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The Chardonnay Symposium: afterthoughts

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At the age of 3 years, The Chardonnay Symposium, held last Saturday at Byron Winery in the beautiful Santa Maria Valley, was the best, biggest, most successful yet. It was completely sold out–not a space left for my panel. In fact, the conversation among organizers now is, where does TCS go from here? It’s no lie to say it’s the most important Chardonnay public event in California. If you think about it, it’s downright bizarre that there hasn’t been an event celebrating Chardonnay before now. After all, Chard is the most popular wine in America.

My panel was awesome: Josh Klapper [La Fenetre, sitting in for Jenne Bonaccorsi, who had a death in the family), Bob Cabral (Williams Selyem), Dieter Cronje (Presqu'ile), James Hall (Patz & Hall), Eric Johnson (Talley), Heidi von der Mehden (Arrowood), Bill Wathan (Foxen) and Graham Weerts (Stonestreet). They really got to the root of the topic: How to preserve the terroir of a great Chardonnay vineyard while applying so many winemaker interventions, like oak.

One of the winemakers on my panel -- I think it was Dieter [LATER CORRECTION: IT WAS JOSH KLAPPER] — made this analogy: you can take Wonder Bread, white, bland, tasteless, and spread it with good butter, and you’ll get the taste of the butter, but very little else because the Wonder Bread has no flavor. On the other hand, you can take a really great homemade bread, filled with fabulous goodness and flavor, spread the same butter on it, and you’ll still get the butter but also so much more. Oak is like the butter: Put it on a bland wine, and all you get is oak. Put it on a great Chardonnay, and you get the deliciousness of the butter plus the complexity of the fruit. The resulting wine is all the better for the butter.

I think the conclusion was that things like barrel fermentation and the malolactic fermentation actually enhance terroir. At any rate, the wines spoke for themselves.

One of the topics of conversation between the event’s organizers, participating wineries and me that arose repeatedly was, Why is it that younger people seem not to accept Chardonnay, or don’t like it very much, or don’t seem to be buying it? I heard this from so many people that I assume it’s true (after all, they’re closer to the wholesale/retail market than I am). Here’s what I told them, which is just a theory, because I don’t have any survey results or anything like that. I think people from, say, 18-early 30s who do like to drink alcoholic beverages don’t want to drink their parents’ wine. They want to do their own thing, and they don’t want to feel or look old-fashioned or anachronistic. This helps to account for the explosion of all these fancy, infused (and often weird) cocktails lately as well as all these obscure wines from foreign countries. Dad didn’t drink those things, but he did drink Chardonnay. When you’re 27, you don’t want do what Dad did, you want to do something he didn’t.

I understand that. That’s part of being young and finding your own tastes in life. But here’s what I say to Gen X and Y: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Chardonnay from France has been celebrated as one of the great white wines in the world for 400 or 500 years, maybe longer, in the form of white Burgundy, mainly from the Cotes de Beaune and Chablis. Multiple generations of humankind have declared Chardonnay’s greatness. So, to the extent that 27 year old says “I won’t drink Chardonnay because my mother likes it,” he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face–missing out on one of the most delicious white wines on earth, and certainly the richest dry table wine you can buy at affordable prices. When that 27 year old is 37, or 47, he’ll realize why the world has coveted this grape and wine for so long.

  1. Brian M says:

    Sorry Steve, I have to disagree with your assertion that young people don’t want to drink what their parents drank. It’s all about availability. A 27 year old has exposure to a broader range of options, whether it’s wine, beer or food, than he or she would have had 10 years ago thanks to globalization. Moreso than 20 years ago. This is not a case of misplaced rebellion. Young people are just experiencing everything that is available to them and developing their preferences. Just like I did before them and you before me.

  2. You have created a very silly caricature of Chard non-drinkers in this post. What if there are actually people that prefer (a) a fresher, more aromatic style of white wine and (b) modest prices? This is a consistent issue with the wine magazines: critics cannot conceive that *gasp* consumers have preferences that differ from what they are told is superior. Or that there is a group that is willing to pay for quality, but not the exorbitant markup imposed on ‘Veblen wines.’

    Chardonnay may be less expensive than Napa Cab or even most Pinot Noir, but the low yields and elevage techniques required to make the rich style still do not come cheap. Often times I’ve found in ‘better’ Chards a distracting burnt aroma that may well be a result of reduction rather than toasted barrels. In any case, there are myriad fresh aromatic whites like Grenache Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, Alsatian-style blends, and even the odd Viognier that often top out in price where Chard starts getting decent. Personally, I do like Chard with a degree of oak, malo and resting on the lees, but it’s not the only option out there and this middle ground between all stainless and full blown style is not easy to find.

