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Wilfred Wong, the Mondavis, and how Chardonnay got to be #1

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At the Michael Mondavi tasting the other night, Rob Mondavi, Wilfred Wong and I were tasting a Chardonnay from the Isabel Mondavi brand, when the question arose of how Chardonnay came to be the top-selling wine in America.

Between the two of us, Wilfred and I have approximately 400 trillion years of experience in wine, and so we began to offer our own explanations of this phenomenon. Rob listened to us gently correct each other, interrupt with added details, agree on a shared memory; at one point he laughingly described us as an old married couple, which I suppose most old friendships become, in the best sense.

I suggested Chardonnay’s triumph was due to a small cadre of California-based wine writers in the 1970s–Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Gerald Asher, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Nate Chroman–who told a wine-ignorant but increasingly wine-curious America what to drink and what to avoid; and when it came to white wine, it was Chardonnay, “the great white grape and wine of Burgundy” (as they used to put it), they pushed. Theirs were just about the only voices of knowledgeable wine opinion in the country; it was so unlike today’s cacophony. But, far from people resenting these “top-down” critics for their dictatorial approach, consumers were happy that someone impartial and knowledgeable was willing to teach them, and they were equally happy to buy their handbooks and subscribe to their newsletters.

Then Wilfred, with a gleam in his eye, said I’d forgotten someone very important. When I asked for a clue, he said his name started with “R.”

I racked my brain, but couldn’t recall anyone. So Wilfred had to tell me: Robert Finnigan.

I had indeed forgotten Finnigan, who died in 2011. He published one of the earliest newsletters, Robert Finnigan’s Private Wine Guide (this was well before Wine Advocate), and was hugely influential among restaurateurs and merchants. I knew Bob for a while in the 1990s, when he was perhaps a little past his prime, but still active, and certainly a pleasant, dignified San Francisco gentleman. He was running the old CMCV society in San Francisco, a marketing group sponsored by the Champagne houses that had established wineries in California. (I can’t remember what CMCV stood for; can someone help me?) Bob also was sort of the personal wine consultant for the Getty family, and it was in that connection that we were brought together. Billy and Gordon Getty had teamed up with a very young and ambitious Gavin Newsom to launch their first wine shop, PlumpJack, and Gavin asked me to join a small circle who would taste wine together, once a week for six months, in order for management to decide what wines to stock on the shelves for opening day. The whole idea was to choose only the best, so that staff could assure customers that every single bottle in the store had been hand-selected.

Well, the Big Day finally came, and PlumpJack opened their doors to the public. I wasn’t there, but about a week later, I stopped by on my way home from a tasting at nearby Fort Mason. Gavin was working the register. I asked him how things had gone, and he scowled. On the very first day, a customer had come in, told Gavin he wanted a mixed case of wine, and added that he didn’t care what the particular bottles were, so long as each had scored 90 points or higher from Parker. (This was in 1992, as I recall, maybe ’93.) After all the diligence Gavin and the rest of us had applied in personally selecting the store’s stock, Gavin’s Irish temper was–most properly–aroused.

Anyhow, Wilfred was right, and he made me apologize for forgetting Finnigan, right there in front of Rob Mondavi, which I, having no ego, was happy to do.

The point remains that Chardonnay was launched on its path to superstardom by a small group of smart, visionary writers who understood that it was the greatest white wine in California, which made it the greatest white wine in the America. And such was their power, nearly 40 years ago, that America listened to them. That was the kind of top-down, one-way conversation so loathed today by the social mediacs, and it worked. No group of writer/critics will ever approach that degree of authority, much less unanimity, in our quarrelsome times. But you know what? It’s all good.

  1. Might I add a couple of names to your list that perhaps precede your time but not mine.

    Robert Lawrence Balzer and Nathan Chroman in Los Angeles operating in the sixties and early seventies were champions of CA wine even before Finigan. Mr. Balzer wrote one of the first definitive articles on Chardonnay in which he brought together the new Chardonnay producers (Chalone, Freemark Abbey, Spring Mountain, Heitz, Chappellet, David Bruce, Mayacamas, Hanzell and Stony Hill) and demonstrated that Chardonnay had arrived.

