch and Parr formalized their selection process. They created a five person tasting panel of people from differing parts of the industry — a winemaker, a distributor, a sommelier, a wine writer — that together taste and blind select the wines. The pair also removed themselves from the final vote. Hirsch puts together the blind tasting from wineries that have submitted themselves for possible inclusion. Parr tastes with the panel. But the panel determines which wines will be poured at the event. Once chosen, a brand has two years as part of IPOB before it must then be blind selected again.

Tasting About Balance


Tasting Hirsch Vineyards wine

tasting Hirsch Vineyards wine in the middle of Hirsch Vineyard

In preparing to meet with Hirsch I go back over the list of wineries included in this year’s IPOB. What strikes me first is that a number of brands have received high regard from Robert Parker as well — Caldera, Hanzell, Varner, to name a few.

Parker is commonly spoken of as the champion of alcohol-driven over-ripe wines. As mentioned, one of the criticisms of IPOB has been that by “balance” they actually mean “low alcohol,” with the idea that surely the two are not so easily interchangeable. For both Parker and IPOB’s selection committee to hold the same wines in high regard, then, would appear a sort of contradiction.

The wines in the IPOB list also seem to show a diversity of styles — some are known for stem-inclusion in Pinot, while others always de-stem; several pursue only cool climate vineyard sites, while others are known from warmer regions; oak use across the list varies.

I ask Hirsch to address the question about balance and alcohol. She responds, “to reduce the conversation about balance to alcohol is incorrect. It’s just one element.” She continues, “balance seems more about intention than about style. You can have wine with a sense of place that can age really well and have alcohol at 14.5%.”

Pushing her further, she admits that people in the wine industry use alcohol as a sort of proxy for ripeness. What is going on in the grape is far more complicated — acids to tannin to physiological ripeness to alcohol balance varies by vintage — but short of tasting we sometimes guess our way into a wine through numbers.

Asking about the IPOB committee’s selection process I discover there are no formalized guidelines. Instead, Parr and Hirsch chose people whose palate they trust to recognize quality, filter flaws, and taste beyond a narrow sense of personal preference. The committee then votes on wines to be included. Hirsch admits though too that often through blind taste the committee simply recognizes a “yes.” There are moments wines just speak the ephemeral.

Jasmine Hirsch

Jasmine Hirsch in Hirsch Vineyards (I love this photo)

We move to a table near the start of the Western Ridge to taste through Hirsch Pinot Noirs. It’s a chance to push Jasmine on what it is she wants from wine, while also investigating her views on farming. She was raised, after all, on a vineyard.

Her family’s site grows primarily Pinot Noir, with just small sections, like the one we visited, of Chardonnay. We focus our conversation, then, around Pinot. Hirsch points out a simple but important point — how expensive and difficult it is to grow Pinot Noir.

Such challenge puts fine focus, Hirsch believes, on thinking about one’s intentions with wine. Hirsch is interested in asking, to put it simply, what is your goal in making wine? In working with her family’s company, her own answer to that question rests in the uniqueness of her family’s place. In the end, she agrees with a view held even by the monks of Burgundy — perhaps more than any other grape, Pinot Noir can express terroir.

I ask her, then, to describe Hirsch Vineyards. “There are so many important factors that establish the specifics of a place, elevation and proximity to ocean, for example. Here, the San Andreas fault makes a lot of soil variation and different aspects, sections of vineyard a little more or a little less sheltered.” She pauses for a moment, then continues.

“Winemakers are like translators of terroir,” she tells me. “They’re there having a conversation with the vineyard.” The relationship between farmer and winemaker proves essential too to the process. Hirsch has noticed that as the wines of Hirsch Vineyards have become more transparent, more purely expressive with less extraction or oak, her father’s farming has also improved. She explains, “in tasting the wine, he can taste what he could do differently in the vineyard.”

We return to the idea of finding “the yes” in a glass of wine. Hirsch describes for me an experience of the ephemeral. There are times, she tells me, when drinking a wine captures your full engagement — you can’t quite say what it is. “I have this sense that if I could just have one more sip, I could figure this out, but of course you won’t figure it out. It’s the ineffable.” I’m nodding as she speaks, and my mouth is watering. I can’t help but imagine such wine. “That is for me what great Pinot Noir is about. The mystery.”


In Pursuit of Balance 2014 will travel for the first second time to NYC on February 4. Tickets are still available. For more information:

IPOB 2014 will occur in San Francisco on March 10. The San Francisco event will also include two discussion panels: on vine age, and defining ripeness in Pinot Noir. Tickets are still available.  For more information:

All IPOB wineries will pour at both events.

Post edit: My mistake: IPOB 2012 occurred in NYC. It alternates years between NYC and LA but occurs every year in SF. Cheers!


Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch for hosting me.