  3. James Rego says:

    I think Brian is closer to the truth of the matter. I don’t think it has anything at all to do with the generation gap.

  4. I too think Brian has it correct on this one. Working retail for the past 16 years, (in the same store) has shown me that the only people sneering at Chardonnay or chanting the ever crusty, “Anything but Chardonnay” deal are all older people. The younger people are all about exploration, always coming in asking for something new and thanks to refrigerated shipping and savvy importers there is a plethora of options for delicious white wine now, many of them at far, far lower prices than Chardonnay.

  5. Samantha, like I wrote, I was told by many winery owners, winemakers and PR people that they perceive Chardonnay to be a hard sell to the below 35 crowd. I, personally, have no way of knowing, as I don’t work in the wholesale-retail trade. Anecdotally, from hanging around bars in San Francisco and Oakland, it does seem like folks in their 20s are more into cocktails and other white wines than Chardonnay.

  6. Greg, you’re being a little mean to me. It’s not that I can’t grasp that people would have different tastes from mine. Of course they do, in movies, clothes, lifestyles, etc. I’m just saying that Chardonnay is a very great wine and if people are rejecting it simply because it’s popular, they’re missing out on something special. You are right to point out that good Chardonnay is not inexpensive. But then, neither is good Cabernet/Bordeaux or Pinot Noir/Burgundy. You’re also right that there are many inexpensive white wines that are dry and crisp. I love them and frequently drink them.

  7. “barrel fermentation and the malolactic fermentation actually enhance terroir” …. and wearing a yarmulke makes me Jewish.

  8. Hi Steve,
    Wonderful to see you at the Symposium on Saturday, it was a great event, and I was glad we were able to celebrate Chardonnays from multiple winemaking areas.

    I wanted to make a slight correct, I think it was Josh who had mentioned the wonderbread analogy; I remember him talking about our lack or artisinal bakeries in the area.

    As one of those 25-30 year olds who shy away from Chardonnay, and knowing quite a few others who do as well, the comment reasonign I hear is the glut of the “buttery” Chardonnays in the market. I prefer a ‘crisper’ chardonnay vs. the more buttery chards that you see quite a lot on the market any more, especially in the SMV. It was wonderful to experiance such a huge expanse of winemaking styles and expertise.

    The conversation about terroir was interesting. I wish more winemakers had done what Deiter had done and actually had two wines to compare so you could see the similarities/differences, and the effects of terrioir.

    Thank you for moderating such a great event!

  9. I think younger people are willing to experiment more and maybe not as set in there ways with one varietal or another. Good Chardonnay tends to be more expensive compared to high end examples of other whites. A Sauvignon Blanc or other aromatic white just doesn’t have the barrel time, Malolactic etc. that many (not all) Chards have. Sometimes for myself as a younger consumer Chardonnay can have the sort of identity crisis that others see Syrah as having. It’s sometimes tough to pick a Chard your not familiar with and know if it’s going to be a rich buttery oak bomb or a leaner high acid crisp style and usually when you feel like one, you don’t feel like the other.

  10. I agree with the person who said that chardonnay is losing popularity because of the plethora of choices now available.

    While I am no longer in retail, I found that young people who were just discovering wine were usually much more inquisitive and open to suggestions. As a young wine nerd myself, I am much more likely to recommend a white rhone or gruner veltliner than a California Chardonnay.

    I don’t think it is just rebellion, although I do think that hits the target but not the bulls-eye. It’s like you said about weird cocktails and weird varietals – young people want something new and interesting. If there is a chardonnay renissance amongst young people, I am willing to be that Sancerre or South Africa will lead the way…

  11. excuse me, i meant chablis, not sancerre. i am sure that will set-off somebody’s radar

  12. I actually would like to talk about the event itself. Attended the panel discussion and was there well before start time and stayed to about 3pm.

    Location was absolutely breathtaking. I almost filled the camera’s memory card with pictures BEFORE the event. Volunteers and workers of the event did an amazing job. Very helpful, and super nice.

    Winemaker panel was top-notch. Enjoyed everything they had to say. Sometimes the focus of the conversation was lost (discussing price of fruit in front of other winemakers is always awkward) and some questions being glossed over, but all-in-all a very informative talk. Winemakers got geeky enough for my liking, but used their skills for those that needed some backwards compatibility. As for the panel tasting, I thought the Foxen stole the show.

    Wines that were being poured were great. Bob Lindquist (patron saint of Qupe) had the best plan and representation of chard. Bien Nacido vertical going from 2009 to 1996. With the 99 & 96 out of mags…few can do this with their library, and he consistently makes this kind of effort. Bravo.