    Also, back in that day, a couple of graduate students named Hurst Hannum and Bob Blumberg published a seminal book entitled, FINE WINES OF CALIFORNIA, 1971, in which Chardonnay, then still a baby in terms of acreage, was described as a truly great wine.

    You see, Steve, it is all a function of age. Histornians like Charles Sullivan point to the efforts of Martin Ray back in the fifties as the jumping off point for Chardonnay, while others speak of Ambassador Zellerbach’s establishment of Hanzell.

    Thanks for mentioning me. I am happy to say that it was Chardonnay, more than any other grape, that turned me into a collector. And I will further admit that it was, for me, the Balzer article, and those first efforts mentioned above that were the first wines in what later became my cellar but was, in fact, the closet of our spare bedroom.

  2. Charlie, I have the Hannum-Blumberg book which is a real curiosity. They were the first (I believe) to classify the wineries of California, an ambitious but doomed effort.

  3. Anthony Cordell says:

    CMCV = Classic Method/Classic Varieties

  4. David Sharp says:

    CMCV = Classic Methods/Classic Varietals in sparkling wine

  5. What happened to Jess Jackson and chardonnay’s popularity? I thought he did a lot to get it into people’s hands and mouths.

  6. Patrick Frank says:

    All of the above is 100% true, and worthy of rembrance. But what other white grape could it have been, back then? Chenin Blanc? Sauvignon Blanc (or Fumé as RM smartly had it)?

  7. Given the dominance (50%) of humans who can be defined as “sensitive tasters” as in sensitive to bitterness you could predict Chardonnay would be the largest selling varietal among the currently available varietal set, based on the generally acceptable flavor profile among humans.

  8. Craig Stancliff says:

    In the early 70’s, in many markets, the white grape ‘C’ word was, in fact, Chenin Blanc. Was it a wine-writer campaign that caused the shift to more Chardonnay? Today, of course, we can hardly give Chenin Blanc away.

  9. Blake Gray says:

    People interpret history the way they want to perceive it.

    Wine writers told people not long afterward that Syrah was a great grape, and we see how well that went.

    I’m sorry Steve, but I think you’re giving the media too much credit.

  10. George Ronay says:

    Wow, names from the past. Does anyone wish to include Jerry Mead and his organization W.I.N.O.s??? (Wine Investigation for Novices and Oenophiles?) He was working for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department as a dispatcher and running various chapters of his wine group around Southern California primarily. (Interestingly enough, he referred to himself as the “Wine Curmudgeon.”)

    As far as other popular wines – I remember when Wente Grey Riesling was the most popular white wine, and Charles Krug Chenin Blanc was continuously on allocation. And no one mentioned that when it was first becoming popular, it was still being called “Pinot Chardonnay.” (Which leads me to Dan Berger’s great line – a 50/50 blend of Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay which would be called Pinot Chardonnay of course….)

  11. Amen to all that Steve. Got to love a 400 trillion year odd couple!

  12. john murray says:

    Jed Steele is the reason Kendall Jackson Chardonnay is on the map !
    Americans talk dry and drink fruity to sweet.

  13. Don Clemens says:

    When I worked with Almaden/Almaden Imports in the late ’70’s, we were reminded of Frank Schoonmaker’s earlier consulting with that company. There was a time when the preeminent varietally labeled wine was Almaden’s Grenache Rose’. This was well before Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel explosion.

  14. Gotta love Wilfred, right? Thanks for sharing this great story.

  15. No question those writers had an impact, but disagree that it was that significant.

    In the 70’s I suspect that the nervous, but wine-curious newbies purchased whatever the wine store clerk handed them, and other than Chenin Blanc and Riesling, Chardonnay was the most heavily stocked white wine.

    “Chardonnay” was such a mellifluous sounding name, it rolled off the tongue with such ease and, by the way, “it was SO French,” which is where all the food and wine respect was at the time, as well as being the varietal of choice for CA producers as well.