More on Hirsch Vineyards Wines in a future post.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


Drinking in La Paulée Off-Grid, SF

Wednesday, I was lucky enough to attend the La Paulée Off-Grid tasting in San Francisco, organized by the inimitable trio, Daniel Johnnes, Patrick Cappiello, and Josiah Baldivino, and sponsored by the American Express Invitation Only program. The tasting included wines of Burgundy selected by some of San Francisco’s top sommeliers. Some favorites from San Francisco’s food scene were also present with fine foods from The Slanted Door, and Piperade, cheeses and charcuterie from Andante Dairy, and Del Monte Meat Co, and breads from Bar Tartine.

Today, La Paulée launches the program for La Paulée de San Francisco happening March 12-15, 2014. The occasion will include the celebrated Burgundy Week as well, with restaurants and shops in both NYC and San Francisco participating.

The La Paulée celebration began thanks to the work of Daniel Johnnes, a James Beard Award Winner for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional, and Wine Director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group. Johnnes started La Paulée de New York in the year 2000 out of his appreciation for the original La Paulée celebrations in Burgundy. The tradition there began as a community event bringing together winemakers, vineyard workers, and family with the wines of the region, and food of the harvest. The event has since expanded to other cities throughout the United States, with an annual rotation of San Francisco, and New York alternating hosting privileges for the large annual festival. La Paulée de New York, and de San Francisco have reached iconic status with the best sommeliers of both cities serving some of the stars of Burgundy. Robert Parker described it as “the tasting/dinner of a lifetime.”

Josiah Baldivino, Daniel Johnnes, Patrick Capiello

from left: Josiah Baldivino, Daniel Johnnes, Patrick Cappiello

The Off-Grid tasting is designed to bring to the fore the community spirit of the original La Paulée, as well as give a teaser to get people excited for the Winter festivities. Patrick Cappiello has been working with La Paulée almost since its inception, and now serves as Chef Sommelier, also helping select the rest of the sommelier team for La Paulée de New York. As Cappiello explained, With the Off-Grid tasting, “we wanted to design a more inclusive event. Burgundy can be thought of as exclusive, but there is enough Burgundy for everybody.”

Josiah Baldivino, of Michael Mina, worked with Daniel Johnnes at Bar Boulud in New York before moving to San Francisco. In focusing on the West Coast festivities, then, Johnnes and Cappiello chose Baldivino to select sommeliers. “Josiah has been a real asset. He knows the local [SF] community, and has been working with La Paulée for several years. We wanted to tap into talent here, so we’ve relied on Josiah both for his palate and his relationships with people.” Johnnes explained.

Baldivino, Johnnes, Capiello

Baldivino flashing the sign for West Coast Represent (that also confusingly looks East Coast–well played, Baldivino. Well played.) w Johnnes and Cappiello–I love the playfulness and mutual regard that shows in this photo

Towards these ends, Baldivino selected some of the best sommeliers in San Francisco to design the Off-Grid tasting. Each was assigned a region of Burgundy, including Beaujolais, and Chablis, and asked to select 10-12 bottles celebrating a more affordable price range of wines available through distribution in San Francisco.

For Baldivino, La Paulée Off-Grid has been especially fun to help organize thanks both to the enthusiasm of everyone working the event, and the selection of wines they chose. As Baldivino describes, the tasting offered wines that “are affordable, really good, and from off the beaten path. They’re wines any of us pouring would actually drink at home ourselves.” The list, then, serves as a guide to some of the best approachable, and intriguing wines of one of the most celebrated regions in the world of wine.

Stevie Stacionis

Stevie Stacionis

Stevie Stacionis, Director of Communications for Corkbuzz Wine Studio in New York City, was selected for the Off-Grid tasting as the sommelier in charge of presenting the Côte de Nuits. As part of the overall program, sommeliers were asked to choose two favorites to present in Sommelier Corner. There Stacionis discussed her appreciation for Régis Bouvier’s 2011 Marsannay, and Frédéric Magnien’s Côte de Nuits-Village 2010 Croix Violette. Listening to Stacionis, it’s clear that stories behind the people, and their regions are part of what Stacionis loves about wine.

After, I ask her to talk to me about her experience selecting wines for the event. “It was a lot of fun getting to think through how to show the range of styles and potential of the area, the Côte de Nuits.” She tells me. As part of the Côte de Or, the limestone ridge that runs through Burgundy, the Côte de Nuits is a well-known wine-producing region. She continues. “The Côte de Nuits is a region that everyone knows. It’s pretty cool to get to ask myself, how do I pick wines that are not obvious, and also pick from areas of it that are lesser known and really high quality.”

Asking Johnnes about what he most enjoys in developing La Paulée, he mentions the people involved. “It is a real honor to see how much time people put in to study these wines for a small three-hour event. It is touching to see them making that kind of commitment.”


To view the just announced La Paulee de San Francisco 2014 program:

To read up on Burgundy Week:


Thank you to Daniel Johnnes, Patrick Cappiello, and Josiah Baldivino.

Thank you to Stevie Stacionis.

Thank you to Jessica Saraniero, and Alyssa Vitrano.

Thank you to the American Express Invitation Only program.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to