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Why I’m not an ABCer


(As in “Anything But Chardonnay”)

A friend of mine recently expressed a certain, shall we say, disdain for California Chardonnay. He used terms like “fruit bomb” and “over-oaked,” the implication being that, despite all the Burgundian bells and whistles, Cali Chard doesn’t come close to an authentic bottle of the real French stuff.

I grew emotional, as I tend to do when California wine is attacked, and wanted to leap to my state’s defense. But, in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t frame the words quite the way I wanted. As a writer, not a speechifier, I remained reticent. Now that a couple days have gone by, let me try.

As in all things aesthetic, reasonable people can disagree. You say “po-tay-to” and I say “po-tah-to”. But let me get in my two cents on why I love California Chardonnay and why I think — no, make that know that it’s the state’s greatest white wine.

We know that California can grow great Chardonnay grapes, thanks to the stainless steel, unwooded style produced by wineries such as Iron Horse, Sebastiani, Toad Hollow, Silver, Pellegrini, Valley of the Moon and others. They’ve shown us how rich and flavorful the wine can be when it’s never seen a splinter of oak. With flavors running the gamut from grapes, fresh green apples and peaches to pears, pineapples and tropical fruits, what’s not to like?

Which brings us to oak.

Okay, I’m first to admit that playing with oak is like playing with matches in a gasoline refinery. It’s dangerous. There’s a definite line between a wine that’s over-oaked and one where the oak is just right. It’s hard to define, and, like I said above, different people will come to different conclusions. For me, oak has these characteristic aromas and flavors: buttered toast, vanilla and caramel. (Usually, barrel-fermented, barrel-aged Chardonnay also will have lees influence, and that plays into the picture. And Chardonnays often are put through the malolactic fermentation, which can make them buttery and creamy. But the oak notes are as I described above.)

If the wine starts off with an over-dominating smell of buttered toast, vanilla and caramel, chances are it’s over-oaked and out of balance. That doesn’t mean it has a lot of new wood or a lot of high-char wood. All it means it that the underlying Chardonnay is unable to support the weight of the wood. (This can also be because the source of the “oak” is some ersatz cheap stuff with oak-like smells.) By the same token, a massive, ripe Chardonnay can easily sustain 100 percent new oak.

The best way to put this visually is this:


Tammy Faye Bakker, rest her soul, was and forever will be the poster child for excessive makeup. (Of course, this is no reflection on her character. I liked her, or, at least, I liked the person who came through the TV screen.) But she sure did pile on the mascara, lipstick and false eyelashes, so there was something freakishly garish about her. This is how an over-oaked and, yes, fruit-bomby California Chardonnay (and there are plenty of them) tastes to me.

Then there’s a different type of look, one I think we all can agree is beautiful and classy.


Since I happen to think that buttered toast, vanilla and caramel are pretty nice flavors, I don’t mind finding them in my Chardonnays. And when you couple those with the  fruit of a properly grown Chardonnay, you’re looking at a pretty special wine. A great, oaky California Chardonnay is Sandra Bullock in a glass.

I often use the words “flamboyant” or “hedonistic” to describe Chardonnays I like. But I think I’m always careful to add something like “balanced with crisp acidity” or “with a streak of minerals” to suggest structure and firmness. Flamboyance without structure is, well, Tammy Faye. All flash, no substance. It’s a matter of taste and style. You either have it, or you don’t.

If you concede that California is capable of great Chardonnay (not everyone will, I know), then you have to admit that the greatest is going to be a ripe, oaky Chardonnay, not an unoaked one. Is that a controversial statement? I don’t think so, although I could imagine a situation wherein a very great Chardonnay is unoaked. Greg Brewer and Marimar Torres play in that sandbox. But my feeling is that, for Chardonnay to rise to its greatest heights, it needs oak.

No wine type divides wine lovers more than California Chardonnay. It’s the healthcare bill of varieties: you either love it or hate it. Nobody’s indifferent, everyone has an opinion. If you’re an ABCer, I’ll never convince you to like ripe, oaky California Chardonnay. But if it’s not California’s greatest white wine, what is?

