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Announcing the first Chardonnay Symposium

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Here in California, Pinot Noir has one (World of Pinot Noir). Zinfandel has one (ZAP). The Rhône varieties have one (Hospice du Rhône). Sauvignon Blanc has one (International Symposium on Sauvignon Blanc). Petite Sirah has one (Petite Sirah Symposium). Maybe other varieties do too. I don’t think Cabernet Sauvignon does, but then, can you imagine a Cabernet Symposium? Too politically bizarre to contemplate.

Anyhow, now Chardonnay — America’s favorite white wine — is about to have its very own public event. The Chardonnay Symposium. About time.

What took so long? “We went through this ABC [anything but Chardonnay] period. Chardonnay people were looking at Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc,” i.e. almost anything other than Chardonnay, says one of the Symposium’s sponsors, Nicholas Miller, of Bien Nacido Vineyard. But “a renewed interest in Chardonnay,” he adds, prompted him and his colleagues to start the symposium now.

The one-day event is slated for Sat. July 31, in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County, with tastings, seminars, food pairings and of course a great big lunch. The various venues are at Bien Nacido, Cambria Winery, Byron Winery and Tres Hermanas Winery.

I would have loved to go, and they invited me, but alas, something more important conflicts with the date: our annual Summer Editorial Meeting at Wine Enthusiast. If it weren’t for that, I’d be high-tailing it south to hear such esteemed Chardonnay producers as the Symposium will present. Not to single out or exclude anyone, but they include people with last names such as Pisoni, Ullom, Hyde, Talley, Volk, Sanford, Tolmach and Clendenen.

Chardonnay is my favorite California white wine (excluding sparking) and it’s about time somebody devoted a big event to it. True, the geographic focus is mainly the Central Coast, with most of the speakers and participating wineries hailing from there; but then, this is the event’s first year, and you have to start someplace. When World of Pinot Noir began, what– 10 years ago? — I was there (Wine Enthusiast has been a sponsor from day one), and it was almost totally a Central Coast affair. The organizers tried to reach out to the North Coast, but it was hard. Wineries have so many opportunities to participate in so many events that they have to be selective. You not only have to pay to play, you have to open a lot of expensive bottles. And then there are travel and lodging costs, not to mention time away from your real job in the winery. It took some years for WOPN to attract a critical mass of North Coast wineries, not to mention vintners from overseas. Now, WOPN is a huge success.

Nicholas Miller envisions similar growth for the Chardonnay Symposium. “My hope is that, as people see what we’re doing, it will become like a Hospice du Rhône or a WOPN. They’ll see the success of it in future years, and we’ll get more interest from the North Coast.” So [this is Steve to North Coast producers]: keep your eyes on this one.

One tactical drawback I can see for the Chardonnay Symposium is that there’s a near total absence of nice places to stay in the Santa Maria Valley. At WOPN, most people stay at The Cliffs or at nearby resorts. It’s all very convenient. You never have to drive anywhere for the entire three days, and it’s nice to be able to duck away from a grand tasting or inbetween seminars and go to your room to freshen up or rest. By contrast, guests at the Chardonnay Symposium will be on the road all day, at the mercy of shuttle buses. They’ll also be mostly outdoors, which is always risky. It won’t rain at that time of the year, of course, but it could be cold and foggy. Or there could be a heat wave. It’s summer along the California coast; you never know. But then, the Chardonnay Symposium is beginning only as a one-day event.

Here’s what I hope some of the panels focus on.

- the role of oak. How much is too much? Can we wean the public away from their addiction to thick, clumsy oak, which they often think is the actual smell and taste of Chardonnay?

- malolactic fermentation. When is it justified? Are California vintners moving away from it? Why did they become so reliant on it to begin with?

- unoaked Chardonnay. Need it always be only a simple, inexpensive wine? Is it possible to craft an unoaked Chardonnay of great nuance and style?

I’m sure there are lots of other issues, but those are three good ones to address.

You’ll find information on the Chardonnay Symposium here.

  1. Petite Sirah Symposium is July 27th this year. It’s our 8th Annual. ;^)

  2. I have great memories of my experiences at the “Focus on Chardonnay” events at Sonoma-Cutrer back in the day. That was 15 years ago and we were very pointedly addressing the same questions you raise above. “…plus ce la meme chose.” Enjoy Seattle.

  3. Steve, thanks for the writeup! We’re excited to showcase some of the best Chardonnays in the state this July. There’s a reason why Chardonnay is the most widely planted and produced variety in the world; we can’t wait to celebrate it!

  4. Jo: OMG I am totally embarrassed. Will update blog immediately!

  5. On Nicholas’ comment – Is there really a renewed interest in CA Chard? I would say ABC is still growing stronger (unfortunately)…

    A Chard event is a great idea (It sounds much more palatable than a high-octane Zin event, and more tongue tolerable than a long, razory SB event). I’d like to see one in the Bay area…

    Throwing out discussion topics- Skin contact

  6. Hardy, I don’t agree that ABC is getting stronger. Maybe among certain elitists but not the public. That doesn’t mean people aren’t embracing other white table wines. But it’s hardly some kind of angry ABC movement.