    Some minor suggestions for CS IV:

    If at Byron (which, if I had a vote, I’d say have it there again), any way the discussion could be held inside the facility? The tent was fine, but man was in cramped. I know a few glasses were lost.

    I would LOVE to see more Santa Rita Hills representation. There were a few, but I was surprised there wasn’t more. Plus, Wes Hagen (Clos Pepe) or Ryan Zotovich (Zotovich Cellars) would be KILLER panel representatives.

    Lastly, minor housecleaning…more spit buckets and cups.

    All in all, an outstanding event, venue, and participation.

  13. Dear Phil C., thanks very much for the feedback! I will share it with the conference organizers.

  14. Samantha, you’re right, it was Josh. My poor tired brain needs a retread.

  15. Dear SUAMW: You’re not Jewish? Funny, you look Jewish!

  16. See, Steve, it’s the yarmulke….

  17. TomHill says:

    Gabe Sez:
    “I agree with the person who said that chardonnay is losing popularity because of the plethora of choices now available.”

    I find that an interesting observation, Gabe. So…..back in the early ’80′s, when Zinfandel went into a huge slump and we were then given “food wine” Zins….the reason given for that slump was the large diversity in Zinfandels in the market…Beaujolais style, bright zesty Zins, heavy-duty/intense Zins, late harvest Zins, off-dry or blatently sweet Zins, Zinfanndel Ports, Zinfandel rose, yada/yada/yada. It was all so confusing to the poor/ignorant consumer because they never knew what kind of Zin they’d get when they bought one.
    More recently, in the last several yrs; we’ve been told by numerous wine authorities (Asimov, Comiskey, Bonne, etc) that the reason Syrah is such a slug in the marketplace is because of the diversity in styles of Syrah and it leaves the poor consumer confused; never knowing what style of Syrah they’ll get when they buy one.
    So…are you asserting that if the winemakers all agreed on what style a Chard should be in Calif; then there’d be a large resurgence in interest in Chard?? If so, I would rue that day.
    But you may very well be right. It seems to work for NapaVlly Cabernet. When yet another cookie-cutter NapaVlly Cabernet comes out, made by a “name” winemaker, priced at $100 and above, 200% new oak, yada/yada/yada…..there always seems to be people wanting to buy them. Maybe, indeed, wine consumers are such a stupid bunch that they find diversity in wines (varieties, style, growing areas, etc) a threat to their comfort zone for wine. If so…that’s a sad commentary on the US wine-buying public. Gawd forbid they might try something they’ve never tried before.
    Tom

  18. Great event and really thought the winemaker choices for the panel were fantastic! Some of the photos have been posted to http://on.fb.me/N5i1Xb

    I am under the belief of younger gens not drinking Chard is a combination of aspects. As mentioned above, I do agree that younger gens are interested in experimentation….and much could be said on this topic. The mixology arena is very hot these days. In my early restaurant days I was simply a bartender.

    Secondly, I do believe that some of grandma’s $8.99 wines from the grocery store that taste like Chateau Ply-Wood, or I can’t believe it’s not butter, have left a tarnished stain that will take time to heal. The sins of our mothers have left a lasting impression on many. The younger generation of winemakers are aware of this and many lean (IMHO) towards more acid driven wines that many are appreciating (wine A from Dieter for instance).

    The analogy was made both this year and last to oak being similar to salt. I like salt on my food sometimes, but not when the cap has been unscrewed. I am under the impression from the area in general, that this practice is passe. Once the exposure of really great produced Chards gets into the 27 year olds glass, then they will have their “come to Jesus” moment.

  19. Wandering Wino, you are totally right. Grandma’s $8.99 Chardonnays usually are dreadful. I guess I’m a “snob” in that I’m suggesting that if someone (of whatever age) is willing to spring for $30 or more to drink with lobster, shrimp, tuna tartare or something like that, there are few wines on earth better than a great Chardonnay. Sure, they can buy a $10 acidic white from anywhere on earth, but with a fabulous rich food? I don’t think so.

  20. Steve, if you’re a snob than so am I. That being said, I do not think that categorically makes you a snob at all. $30 for a Santa Maria Valley, RRV, or Sta Rita Hills (not grocery store) Chardonnay is both reasonable and expected. Many of my favorite Chards however happen to come from Solomon Hills or Bien Nacido.

    Looking forward to next year!

  21. TomHill:

    The real question is are stupid consumers driving distributors/retailers to represent/sell limited diversity or are distributors/retailers keeping the consumers stupid by offering limited diversity? My experience supports the latter.