  1. When folks start complaining about oak in CA Chard, I have to wonder if they have ever tasted the White Burgs of LeFlaive or Sauzet. I have to wonder if they ever been in the same room with a Corton Charlemagne or a hyphenated Montrachet.

    And then I wonder if they have ever tasted the Chardonnays of folks like Cuvaison or Bjornstad or Freestone or Dutton Goldfield or Marimar, which are aged in oak but have acidity that imperils the enamel on your teeth.

    How about David Ramey or HdV or Patz and Hall or Lee Hudson’s own wine?

    And then I recall a conversation I had on a trip to Europe with a writer who was an avowed ABCer? So after the list above, I said that even wines like Hobbs, Chasseur, Lewis, DuMol, Pahlmeyer, Shafer are so well-balanced that they are hardly overoaked, overripe, fruit bombs. I expected a big argument at that point when he upped and said, “I love Hobbs Chardonnay”.

    Now so do I, but it is hard to sustain an ABC argument and then tell the world that Hobbs Chardonnays are exceptions to the rule without also admitting that all of the wines named above are also “exceptions” that just happen to add up to a body of work of such depth and range that they are not really exceptions but clear proof that CA does produce Chardonnay after Chardonnay of depth, balance and precision. Are they exactly like Burgundy? No, of course not. Are they all excercises in excess? No, of course not. But try telling that to the ABCers.

  2. Steve, I give you mad props for taking a stand like that!

    Personally, my favorite Chards tend to have little or no oak treatment, so I’m not going to agree with you totally. BUT… there are certainly Chards in CA that can captivate me and are oaky, buttery, over-the-top but in a balanced way, with plenty of good acidity (good example: I was just introducing some friends to Cuvee Sauvage this past weekend – talk about amped up; but **everything’s** amped up in that wine so the balance is there).

  3. Carlos Toledo says:

    Beautiful and classy and botox…. ok, i’d waste some 30 minutes with her with or without botox.

  4. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:


    I think that you are right. CA does make great chardonnays, and this varietal has gotten a bad rep! I am a lover of chardonnays that are fruit forward with a touch of oak, so I hope this makes me Halle Berry(smile)

  5. Plus one for the Hyde De Villaine Chardonnays – they have a minerality that is faintly reminiscent of the premier cru Chablis I tend to prefer – especially the de la Guerra bottling. And I have been enamored off an on by most of Charlie’s other mentions.

    These days It strikes me that the over-oaked fruit bomb is the exception in California Chard, rather than the rule – at least in vineyard-designates. Most of the winemakers I know who are making Chard are using less new oak (if any) and many are looking for strains of malo that don’t produce diacetyl (buttery character). Or looking for grapes with very low levels of citirc acid at harvest.

    It could take another decade for California Chard to shake the image of the buttery, over-oaked fruit bomb. I have no doubt some wines will continue to be produced in that style – there is a market for them. As there is a market for the simple, cheap industrial-style Chards made with oak-staves and finished with residual sugar.

  6. We spend a lot of time beating up on the oak but is it really the oak at fault or is it the fruit? As we have mentioned here many great Burgundys are made with a fair dollop of oak and they hold up just fine as the fruit is built with acid, fruit and minerality exc… California makes some fantastic Chardonnay I agree with John the HDV wines are great but that is because they come from a great grower Larry Hyde and the fruit is something special. Pulling the oak out of chardonnay will not make it good wine if it was never good wine to begin with.

  7. The only thing I’ve learned from tasting unoaked Chardonnay is that it’s missing oak. Replacing one extreme with another (no oak for too much) is not the answer. Furthermore, having tasted Paul Hobbs’ Chardonnay, it reminded me of tasting a caramel apple at the local fair as a child…. except hold the apple and add vanilla extract.

  8. Steve I like the way you handled this article. One of the biggest problems in California is that we have the best conditions in the world for growing grapes. Our bad growing years could be presented as a “Best in a Century Vintage” in other grape growing regions. No doubt that the winemaker can create balance issues with even the best fruit, but when done right California Wines can rival any in the world. The problem is that we can create these great wines year after year, and the bar keeps being set higher for CA Wines. Maybe, if we had more bad growing seasons leaving us with some mediocre wine; then people would give a little more respect the the wines of the Golden State.