  7. The amount of people I’ve seen in the past 10 months that won’t try Chard is getting larger… They aren’t elitists, they are everyday drinkers that are treating it like white Merlot.

    If anything the elitists, seem to be rediscovering chard, but many from a whole different crew of producers…

  8. Hardy, guess we’ll see!

  9. Thanks for the mention, Steve! The good news about accommodations is that we have a few new places to stay if you’re not keen on the long-standing establishments. Many Santa Maria hotels have had multi-million dollar renovations in the last year.

    We’re getting more wineries from the north (and even inquires from WA and Oregon). As Steve said, this is the first year so we’re just getting the word out. We actually didn’t fully commit to the event until January (despite planning it). Once we saw the enthusiastic responses from consumers and trade we decide to go for it and grow the event even more next year. However, for a first year event it’s pretty mind-blowing who we have speaking and pouring.

    I’m really excited about the event and I agree that it is a very palatable wine–it will take much longer for one’s palate to fatigue compared to reds (although we love those, too).

  10. Mia Malm says:

    Hi Steve, actually the Oakville Winegrowers have an International Cabernet Symposium slated for the end of June. More info here: http://ics.oakvillewinegrowers.com/ics_reg.html

  11. Mia, thanks for the update.

  12. Kady, I think this event could be a keeper.

  13. Good for those involved and good for SBC. I think SBC Chardonnay is some of the brightest and most expressive Chardonnay being made in CA, I think it’s cool to see those involved trying to spearhead a Chardonnay resurgence (as if it were ever really down).

  14. Sherman says:

    With regard to your question re: unoaked Chard being simple and inexpensive wines, I would submit Mer Soleil Silver from the Wagner bunch. Aged in concrete, it gives a rich and creamy mouthfeel without oak overriding the fruit. While not cheap at MSRP of approx. $35, I have purchased it as of late at Costco right at $20 per bottle.

  15. Actually, Chardonnay isn’t just America’s favorite white wine. It’s still the favorite wine overall.

  16. Following up on Sherman’s remark, “inexpensive” is a relative thing, isn’t it? A cheap wine can be delicious, an expensive wine can be awful. After reviewing some seventy unoaked Chardonnays (and counting), we’ve found that price has zero to do with the flavor and enjoyment of a wine. What’s good is good, is our observation, and there are plenty that are great with both nuance and style.

    At the symposium, if someone (everyone) would please mention to producers during the panel discussions that they put the unoaked, oak-free, inox, oakless status of any wine right on the front label, well, that would make shopping MUCH easier. — Regards

  17. Lisa Mattson says:

    If the Chardonnay Symposium wants to gain more credibility in an already overcrowded wine event space, its organizers (I hope) will be making an effort over the next month to get wineries involved outside of Santa Barbara County. With the existing line up, besides HdV, the event seems more like a regional SBCCS. Where’s Flowers? All the other Sonoma Coast faves? Kistler? Ramey? And the other amazing Chards of RRV? Ponzi in Oregon? Leflaive or even William Fevre from Burgundy? I know they have to start somewhere, but having one region’s winemakers discuss the topics you propose would make it difficult to create the kind of comprehensive symposium this grape demands. All regions should unite to discuss! :) I also think hosting it in March near La Paulee (close to WOPN though) would help get great vignerons involved. I couldn’t tell by their website if they are seeking additional winerie. and panelists but sent an email to inquire.

  18. Lisa, the organizers did their best. I’m sure that more North Coast wineries will get involved. Maybe this exposure on my blog will help!

  19. I’ve been finding that the years of trauma from ubiquitous overblown Chardonnay is real. Every where I go I’m greeted by wine drinkers, people who sip and enjoy wine, with – “No thank you, I don’t really like Chardonnay.” They aren’t ABCers because it’s a fad or a movement; it’s because they have a Pavlovian aversion to trying yet another oak-sickle. We are bringing these folks back into the Chardonnay fold, one taster at a time, by showing them how delicious well balanced Chardonnay can be. I’m very excited to hear about this Chardonnay Symposium and I am anxious to see what an organized effort can do to help introduce everyday wine drinkers to some fabulous wines that will forever change their minds. The time for this is perfect.

  20. Lisa Mattson says:

    Absolutely, Steve. I’m glad you wrote about it to raise awareness outside of SBC. They already responded to my inquiry and told me only pouring opportunities are available.

  21. Lisa–we’ll have more speaker opportunities in the future. We just already filled up our panels right away (a necessity when planning a first-time event). Our goal is to truly make this an event for Chardonnay around the world. We just had to start somewhere so this year there will be more SBC wineries. However, check out our current list–we’re continually adding a lot more wineries from northern areas.

    Lisa–we can use your help if you’d like to help us get more Northern CA wineries involved. Send me an email and I’ll get you the information to help us distribute. We’re a small operation and, as Steve said, are doing our best for the first year. It’s already an incredible event and will continue to improve yearly. With your help in promoting the event we’ll be able to increase our funds and expand the event to include more educational events for all of the Chardonnay regions around the world.

    Meg–I hope you can attend!

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