Tasting and Talking with Jasmine Hirsch
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.
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 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 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: http://inpursuitofbalance.com/#/events/new-york-2014/
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: http://inpursuitofbalance.com/#/events/san-francisco-2014/
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.
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