We all know that Chardonnay is the leading wine grape in California, in terms of both acreage and sales, right? So tell me, did planted acreage go up or down last year?
Answer: Down. After hitting an all-time high of 94,854 acres in 2013, acreage dropped to 94,279 in 2014, a reduction of 575 acres. That’s not very much, but it’s a reduction nonetheless, and calls for further analysis. So let’s turn to individual coastal counties—Chardonnay’s premium home—for a closer look.
The two counties with the highest concentrations of Chardonnay grapes, Monterey and Sonomoa, together accounted for about half of the total loss: 226 acres between the two of them. Throw in Mendocino, Napa and Santa Barbara—all down—and it adds up to almost the entire statewide loss. So why are these prime coastal counties retreating from Chardonnay?
Well, grape growers are in the unique position of having to understand where the market is going five, ten years down the road. Growers don’t like surprises: they were caught with their pants down when Moscato unaccountably exploded, and they had to rush to catch up. (In 2007, there were only 101 acres planted statewide of the leading forms of Moscato: Moscato Gaillo, Muscat Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Orange. By 2014, there were 8,414 acres, an increase of more than 8,000 percent.) Many must be the conversations around growers’ tables concerning what consumers will be drinking in the year 2020; we have to conclude, given the reduction of coastal Chardonnay, however slight, that the conclusion is that people will be drinking less Chardonnay.
And more of…what? Well, presuming that they will still want white wine, what could it be? Statewide planted acreage of Sauvignon Blanc also was down this year from last year, suggesting growers don’t particularly believe in its future. Pinot Gris, on the other hand, was up—way up in acreage, 9.1% last year, and a whopping 80% more than in 2006. If Pinot Gris was on the futures market, someone would have made a bundle had they bet on it nine years ago.
Pinot Gris now is the third most widely-planted major white wine variety in California, behind only Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (not counting the inferior French Columbard, a staple of jug wines), and is only 1,701 acres behind Sauv Blanc; at the current rate, Pinot Gris will actually surpass Sauvignon Blanc in a few years. Of its statewide total of 15,009 acres, 1,930 acres, or about 7.8%, are non-bearing—that is, they’ve been planted but are too young to bear fruit. That represents a hopeful belief on growers’ part.
But wait, there’s more. Where are these growers planting all that Pinot Gris? On the coast, where it makes the best wine? Nope. In the interior valleys, Sacramento and San Joaquin, which account for 1,866 acres of those 1,930 acres of non-bearing grapes. I believe that we’re going to be seeing an increasing amount of inexpensive California-appellation Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio on store shelves and in family-style restaurants in the coming years.
And why not? Since the Great Recession Americans have been more budget-minded than in many years. Even here in booming San Francisco, where the streets sometimes seem like they’re paved in gold, the San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday on a “post-recession chill on holiday sales”; retailers “hope they can grow sales…in the low single-digits,” if, in fact, they can grow sales at all. The article quoted a retail expert: “There will be no surprise boost in spending [this holiday season]. Retailers are just grabbing market share at the expense of someone else.”
Simply put, consumers just don’t have as much money as they used to, a situation that may turn out to be the new normal for years to come. So, with Chardonnay averaging $860.00 per ton of grapes in California, and Pinot Gris averaging $580.30, it’s obvious wineries can sell a bottle of Pinot Gris a lot more cheaply than a bottle of Chardonnay. And that, in the new economy, makes all the difference.
I have to say the results were mixed in this latest tasting, which we did on Friday. All the wines were tasted blind. Several were stunning; most were delicious despite imperfections; a few were just average.
These hills and valleys, west of Buellton, are of course famous for running on an east-west orientation, allowing the cool maritime air to funnel in over the vineyards, so that, despite being at quite a southerly latitude—about the same as parts of Algeria and Tunisia—the climate is cool. The average water temperature in the Pacific in these parts is only in the low 60s, and the average high temperature in Lompoc, where the winds come from, in July is a measly 72 degrees, cooler even than in Burgundy.