    Scott Elder
    The Grande Dalles

  22. Sin City says:

    I’ve been a bit ruff on Steve previously, and this time I agree with him on the under 35 crowd. First, note that he said he was relaying info from retailers. I am in retail, various stores in various parts of Calif. and I see young people willing to ask for whatever they read about, so if there are reviews about Xtalino or Alvarihhhhno I can sell some. It cuts into Chards market share, by maybe 10%. And if my reputation is good, I can make the initial suggestion and get good response. So, maybe another component is a better crop of us sprinkled around in retail.

    And I want to put in a plug for another annual conference, in Paso, called The Vine, sponsored by Precision Ag (PrecisionAgConsulting.com). Next year will be 5th, in March, it is a growers confab like the Unified in Sacto, but a wee bit smaller. Very well organized, great speakers (almost all have UC Davis PhD.), great vendors fair of nurseries, ferts, equip, etc., well attended, and best of all, motel rooms are under $100!!!

  23. @Scott: chicken and egg argument. Unanswerable.

  24. Here is one story from a millennial. The first wine I ever drank, well under the legal age, was a magnum of Kendall Jackson that all Mom’s had in their fridge, especially divorced ones. It was the most distasteful thing I had ever tried. From that moment on I knew I didn’t like Chardonnay. I was immediately anti-chard because of one experience. Today, very few wines can compete with a good Chardonnay in my opinion. Like Steve said, many of us ‘millennials’ from the get go were put off by what our parents drank.

  25. Steve:

    I don’t believe it’s so nebulous as “chicken or egg”. Retailers, and especially distributors, are the gatekeepers to reaching consumers. Distributors have different motives and interests compared to consumers, and what they deem as good and salable wine is likely based on a different set of metrics than what consumers would find most important.

    Scott Elder
    The Grande Dalles

  26. Michael says:

    A reply to Scott post, chicken versus egg, etc.

    It is certainly not as simple as you put it, and yes, I work for a distributor. First, I would say this: stupid is too harsh. Narrow minded? Only interested in the status quo? Something like that. I know people who only drink what they drank yesterday, same thing over and over, and not only is that the bedrock for retailers, restauranteurs, distributors AND wineries, these people are not necessarily stupid. They just have discovered what they like and stick to it. And with that there are as many status quo consumers as there are distributors as there are wine makers/winery owners.

    In my community, there are big guys like Southern, and little guys. In any given day reps are out with million case brands and 500-case production samples. There might be 100 sample bottles out in a day, and the boutique, unique, weird shit is among what is showed.

    Reaching here, but it sounds like you have not had good distributor experiences, and that could be 1) you or 2) who you choose to work with. Specifically that, rather than simply being the truth in every state, with everyone.

    2 cents.
    Michael

  27. Michael:

    My experience has been that distributors, and even boutique-y retailers, do not want to do the hand-sell work that a new, small production label requires. I have been told this directly many times. Granted, this was during and “after’ the Great Recession, and I have been told that prior to the Great Recession it was a completely different landscape.

    And I don’t think consumers are stupid, I was just playing on language others had used.

    Scott
    The Grande Dalles

  28. I wonder if anyone ever considers why chardonnay is the major white wine grape that has so much done to it in the winery?

    Could it be that the grape needs all the help it can get because on its own Chardonnay wine is rather lean/austere?

    Maybe this is why people prefer exploring other white wines, the ones with aromatics, fruit flavors, and brightness as opposed to
    so-called terroir enhancing oak and butter.

    Incidentally, terroir enhancing is quite funny. Was it meant that way?

  29. Ron Saikowski, WINE WALK Columnist says:

    Great wines will prevail, regardless of their varietal. However, just as fashions do change so do prefereances on wine preferances. however, the classics never fall out of the scene. Please give me a great Jordan Chardonnay or La Crema Chardonnay.

  30. I’m late to chime in, but nonetheless: I’ve watched The Chardonnay Symposium blossom from the ground up, literally, in just three years, to a top-notch varietal-specific weekend packed with both education and samples of some of the best California produces (although I echo Phil C: Sta. Rita Hills producers were in very short supply). While I absolutely abhor over-oaked chards, let’s face it: Someone, somewhere, loves that style. To each our own. Me: Minerality (or was that “bright acidity”?); the neighbor down the street: $7.99 big butter heavy on the tongue flab. As Bob Cabral said (to applause during the panel), and I quote (straight from my notes): “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.” (he was referring to wine writers who had dissed his style). Consumers, take heed: “Find the one (wine) that you like, and just drink wine.”

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