  9. “With flavors running the gamut from grapes, fresh green apples and peaches to pears, pineapples and tropical fruits, what’s not to like?”

    Little known fact among consumers reading this type of statement. Sure, Chardonnay exhibits these qualities in the biological nature and chemistry of the fruit, but it’s in the winery where the pressing occurs that these flavors are either over defined, under defined, or gotten just right.

    And, there seem to be two camps out there: Team Apple/Pear and Team Tropical. We agree, just as you suggest in regards to oaking, that balance is essential concerning fruit flavors exhibited in finished wine. Why does it have to be one or the other? Aren’t the best Chardonnays representational of California and the varietal layered, complex and ultimately balanced?

    So, low and slow pressing extracts apple and pear flavors more evident in finished wine; “oh no! I’ve brought in so much fruit today there’s no way I’ll get through it, just press it out, press it fast before it starts fermenting in that microbin” (winemaker impersonation) – THAT gets tropical….In our humble Thomson Vineyards knowledge and opinion. Thanks for continuing to support California Chardonnay Steve – we’ve got some available in 2010 that we’re looking for a home for!

  10. George Parkinson says:

    Great visuals. I’m a bit surprised nobody ever put it like that. makes me wanna’ keep lookin’ for the perfect style because like the photo’s, they are very unique and come along rarely in a life time so its important to cherish them when you have em’. That’s perfection for ya!

    as far as greatest white wine…my personal jury is still out. Prohibition took so much out of what might have happened to California viticulture and as an ex-patriot, I believe we are are still searching for some identity although closer to it than say 20 years ago.

    is chardonnay really the best thing we do in white wine? or have we spent too much effort in 1 direction?

    I remember when Bob Pepi owned his winery and he experimented with Puncheon Barrels and Napa Valley fruit; some time around the mid eighties to early nineties. slight oak, slight vanilla, slight amounts of fruit, all in all a nice approach to everything in moderaton. And he was a Sauvignon Blanc guy!

    Bottom line, we (California) are a big place and grow rich fruit the French have always envied and if they could grow it in Burgundy they would but they can’t always so they buy California land and grow it here.

    Funny how a great “vintage” year in Burgundy resembles a normal California year. Just saying. anyway, great visuals, I may never view my version of a perfect California Chardonnay the same way ever again.

  11. Thomson Vineyards, good points. I always thought tropical was more an effect of terroir, not winemaker technique. I’d be interested in learning more about this.

  12. Steve – there is an effect of site and clone in the generation of tropical notes, but vintage-specific ripeness and degree of leaf stripping are factors too. I’ve seen a contribution from yeast selection and from certain barrels. Not so sure about the rate of pressing. Have seen differences due to fruit temperature at pressing, whole-cluster vs. crushed, and how long the juice is settled and how clean it is racked before fermentation. IMHO, the biggest factor is yeast – the other choices can amplify or diminish the tropical notes.

  13. John, well there goes terroir. Or does it?

  14. When it comes to Chard, I drink Pelligrini RRV Chard. They do three different styles… SS Chard with no new oak (yum), a Chard using only older neutral oak and then a classic butterball, full ml (one I avoid). Pick your poisen and get on with it! If all else fails, drink dry Gewurzt;)

  15. Steve – I’m writing a post on terroir where I assert that the human dimension is essential. Wines may exhibit a sense of place – but the human choices that go into establishing that distinctiveness are more complicated than many want to believe.

  16. This is a very timely post for us because we have just recently become aware of the extent of the ABC attitude. You can find plenty of the examples of California Chardonnay that the ABC’ers rail against but you can find an awful lot of great Chardonnay as well. We are a new release, very small production winery and when we decided to produce a cold climate Chardonnay we hired Paul Hobbs as our consultant winemaker because he is definitely one of the Chardonnay producers who understands that this California varietal needs balance. We have always been fans of White Burgundy and we had little experience with California Chardonnay, but once we got into the business our exposure to Chardonnays like Ramey, Hobbs, DuMol and others caused an epiphany – California Chardonnays can be excellent and Chardonnay is without doubt California’s greatest white. We have therefore found ourselves on a mission to champion the good name of Chardonnay and we are winning converts. They may not be hardcore ABC’ers but they are ordinary wine drinkers who have been swayed by the bad press or maybe by an isolated bad experience. Our motto has become “try a glass and we bet you’ll finish the bottle”

  17. 16×20, agreed that Mr. Hobbs knows how to make Chardonnay!