The soils are variable: the appellation is not particularly large (30,720 acres), but spans two separate hill ranges and the valleys between them, making for differences in exposure and wind patterns, although it can be said that a fair amount of limestone makes the soils somewhat unique for California. This limestone can add a tang of minerality, especially to the white wines.
All of the wines were current releases, 2012s and 2013s. I bought most of them direct from the winery. The wines were poured about 90 minutes prior to the tasting, which enabled them to lose a bit of their chill, and breathe.
My top-scoring wine, at 96 points, was the Longoria 2013 Fe Ciega (13.5%, $50), a marvelous wine that only got better in the glass. So delicately structured, with such finesse, brilliant acidity, perfect integration of oak (only 18% new) and with bracing minerality. The vineyard of course is Richard Longoria’s own, located in the cooler, western end of the AVA. This is Richard’s first bottling of Fe Ciega Chardonnay, and what a stunning debut it is, an utterly captivating, first-class Chardonnay.
Close on its heels—nipping, you might say—was the Liquid Farm 2013 “Four” (14.2%, $74). This is a blend of four vineyards (Rita’s Crown, Clos Pepe, Kessler-Haak and Radian) and is the winery’s most expensive Chardonnay. I gave it 94 points for its ripe flamboyance, chalky-minerally mouthfeel and superb peach, pineapple and nectarine fruit. “Very fine, dry, will age, “ I wrote.
Not far behind that was veteran Babcock, in the form of the 2013 “Top Cream” (14.5%, $45). At 93 points, it’s a big wine, flooded with apricots, pineapples, buttered toast and honey. All that volume could be a catastrophe, but Brian pulled this off with distinction. “Top Cream” refers to the layer of gravely loam in which the vines grow, although the wine itself is also creamy rich.
I also loved the Sanford 2012 Rinconada (14.5%, $45), which I gave 92 points. Although Richard Sanford long ago lost his eponymous winery, the fine Rinconada vineyard, which he planted in 1995 adjacent to the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, in the southernmost hills of the appellation, continues to produce glorious wine. The perfume on this—pineapples, peaches, buttered toast, cinnamon—is alluring, while the wine itself turns citrusy and delicate, an “intellectual” Chardonnay, I wrote.
I liked the least expensive wine in our flight, the Kessler-Haak (14.6%, $29) enough to give it 91 points. It came immediately following the magnificent Longoria, and although made in a total different style—riper, bigger—it hardly suffered in comparison. Tiers of pear drop, white flowers, banana cream pie and butterscotch, and the complexity was fine.
After these five 90-plus wines we come to the 2012 Sandhi (12.8%, $36), low in alcohol as you’d expect, which I gave 89 points. I found myself lowering the score as the wine aired, because its initial impression, with a muted arom, lots of tart acidity and a certain thinness, never went away. In fact, since I had a “mystery” ringer in the flight, I wondered if this were the white Burgundy I’d snuck in. I settled on 89 points because it was elegant and “a food wine,” but it was really outclassed in richness by some of the other wines.
Just one point below the Sandhi, at 88 points, was the Bonaccorsi 2013 Melville (12.8%, $40). I liked it quite a bit, finding it “brimming with honey, tropical fruits, smoke and buttered toast,” but there was some peach-pit bitterness throughout that lowered the score.
Then we come to an 87 pointer. Sanguis is a label I’ve been acquainted with since meeting Matthias Pippig years ago. The wines seem somewhat modeled after Sine Qua Non. The reds can be spectacular, the whites exotic. This 2012 “Loner” (13.8%, $60) is 100% Bien Nacido Chardonnay, which means it is NOT Santa Rita Hills, but Santa Maria Valley, an AVA that’s right next door, and with a similar climate. It was included in the tasting due to a miscommunication with the winery. The first thing I wrote on tasting was “Ripe, California style,” packed with guavas and pineapple jam. My score of 87 was a difficult one for me to settle on. At various points the wine seemed oxidized, maybe even bretty; then, a few moments later it recovered its poise, then lost it, then regained it. Sometimes you get a wine you just aren’t sure how to deal with. This was one of those.
