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Chardonnay Symposium winners tell a story



Looking at the medal winners from the International Chardonnay Symposium, I’m struck by the geographic diversity of origins of the top-ranked California Chards. They range from Napa Valley down to the Santa Maria Valley, with Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Livermore Valley, Arroyo Seco, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley inbetween. (I personally think you’d have to add Anderson Valley to the mix, although no Chardonnays from there were listed among the winners. Maybe there were no entrants.)

So from Mendocino to Santa Barbara for California’s best Chardonnays. That’s a big spread, about 375 miles. In France, we tend to think of the best Chardonnays as coming from a relatively narrow spread: Chablis down to Macon.* That’s a north-south distance of about 136 miles, but you’d obviously have to deduct most of the Cotes de Nuit from that, because it’s mainly Pinot Noir. So we have a Chardonnay terroir in coastal California that’s far bigger than the Chardonnay terroir of Burgundy.

Why is that? Examining California first, there is a true coastal terroir running along the Pacific Coast that’s obvious to anyone who regularly travels that route. Everybody knows the typical pattern: bone dry summers and autumns, warmish, sunny days and cool nights, as the maritime intrusion sweeps in dependably and bathes the land in fog. Yes, the soils differ. And yes, it is true that the further south you go the more of a change there is, especially in the quality of light. Cezanne would have loved painting the Santa Barbara mountains and coast. One senses it, also, in the softening of the air you feel as, driving from San Francisco, you hit Pismo Beach on any given summer day, then make your way southward down to Buellton. It feels different to us humans, so it must feel different to grapes, too.

But still, the terroir, in a macro way, is of one piece, and given the similarly of viticultural and enological practices nowadays, I doubt if anyone could tell the difference, on a consistent basis, between a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley and one from, say, Carneros. Stones and minerals, green apples, tropical fruits, bright acidity, the usual impact of oak and lees and malo—this is why the coast makes such fine Chardonnay.

Perhaps the Chardonnay-growing area of France would be larger if it weren’t for the French system of appellation controllée, which is so much more rigid than ours. But it is what it is; the French system tends to favor a multiplicity of varieties. Ours—not molded by centuries of precedent, nor by Napoleonic law—is market-based; and the market being what it is, has resulted in only a handful of varieties, including Chardonnay, dominating vast regions.

It is a common notion nowadays that this system is changing. Led by sommeliers, responsive to a taste among younger consumers for the new and different, a new reality supposedly is emerging, of new varieties, tinkered with by a new generation of winemakers born in the waning decades of the 20th century, willing to venture where their fathers would or could not. This new paradigm—if that is not too strong a word—has much to recommend it, but it also faces stiff opposition. There is, for example, a Chardonnay Symposium in California, but not a Tannat or an Assyrtiko Symposium. One has to be careful predicting the future of anything, much less consumer preferences in foodstuffs; but we can allow History to be our guide. History tells us two things: First, what was popular, wine-wise, 100 years ago is popular today, and secondly, once a wine region becomes dominated by certain varieties, it tends to remain planted to those varieties. The two things are, of course, related.

But, you will object, younger people are turning away from the Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs, towards other varieties, said to be fresher, lower in alcohol, crisper and more interesting. Is this true? The media makes much of this meme. But is it more than just a story? Is it really a trend? The media loves trends, and has been known—shockingly!—to manufacture new ones for its own purposes. So, while I’m sure there will be new wines and new varietals that come and go, I’m equally sure that one grape variety—Chardonnay—will always be around. And I’m proud of my state of California for doing such a magnificent job with it.

* I suppose you could argue for extending the Chardonnay region south of Macon through the Beaujolais, but I wouldn’t go that far, either geographically or qualitatively.

OrlandoRemember the Orlando Martyrs

  1. Bob Henry says:

    The winners disproportionately represent wineries from around the host city (Pismo Beach, in the Central Coast of California).

    Did the judges suffer from a regional version of so-called “cellar palate” [*] — liking the home team more than (say) North Coast California or French Chardonnay submissions?

    Who were the judges and what were their “bona fides”?

    [* ]

  2. Bob Henry says:

    “I doubt if anyone could tell the difference, on a consistent basis, between a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley and one from, say, Carneros.”

    I think there are a lot of folks who would like to take you up on that challenge.

    I encourage you to organize a whistle-stop tour, akin your recent Clone 777 Pinot Noir/West Burgundy Wine Collective trade tastings?

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Some years ago, I judged a Central Coast Chardonnay competition sponsored by the Mid-State County Fair in Paso Robles.