    But most significantly, I suspect, was the low-acid, semi-sweet, tropical fruit, palate-pleasing buttery aspects that most appealed to the emerging wine enthusiats. It tasted good — real good, and was a nifty bridge from their sweet soft drinks to the new adult beverage — wine. Many of my friends are still enthralled with that profile. Drives me crazy!

  16. Tom, certainly Chardonnay’s lusciousness was the driving factor. It appealed (and still does) to America’s sweet tooth. But there had to be a way for consumers to learn about California Chardonnay before it was widely available. I would argue that the critics I mentioned had an impact, not only on consumers at large, but tastemakers: the merchants, restaurateurs and in particular the one guy in every group of friends who was wine savvy, who the others listened to.

  17. john murray, yes, you’re right, and that had a lot to do with it.

  18. George Ronay, I remember Jerry Mead. But I think his influence was limited. And you reminded me that Wente Grey Riesling was the first white wine I ever bought with the conscious intention of getting a varietal wine.

  19. Blake, perhaps. But I don’t think so. The writers didn’t hop on the Syrah bandwagon until the 1980s and 1990s, by which time the situation had changed dramatically.

  20. David Sharp, thank you!

  21. How about Mike Grgich and the Tasting of Paris?

  22. John and everybody: this is a fantastic string that records much of the history of California Chardonnay from the late 60s on!

  23. We have all forgotten that in 1960 Chardonnay was listed as Pinot Chardonnay – thanks to Almaden. It was in that year that Richard Graff at Chalone released the first ‘Chardonnay’. It was barrel fermented and barrel aged. It was as close to a Puligny Montrachet as one had ever produced in California. And, I will give someone a case of my SB if they remeber who was the printer that printed that label.

  24. That would be Finigan…one “n”.

    One should also acknowledge the contributions that both HankRubin and LeeAdams made
    to the furthering of Calif wine, not just Chard, as well.
    Tom

  25. Shawn Denkler says:

    Now I understand why Chardonnay got to be more popular than Green Hungarian (one of my favorites in college days).

  26. george kaplan says:

    Let’s not overlook that those Chardonnays and Cabernets of the 70s tasted good, and were made largely by giants, who knew their craft and weren’t following recipes. thus Mayacamas and Freemark and Bruce and Montalena Chards, and Mondavi and Heitz and BV and Ridge Cabs, were excellent , distinctive , and affordable for a generation of enophiles.

  27. Marlene Rossman says:

    Thank you for reminding me of Jerry Mead. He once gave me a great gift–a heart shaped pin that says, “kiss French, drink American.”
    He was a true “original.”

  28. Tom (Barras) writes of the circa 1970 Chards “the low-acid, semi-sweet, tropical fruit”.

    With all due respect, Mr. Barras, those wines were much more like today’s new paradigm than what you are describing. Mayacamas, Spring Mountain, Freemark Abbey, Chalone, Stony Hill wines were all around 13% alcohol with good acidity.

    What you seem to overlook, as even does Leslie Hennessy who probably knows better if he thinks about it since he has been around since then, is that there was virtually no Chardonnay in 1960. So little, in fact, that it does not register on the Grape Acreage report of that year and is, instead listed under other “red” varieties.

    We like to think that the wine boom was a product of the ’70s, and perhaps it was, but its roots go back a lot further. By 1970, there were about 1,000 acres standing–far less than Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and other whites in coastal vineyards.

    Yet, that 1,000 acres was the product of the efforts of the Zellerbach, Ray, Fred McCrea at Stony Hill and even BV and Parducci who were making Chardonnay by the end of the 1960s and had it in their vineyards.

    Did the media lead the way? Was Hank Rubin, then wine and spirits editor of Bon Appetit and San Francisco Chronicle writer, instrumental in Chardonnay’s growth or merely reporting on it. That is always the question about media. But one thing is for sure. Chardonnay’s growth was not the product of a melliflous name but the quality of its wines. Otherwise, Green Hungarian Grey Riesling and French Colombard would all still be major varieties instead of ancient history.