At 86 points was my “mystery” wine, a 2011 Meursault from Pascal Marchand. The vintage was by all accounts a good one but I must say this wine did not please me. Perhaps it’s my California palate. From the get-go I found it oaky, and the acidity was, I wrote, “brutal, almost sour.”
Eighty-six points was the best I could do for the Brewer-Clifton 2013 Hapgood (14.7%, $70). It was a bit hot in alcohol, although it did offer a great big mouthful of pineapples, peaches, lemons and minerals. I had started off giving it a higher score, but as the wine warmed in the glass the alcohol really showed through. Parker loved this wine, by the way. He called the winery’s 2013s “a significant change in style,” being “more exuberant…and ripe,” but in my opinion, this change, if in fact it occurred, was not favorable.
We also had the Brewer-Clifton 2013 “3D” (14.0%, $75), at 86 points another disappointment, although Parker loved it too. I wrote “disjointed” as soon as I smelled it; another taster called it “hostile.” It just seemed harsh and over-oaked.
Also scoring 85 points was the 2012 Sea Smoke “Streamside” (14.9%, $90). After the first whiff I wrote “Ripe, fleshy, maybe some brett.” It had solid pineapple and grilled oak flavors, but there was “something off” that made it clumsy and let the oak show through. It had sort of a sweet-and-sour Chinese sauce flavor. I think the main problem was the alcohol level. I realize this is a shockingly low score for this wine. Most critics were kinder. But you have to go with your impressions, and in a blind comparative flight like this one, I trust mine.
There long has been a lot of Sturm und Drang about an “anything but Chardonnay” movement, but it was all talk and no action. As usual, elite “gatekeepers” pronounced Chardonnay passé (and felt all the more elite for doing so); meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Americans, apparently not having gotten the memo, continued to love Chardonnay. It never “went” anywhere, so how can it “come back”?
Well, it has, according to this article, from the drinks business, that says “consumers are getting into [Chardonnay] all over again”—at least down in Australia, with “the Chinese” poised to “go wild” for it “in time.”
In this country, if grape growers thought that Chardonnay was a dying variety, they wouldn’t continue to grow it. While it’s true that, between the years 2004-2013, Chardonnay increased only very modestly in acreage in California, at least it increased (unlike Merlot and Zinfandel). It’s still the top-selling wine in this country, red or white. So can we please begin looking at Chardonnay for what it really is—a noble variety that’s being made better and better all the time, not as buttery, oaky and sweet as it used to be, but much more balanced? Take it from me: You don’t have to be ashamed for loving Chardonnay anymore, because—it’s baaak!
And speaking of Chardonnay, one of my faithful readers, who read this post from last week, sent in the following comment:
You mentioned that Boomers saw the cultural “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.
Many young wine drinkers see the wine “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.
- The way establishment wine writers view the wines of “The Other 47 States.”
- The Hegemony of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
- The bias against pink wines as ‘not-serious.’
Well, let me address each of those. I suppose it is true that “establishment wine writers” view the wines of the other 47 states (presumably, California, Oregon and Washington being the exceptions) as in a lesser light. How could it be otherwise? California wine, in particular, has dominated the national scene (and the quality scene) for, like, forever! But I, myself, am acutely aware that I’ve never had the privilege of tasting wines from about 44 of the 50 states, so I would never presume to say they’re not as good as ours. But if you think about it, a wine writer has to make a living: and there are multiple reasons why the wines of other states get overlooked. One is it’s hard to get tasting samples. Another is it’s hard to find outlets to write about them (you can write an article but if a reputable magazine won’t publish it, what’s the point?). If I write an article on “Napa Valley Cult Cabernet” a lot of people are going to want to read it. If I write an article on “The Tempranillos of Tennessee,” I doubt if anyone would even click open the link. So you need an audience and, in the case of most U.S. wine, there just isn’t one for most of the wines of the other states except for places like OR, WA, NY, VA and a few others (although that is changing). Cold, hard fact.