    Half the judges were winemakers from the region; half the judges were non-winemakers (e.g., wine merchants, restaurateurs, wine writers).

    Each judging team comprised a foursome: two winemakers and two non-winemakers.

    The two winemakers at my table (shared with a UCLA English classics professor friend) loved full malolactic “butterball turkey”/highly oaked Chards. The only style they made.

    When a non-ML / unoaked Chard presented itself at our table, the two winemakers dismissed it as a Bronze Medal caliber wine.

    The UCLA professor and I awarded it a Gold Medal — appreciating its mouthwatering green apple-like acidity, and the absence of a heavy-handed toasty vanillin bouquet.

    I asked the two local winemakers if they had much experience drinking Chablis. Had they ever visited Burgundy.

    Twin replies: “No. We drink mostly our our wines, and those of our neighbors.”

    There’s your “cellar palate.”

  4. Bob Henry says:

    From the organization’s website FAQ:

    “What is the Sommelier Chardonnay Challenge?

    “Wineries are invited to submit one wine of their choice to be tasted and judged by a team of (20) sommeliers in a blind tasting format. The competition will be held Thursday, May 12. Winners will be announced at the La Paulée Dinner and Vintners Awards Ceremony Friday night, May 13, at Greengate Ranch & Vineyard.”

    So submission bottles had to be volunteered by wineries.

    But the unscientifically drawn sample is not reflective of the larger universe of Chardonnays, either made in California, the West Coast, or around the world.

    Consequently, no general conclusions can be drawn from this competition.

    As for who ran the event, again from the website FAQ:

    “Who owns and manages The International Chardonnay Symposium?

    “It is currently owned and managed by A Full Glass Productions, Inc, who purchased the event from the Santa Maria Valley Vintners & Growers Association in 2014. …”

    I have Googled “A Full Glass Productions, Inc.” No search result.

  5. Bob,

    The California Secretary of State has a registration for “Full Glass Productions, Inc.” John King of San Luis Obispo is listed as the registered agent. Not sure if that helps you.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Thanks, Jim B.

    I found this online:

    Full Glass Productions, Inc. is a non-profit organization.

    I called the San Luis Obispo-based marketing services firm Parker Sanpei that worked on the event. They pledged to email me tomorrow a list of the sommeliers who were judges.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    And the sommelier judges were:

    Nick Nahigian – Manager, Simms Restaurants (Manhattan Beach, CA)
    Alicia Ajolo CS, CMS, Adv. WSET – Sommelier, Taste wine-beer-kitchen (Long Beach, CA)
    Paul Alexander, CS Level II – Sommelier, Sonnenalp Resort (Vail, CO)
    Courtney Olson, CS, WSET – Sommelier, Quince Restaurant (San Francisco, CA)
    Brittany Hastings — Estate Sommelier, Meadowood Napa Valley (St. Helena, CA)
    Ryan January — Spirits Buyer, Wally’s Vinoteca (Beverly Hills, CA)
    Kathleen Thomas, CMS Adv. Somm – Sommelier, Hakkasan Group (Las Vegas, NV)
    Eric Denq – Sommelier, Spago Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills, CA)
    Daniel McCullough, CS — Beverage Director/Sommelier, Oenotri Restaurant (Napa, CA)
    Christian Gourdin, CS — Strategic Account Manager, Black Knight Fine Wines and Spirits (San Francisco, CA)

    [Source: Parker Sanpei]

    W. Blake Gray attended the International Chardonnay Symposium, and wrote up his disappointing experience on his blog:

    (Blake’s conclusion: “This year’s symposium didn’t inspire me to want to attend next year …”

    Fellow wine reviewer and occasional commentor to Steve’s blog — William (“Prince of Pinots”) Gaffney, M.D. — contributed this [excerpted] comment to Blake’s piece:

    “Describing regional differences in Chardonnay is challenging because you are dealing with multiple Wente selections on different rootstocks of varying age vs multiple Dijon clones, wide differences in harvest Brix, vinification and a number of other factors.

    “Chardonnay is not a particularly terroir driven variety and is very adaptable to many climats unlike Pinot Noir. Heck, you can grow Chardonnay in a parking lot in Fresno.

    “Warmer regions like the Russian River Valley exhibit more ripe and luscious fruit and tropical fruit flavors, cooler regions like Santa Cruz Mountains and Sonoma Coast are more austere, citrus and acid driven and more “minerally” for want of a better word. …”

    Emboldened by Rusty’s words, I’ll take that tasting challenge tasked with discerning Carneros Chards from Santa Maria Valley Chards.

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