  29. john murray says:

    Let us not forget about Stony Hill. The epitome of great California Chardonnay ! ( Old world style , new world fruit )

  30. jonathan galin says:

    What about Jerry Mead? Lets not forget ”Mead on Wine”

  31. Gary Cowan says:

    You are forgetting one of the major players in making Chardonnay a mass market wine. Bruno Benzinger and his Glen Ellen Private Reserve Chardonnay, launched in the early 1980s rose to sales of three plus million cases by the end of the decade.
    To quote the New York Times:

    “In 1981, two years after a son, Michael, had gone to California to learn winemaking, Mr. Benzinger sold his interest in Park, Benziger and moved to Glen Ellen to join Michael in building the wine business.

    The winery, which produces varietal wines like chardonnay and cabernet to sell at moderate prices, was an instant success. By 1983 Glen Ellen was shipping at a rate of 50,000 cases annually; this year the winery will sell 3.2 million cases for gross revenue of $90 million.”

  32. Dear Gary, you’re right. Some others pointed out the same thing.

  33. Steve, it was not that Jerry Mead never met a wine he didn’t like. It was that he only spilt ink over those which he did. Jerry was quite influential if you consider consumer response a valid indicator.

    My first bottle ever was with Dan Mirassou in 1965 at the El Bonita (yes El Bonita)Motel and restaurant in Napa Valley.
    It was a still memorable, 1963 Pinot Chardonnay from Inglenook.

    Leslie, was the label maker F.P. Westprint?

  34. I love the group contributions to make sure history has that taste of soul and accuracy. And it was nice that Glen Ellen was mentioned. After all, you can’t have popularity without volume. And just for history sake, let me tell you how it started. We were bottling a “Proprietor’s Reserve White” blend of 50% chardonnay and 50% French Colombard. I was in the tiny office that Mike Benziger and I had that acted as everything, lab, administration, blending hall, etc. I got a call from Bruno, the partriarch of the family and sales department. He was on an East coast tour and was hanging out with some of his wine buddys. He ask me on the phone if I could put another 25% of Chardonnay in the “PR White” blend so we could call it Chardonnay. So I said, “Sure.” And with a thanks, Bruno signed off. I remember turning around to Mike B. and saying, “Here we go.” At the time I just sensed wind-in-the-sails, I had no idea where we would be going or that I would be sourcing and blending more Chardonnay that went into 750ml bottles than anyone in the world (for about 3 years). But that isn’t to say the most Chardonnay, that was Sebastiani in 1.5 liters. Anyway, I had a great group of growers and they are the ones that really need to be written into the story because they took a huge financial risk to materialize what might have just been chatter from writers. But Steve, you are correct, those fine writers did inform a willing and wonderful consumer.

  35. Dear Bruce Rector, thanks for sharing some of your fascinating history.

  36. graham parnell says:

    Along with all the hoopla about Chardonnay early on, in 1969, the biggest selling white wine in California was…Wente’s Green Hungarian…

  37. I agree you might be giving too much credit to the press and not enough to the brands, pioneers making the wine. Bruno Benziger needs mention as he really started the “fighting varietals” and began the trading up of the American consumer from “Chablis”. Jed/Jess, Mondavi, Beringer and a rising number of new wineries launched Chardonnays and challenged each other to an evolving wine style.
    Most importantly, if you tasted the early cheaper Chardonnays (like Glen Ellen, which was made from Coastal grapes back then), you could taste the Chardonnay varietal at every price point… And with price there was generally more oak & winemaker involvement adding flavors… Sauv Blanc on the other hand varied widely–you never new what you were getting–some to oaky, some to grassy(It typically was the winemaker’s signature wine). Chardonnay by far has a steady rise in flavor from the lower price points to trade the consumer up (and interestingly, at the highest price points, often has more “subtle” flavors, like Burgundy, rather than the richer styles of the under $20 CA brands).

    Either way, i think it was the brands that made the category and the press reported it.

  38. “Having no Ego”. . . gave me a good chuckle. Thanks Steve.

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