The Hegemony of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Well, this is a true accusation, and it’s one I’ve bemoaned in the past. Still, the truth is the truth: These are America’s top varieties. The customer is never wrong. Cab and Chard also are two of the world’s “noble” varieties and while we can argue about what that means, one thing I think we can all agree on is that Cabernet (whether you like it or not) is one of the world’s greatest red wine grapes and wines, and Chardonnay (ditto) one of the greatest white grapes and wines. So, again, articles and reviews concerning Cab and Chard are simply of more inherent interest than they are for many other varieties.
The bias against pink wines. Look, pink wine—rosé—has had more favorable press in the media over the past few years than any other wine type! “Brosés” are all the rage; blush wine is everywhere! So you can’t say pink wine isn’t getting its fair share of publicity. Now, is pink wine “serious”? What do you mean by “serious”? It doesn’t fetch the price of luxury reds or whites, but then pink wine is often saignée wine, or made from younger or lesser quality grapes, so it’s not meant to be “serious.” What it is meant to be is seriously good and easy to drink and with the right foods, the best possible wine. So I’m not a rosé basher, and neither is any other reputable critic I know. Would the other critics give a rosé 99 or 100 points? Probably not. You can make a case they should, but if you were a critic using the 100-point system (or puffs, or stars, or letter grades, whatever) you probably wouldn’t give a rosé your highest rating, either. In wine reviewing, there have to be standards: wine is not like the children of Lake Wobegon, where they’re all above average. Some wines are average, some are below average, some are above average and some are way, way above average, “average” being an abstract quality tier that exists in the wine writer’s mind. Rosé in my experience is never “way, way above average.” I admit I haven’t reviewed a lot in my years (maybe 1,000 or so), but I can’t actually recall a single one that blew me away—the way I can for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or various European wines.
Anyhow, it’s very easy to knock wine writers if you’re not one!
I blogged the other day about price points in California Chardonnay, and how the best scores that inexpensive ones seem to be able to get is in the mid-80s, maybe the high 80s and, very occasionally, a 90 pointer. Then one of my readers sent in the following comment.
Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.
This is a clever argument; one might even call it sophistic. It’s basically a version of “the customer is always right” or—in another era—“Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” It suggests that the fact that so many consumers love inexpensive Chardonnay means that inexpensive Chard is actually better than expensive Chard, or at least deserves a higher score.
Well, the obvious thing for me—a former wine critic—to say is, Nonsense. The millions of Americans who enjoy these inexpensive Chardonnays don’t have the experience we critics do. They [the consumers] don’t understand fine wine; they drink inexpensive stuff; like somebody dressing in clothes from Target, they think it’s high-end. (No disrespect to Target!) But as soon as I write those words I realize how wrong they are. It’s not that consumers prefer inexpensive wines to expensive ones, it’s that they can’t afford expensive wines, at least on an everyday basis. So it’s a little cray-cray to say “the biggest sellers deserve a higher score.” In fact, based on my experience, when I offer a “regular” consumer a high-quality expensive Chardonnay (or Cab, or Pinot, whatever), they invariably appreciate its Wow! factor, and understand that it’s better than their $10 bottle.
But before I entirely dismiss the reader’s comment, he did make a point worth considering, and that was “maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like.” Well, what should wine “really taste like”? Darned if I know! I suppose there are critics out there who “know” what St. Joseph or Barolo or Napa Valley Cabernet “should taste like,” but what does that mean when people are breaking the rules all over the place? And why should anyone care if a critic says something doesn’t taste the way it should (or the way he thinks it should) if in fact it’s delicious? What this all comes down to is, Do we judge wines by popularity, or by critical consensus? I would think the latter, especially as the price ascends. But if you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing here for the last seven years, you know that there’s no such thing as “critical consensus,” so we’re really in the dark. If I were to write a third wine book (and I won’t), it would be on this precise topic: varietal character, typicity and quality.