  18. Great argument in favor of Chardonnay, Steve. You almost convinced me. I’ve got to go with Cabernet Sauvignon though. I’m probably taking external factors, such as international recognition, into account more than you are though. If there were a shootout between the states best Cabernet and its best Chardonnay glass-to-glass, it would be a very tough call.

    I went through a quite a debate with myself on this. Too many words for a comment, but I’ve posted my thoughts here:

  19. John, my formula is, when terroir meets the human factor, the result is cru. i.e., terroir + human = cru.

  20. Fred, I don’t see this as a contest between Cabernet and Chardonnay. I wrote that Chardonnay is California’s greatest white wine. In my mind, I go back and forth on California’s greatest red wine between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. It all depends on what I’m loving at the moment.

  21. I am partial to NY or Ontario Chardonnay, finding that it has better balance for food. Higher acidity and lower alcohol help this too, I think and often it is lightly oaked so the fruit isn’t overpowered. For sure there are exceptions, and I have had some fabulous California Chardonnays.

    Disclaimer – My winery is in Niagara USA (NY State)

  22. White. Missed that! I must be color blind.

    Focusing just on whites, I am in complete agreement with you. (I’m sure you’re relieved to hear that…)

  23. Fred: Now I can rest easy.

  24. Steve, Hugh Johnson believes, as you do, that Chardonnay “has forged such a close bond with oak that it is no exaggeration to say that a substantial percentage of regular wine drinkers have little idea where the flavor of Chardonnay stops and that of oak starts. The more skilled the winemaker and the better the wine, the more difficult it will be to make the distinction”.
    Moreover, to attain natural balance and structure with sharp acidity, Chardonnay favors a continental-prone climate; not only a cool climate (in fact, differently from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay seems to enjoy moderately high mean-max temperatures), but one with a shorter growing season and lower, fast-transitioning temperatures in the initial and final stages (i.e. convexity).
    I believe this is the reason why you don’t see a lot of consistently good Chardonnay in the oceanic and Mediterranean climates of the old world. And maybe with the exception of some specific areas of California, in the new world too; most parts of California, Chile, South Africa, Australia, even New Zealand’s North Island, will hardly produce great Chardonnay without a substantial winemaking effort.
    On the other hand, Washington State and Argentina-Mendoza high-altitude vineyards seem promising.

  25. Peter, I think there’s a Chardonnay zone in California that runs from warm coastal (Alexander Valley) to cool coastal (Santa Rita Hills). But anything further inland is not suitable for Chardonnay. Witness Napa Valley, especially northwest of Oakville.

  26. Steve,
    Great read and thank you. Thought provoking

    The problem isn’t with California Chardonnays. The problem is with California style Chardonnays. I find it a bit ironic that while saying that CA can make great Chards, most of the examples are from wineries that explicitly tout their Burgundian aspirations. I freely admit that I am more ABC than not, but I will, like many others of my ilk, point to several examples of great winemakers who have eschewed the trap of sacrificing the quality and true expression of the grape for back labels promising big fruitbombs in “100% new oak”. Unfortantely, the latter is the style that many associate with California.

    Interestingly, in premium Chardonnays, the marketing has started to shift as the backlash to rich, some would say over oaked Chardonnays, has been at its loudest with premium consumers. It’s gone so far that I recently read a Peter Michael marketing note comparing it’s 15.4% 2008 Cuvee Indigene to a Corton Charlemagne. In fairness, I haven’t bothered with Peter Michael Chards in over 10 years, but I don’t have to taste one to know that 15.4% is not going to be very Burgundian no matter what else you do to it, let alone stand with a Grand Cru. Sure, in youth, it may be more expressive, but in 20 years, forget it.

    One of the big hurdles for California winemakers is the general American palette and demands which prefer wines that are drinkable early with more open flavor profiles in youth. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to make a Chardonnay that you can claim will stand with top premiere and grand crus but still appease the American consumer.