Why, exactly, is one wine 87 and another 97? You readers—consumers—deserve an explanation. Is it enough to trust the critic? In what other areas of your life do you turn over your decision-making to third parties? Your 401(k) advisor? ROTFLOL.
What does this all mean? I have a feeling wine criticism and reviewing is changing in profound ways, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. “Through a glass darkly” and all that. It’s related to demographic changes in America, mostly among Millennials and the generation coming up behind them, who seem to be increasingly fractionalized, tribalized, peer-group-ized, and impervious to authority. I wish I had a crystal ball.
I did a little experiment yesterday. Went down to the local BevMo, got six inexpensive ($10-$15) current release Chardonnays and tasted them, blind, along with a far more expensive one, also blind: the $75 Liquid Farm “Four” Chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills.
First, the Liquid Farm review: A very rich wine, with strong, inviting aromas of golden apricot jam, tropical fruits, tangerines, honey and buttered toast. There may be a touch of botrytis that adds to the opulence, but the finish is dry. Crisp acidity, nice minerality, creamy smooth, a balanced and complex wine with tremendous concentration. Score: 92.
Then we move onto the six inexpensive wines, which I will not identify except to say that all are among the biggest Chardonnay sellers in the country, as measured by IRI. They are familiar presences on supermarket shelves, so when it is said that Chardonnay is the top-selling wine in America, these are the brands that are helping to make it happen. (For the record, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, which is by far the number one Chardonnay in the country, was not in my tasting.)
What I found in just about all of the inexpensive Chardonnays was that they were marked by excessive oak. Some of the wines weren’t particularly fruity—had possibly been overcropped, so that the actual wine itself had the aroma and flavor of water, or watered down fruit juice (although, oddly, some of the wines were overripe). But then, it also is commonly said that lots of Chardonnay drinkers believe that oaky, buttery, smoke and vanilla flavors come from the Chardonnay grape, and not the oak regimen (one hesitates to say “barrels,” for some of these wines may never have seen the inside of an actual oak barrel).
Then too, some of the wines seemed to have residual sugar. There is a vast difference between the honeyed richness of the Liquid Farm, which is opulent but not insipid, and the white-sugary sweetness of cheap Chardonnay—not that a little R.S. can’t help Chardonnay, but it has to be balanced. Crisp acidity can help to balance out residual sugar, but in most of the inexpensive wines the malolactic fermentation was dominant; the buttered popcorn smell and taste added to the impression of movie-theatre candy. There was one wine, from the Central Coast, that retails for $15 and that rose above the other five inexpensive Chards; I think the reason was because it comes from a very cool region and possessed a varietal purity that made it a particularly good deal. You can grow very fine Chardonnay in warmer places—Alexander Valley is a good example—but you have to limit your crop and pick the grapes at precisely the right moment. It’s far easier to grow it in a chilly place, in a good year with long hangtime, as our recent vintages have been.
In the end, Chardonnay, being a “noble” variety, can rise to its peak expectations only in the same way that other noble varieties can: through growing in the most exquisite terroir, limiting yields and being vinified in an exacting way. The inexpensive Chards in my tasting certainly represent a triumph of American viticulture and winemaking in the sense that millions of cases of them can be produced, vintage after vintage, in a way that is acceptable and even loved by millions of Americans, so that if I score them (as I mostly did) in the 85-86 point range, that is not an insult but a compliment, especially given the prices. But the Liquid Farm (a blend of four top Santa Rita Hills vineyards, hence the designation “Four”), which is a very typical 92-point Chardonnay, shows how the essential element of balanced concentration lifts a wine out of the mid-80s doldrums. Whether a 92-point California Chardonnay is worth $75 the bottle is, of course, an entirely different question.
It has been terribly sad, for a veteran wine guy like me, to witness the trials and tribulations of Chalone Vineyard over the years. When I first got into this racket, in the late 1970s, Chalone was respected as one of the pioneering Pinot Noir houses in California. Bob Thompson, in 1980, gave it four stars—his highest ranking—and said the “splendidly isolated winery…under direction of Richard Graff” was producing “one of California’s closest challengers to red Burgundy.” That same year, Olken, Singer and Roby, in The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wine, praised this “much revered winery” whose “best [wine] continues to be superb.” Even fifteen years later (1995), Jim Laube, in California Wine, was praising Chalone’s Pinot Noirs as “great wines, capable of long aging,” but a hint of critical negativity was beginning to creep in: the wines, Jim added, “are also austere and often tannic to a fault.” The cracks in Chalone’s reputation were showing.
That accorded with my own experiences of the wines; the highest score I was ever able to give a Chalone Pinot Noir was 90 points, for the 2004, although I always found the Chardonnays richer and better. It’s fair to say, I think, that by the new Millennium, Chalone had firmly fallen out of favor among critics as a producer of great California Pinot Noir, eclipsed as it was by dozens of top houses extending from Santa Barbara County on up through the Anderson Valley (and, beyond California, to the Willamette Valley).
What was the problem? My own suspicion always was that Chalone, located politically in the Monterey County town of Soledad (think: Salinas Valley chill) but physically situated 1,800-2,000 feet up in the eastern Gavilan (or Gabilan) Mountains, was too hot a place for Pinot Noir. It might have been thought of as a “coastal” growing region, but it really wasn’t; Chalone’s own website describes the vineyard as “Region IV” in warmer years, a temperature span that U.C. Davis defines as measuring up to 4,000 degree days per year, which is suitable, says the website CalWineries, not for Pinot Noir, or even Zinfandel for that matter, but for “Malvasia [and] Thompson Seedless.”
On the plus side, the Chalone AVA soils are pockmocked with limestone (as they are at Calera, not too far away), and the nights are quite cool, with a diurnal swing of as much as 50 degrees. But those summer daytime high temperatures can be brutal. To my way of thinking, the hot climate and exaggerated U.V. sunlight at that altitude make the grapes develop thick skins—hence Laube’s “tannic to a fault.” The wines lacked delicacy and charm. And over the past twenty years or so, rugged tannins—once the darling of critics, whether in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir—have fallen out of favor.
Poor Chalone suffered, too, in its ownership. Long held by Diageo, after the original founders passed from the scene, Chalone seemed to descend into a netherworld of three-tier doldrums. It maintained a visible presence in the marketplace, not, unfortunately, by dint of quality, but through the force of Diageo’s marketing and advertising budget: most of the major wine and food magazines ran frequent “advertorials” on Chalone (and Diageo’s other California properties, including Beaulieu and Sterling); I should know, because I wrote some of them. When a wine writer is paid to write an advertorial (which never reveals the writer’s byline), he must think of pleasant things to say about the wines: not so easy, in Chalone’s case.
Therefore it was not surprising to read, yesterday, that when Diageo sold a portion of its wine portfolio to Treasury, Treasury “turned down the offer to buy Chalone.”
Why? It’s true that Treasury didn’t want or need tons more Chardonnay, which Chalone produces plenty of, to add to its portfolio. Still, the snub added insult to injury. Now, Diageo, which pretty much wants out of the wine business, is seeking to sell Chalone to someone else.
Exactly who that someone else might be cannot be known until a buyer steps forward. Chalone is a large winery (166,000 cases last year), making it difficult to absorb if not indigestible; and, as Shanken News Daily also reported, given that it has “lost steam over the last few years,” why anyone would want it is a good question. Chalone does still have a strong brand presence, particularly in off-premise markets such as supermarkets. Throw in some recipe cards and manager’s specials, and the cash flow would seem to be there, provided the retail price is right. So I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Chalone by any means.
But we have seen the last of its glory days, which are rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror. Could someone come along and resurrect Chalone to greatness? I really don’t think so, and it’s not just the terroir. Like Beaulieu, like Sterling, like so many other once-boutique wineries that got caught up in the corporate shuffle, Chalone made the decision to go for quantity over quality. That decision, once made, tends to be irreversible.