    So, while I like several California Chards, I don’t go out of my way to find new ones.

  27. Nathan, I largely agree with your comment. The one proviso I’d make is that no one is claiming these big oaky California Chardonnays should age well. They’re best in their flashy, flamboyant youth. I don’t see anything wrong with that!

  28. It is time to stop talking alc levels in Chard and talk balance. We know that CA wines are not lower in alc than Burgundy. We also know that balanced CA wines, wines that do not run around proclaiming “We are Burgundy in disguise, by the way”, have long held their own in tastings with their French peers and continue to do so to this day.

    There is no magic number for alcohol. That is simply a myth. Low alcohol is down around 8.5%, and certainly there are wines in the world that come in at that level, but 13.5% is virtually indistinguishable to the palates of seasoned professionals from 14.3% if the wines are in balance.

    And 15.4% wines from Peter Michael are hardly representative of a class any more than are Martinelli wines.

  29. Couldn’t agree more, Charlie. I’ve had 13.5% wines that were hot, and 15.5% that weren’t.

    As to Nathan’s point, and to one of my favorite wine-related head-scratchers: the sense that a wine’s inherent quality is related to its ability to “age.” All wines will get older; this doesn’t mean they are going to be better at year 20 than they were at 7 or 12 or 3. This idea is a vestige of the Bordeaux model from the 1960s in which those wines legitimately needed years to open and integrate tannin…and to develp secondary flavors and aromas to make up for the lack of fruit. We are more blessed here in California (yes, I’m displaying my personal bias here…which is also where a preference for older wine squarely fits); our wines evolve too (as the anniversary of the Paris Tasting tastings show) but our wines can be thoroughly enjoyed young too. Today is guaranteed but tomorrow isn’t. I’ll take today.

  30. Not for anything, Paul Hobbs harvests his Pinot Noir at 30.5 brix. Not a joke, not liable, just the truth. How can anyone who picks at over 30 brix be considered a serious wineguy? Seriously? The info is on his website. Does anyone care that he picks complete raisins? Steve?

  31. Randy, I don’t care what Hobbs or anybody else does. I’m not gonna lose any sleep. If I like the wine, I say so. I don’t look at the statistics and decide based on that if it’s a good wine.

  32. I think you guys missed my point. The Peter Michael example is specifically pointing out the ludicrousness of comparing yourself to a top Burgundy when basic elements scream that you your wine is pretty dissimilar. I agree that alcohol percentage is no measure of quality on it’s own, but finding the balance in high alcohol wines typically means a richer style than I would associate to Burgundy. Not wrong, just different. As to age worthiness, again I agree that this is no measure of the quality of wine if not intended to age. But when someone says that their wine is comparable to a Corton, that wine better be age worthy. Otherwise, it’s just marketing.

    And to Steve, you are absolutely right that there is nothing wrong with flamboyant and flashy. I freely admit that sometimes I get a bit caught up in the France vs. Cali debate on Chardonnay and forget to enjoy Cali on its own merits. There are some very good Burgundian style Cali Chards and there are other good “I know what I am” Chards as well. It just feels sometimes that I have to wade through a lot of pretenders and over marketed hype to find them. But I appreciate your article and will revisit my stance on Chardonnay.

  33. That’s what make a horse race, Randy.

    The only thing objective about the sugar number is the number itself; it’s not invested with any “meaning.” I wouldn’t harvest Chardonnay at 30 either, but I also think unoaked Chardonnay is just a naked marketing ploy. You want white wine with no oak, that’s what Sauvignon Blanc is for.

  34. Dudes, 30.5 brix means there is no more water in the grape. AT ALL. 30.5 brix at crush = 35 brix at sugar up in tank. Mutiply this by the .62, you get a future alc of 21,7% alc!!! So he screws the growers out of weight, he adds 20-30%water back (which is illegal btw) and then de-alc the remaining 3-5%. You not giving a crap about “numbers or stats” is EXACTLY the problem with you critics. Actually, you do care about numbers steve, just not the one’s that really matter.

    You all who score this guy and others so higgh should be ashamed of yourselves.

  35. Randy, you’re tough on us critical critters. But you’re right: I don’t care about numbers, particularly, if the wine is a good example of its type and tastes good.

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