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In California, how different from expensive Chardonnay is everyday Chardonnay?

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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.


Chalone Doldrums

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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.


A tasting of Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

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I was really looking forward to our first Chardonnay tasting yesterday, after a half-year of exploring Pinot Noir. Although Pinot is inherently a better, more complex variety than Chardonnay—at least, in California, IMHO—the latter is the most important variety and wine in our state, and across America, and the winery I work for, Jackson Family Wines, has a big stake in Chardonnay. So I thought it was important to taste intensively across all of the important appellations. We begin with Santa Maria Valley.

Chardonnay somehow seems to be in the crossfire of critics, who always have something to inveigh about it, or so it seems. These days, the invocation is for drier, lower alcohol and more streamlined Chardonnays—dare I call them “minerally”? In this Santa Maria Valley tasting, which was completely blind, we set ourselves the task of determining just what makes some wines more balanced than others, despite all of them being grown in close physical proximity to each other, and made more or less identically, along white Burgundy lines: barrel fermentation and aging, stirring on the lees, the malolactic fermentation.

We tasted eighteen wines, over nearly four hours; there was a great deal of conversation. My top-scoring wines (and the other tasters generally agreed) were Alta Maria 2014 Bien Nacido ($40, 95 points), Ojai 2013 Solomon Hills ($35, 95 points), Jackson Estate 2013 (98 points, about $20) and Alta Maria 2013 Rancho Viñedo ($40, 96 points). Yes, it was gratifying, but not entirely surprising, when the Jackson Estate took top honors. Other wines tasted were from Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Presqu’ile, Qupe, Chanin, Paul Lato and Rusack.

These Santa Maria Valley Chardonnays shared much in common. All show masses of fruit, due to the cool climate and exceptionally long hangtime of this southerly growing region. All exhibit mouthwateringly brisk acidity, and a firm minerality that I always think comes from the sands and fossilized seashells scattered throughout the soil. Sometimes there can be a slightly green note, although not in great vintages, such as 2013. The best wines show a real sense of terroir—not that generic feeling that the grapes could have been grown anywhere. And all the wines handle oak well, although, to put this into the proper context, I should say that on average the wines have between 10% and 35% or so of new oak. Beyond that, the barrel influence can dominate, especially when the wood has a good amount of char.

The greatest problem with these Chardonnays concerns residual sugar. Often, the wines are noticeably sweet, which in my book is a no-no. Sometimes, I think, the winemakers leave a little sugar in there to counter-balance the acidity, which can be fierce. But sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any discernible reason for it. There’s an exceedingly fine line between balanced R.S. and unbalanced R.S. For me, the former happens when the wine tastes opulent and honeyed yet finishes throroughly dry. The latter unfortunately strikes when the finish is not dry, giving the wine a somewhat insipid, cloying taste; the word “candied” frequently arises. Finding exactly where this line is is the supreme task of the winemaker.

The Santa Maria Valley is the least well-understood important coastal appellation in California. Critics and other tastemakers seldom get there, due mainly to the absence of tourist amenities such as hotels and restaurants. Whenever I visit, I stay at the Santa Maria Radisson near the airport—good enough for my needs, but well outside the appellation’s boundaries. In the valley proper, and especially on the bench and in the southern hills, Chardonnay can be as spectacular as any other region makes it. But, as our tasting showed, even though Chardonnay seems to be a “winemaker’s wine” that adapts to the most extreme interventions without resistance, it really is not an easy wine to make in a balanced way.

As we did with Pinot Noir, we’ll continue our Chardonnay tastings, moving northward up the coast. Next time: Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. How does it differ from Santa Maria Valley? We’ll see.


A roundup of my Pinot Noir tastings, and now, here comes Chardonnay

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At our weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines, we’ve now finished with West Coast Pinot Noir and are ready to tackle Chardonnay.

I started Pinot many months ago with a roundup of wines from Santa Maria Valley. After that, in order going northward, came Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo (Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros (both Napa and Sonoma), Russian River Valley, the “true” Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and, finally, Willamette Valley.

What did I find after this intensive tour de force?

All West Coast Pinot Noir is more alike than not. This is not to discount variations in alcohol level, ripeness and so forth; merely to ascertain that Pinot Noir, made competently in California and Oregon, has a character of delicacy, soft tannins, bright acidity and a juicy berry-ness that persists through changes in terroir and winemaking technique.

Still, there are broad differences. To me, Santa Maria Pinot Noir is characterized by black and blue fruits, brown spices, acidity and minerality. Santa Rita Pinot is balanced and complex, also with acidity but somehow more generous when young. San Luis Obispo Pinot can be variable: Edna Valley has varietal purity, Arroyo Grande ageability, in the best cases. Monterey County-appellated Pinots are simple but can be good values. Santa Lucia also is variable, depending on north or south; the wines are full-bodied and dense. Of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, it is difficult for me to judge, since there is so little, and what there is is scattered over vast differences of terroir. Carneros Pinot Noir is earthy and minerally and sometimes soft; newer plantings are helping to increase quality. Russian River Pinot Noir is another case study in difficulty of specificity, since the appellation is so broad. In general, it is rich and balanced, often veering towards cola, sassafras and winter fruits (persimmons and pomegranates), and the best are classic. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is just beginning to declare an identity, and what a glorious one it is: wild, feral and intricate, and, at the top levels, spectacular. Anderson Valley possibly triumphs over all its southern neighbors in sheer balance and harmony, especially in great vintages, like 2012 and 2013; but there is so little of it, quantity-wise. Up in Oregon, Willamette Valley Pinot, equally as vintage-driven as Anderson Valley, is the most “Burgundian” of American Pinot Noirs, with earthy, mushroom and tea notes. My most recent tasting of them blew me away. Anyway, what an exciting six months this has been for us tasting freaks!

And now here comes Chardonnay. I’ll round the wines up in the same south-to-north geographic order, starting again with Santa Maria Valley. How do I chose which wines to include in our tastings? It’s purely arbitrary, although there is a method to my madness. Since I can’t have every wine from each appellation, I have to pick and choose. My first parameter for choosing is my own experience: I select wines I’ve reviewed for many years and have given good scores to. I’m also interested in wines I haven’t tasted (at all, or recently), if a publication I regard gives them good scores. For example, the October 2015 issue of Wine & Spirits has a “Year’s Best Chardonnay” section that will give me some guidance. Many of these wines are not available on the current market, but I keep my fingers crossed and hope that, when I call the winery and identify myself, I have just enough name recognition remaining (after being largely out of circulation for 1-1/2 years) to wangle myself a bottle.

Since I’ve been doing a lot of phone and website ordering of wines lately, I’ve encountered an aspect of the direct-to-consumer experience that I wasn’t very familiar with. Critics mainly depend on tasting samples being sent to us, which means we don’t have to hit the telephone and the Internet the way “ordinary” consumers do to buy wine. I must say that, by and large, the DTC system works quite well. Most wineries seem to use the same software (shopping carts, proceed to checkout, etc.), and it’s really easy and intuitive to use. The main problem is wineries who, deliberately or through ignorance, make it almost impossible to get in touch with them. There have been one or two instances where the phone tag got so severe that I gave up trying to obtain the wine. Why would a winery make it so hard for me to buy their wine? It is a mystery.

One other frustration: The rules concerning sending wine, even in-state here in California, are confusing when it comes to the details of how UPS, FedEx, GSO and other shippers work. I’m sometimes told that FedEx and GSO will not deliver wine to me at my local UPS Store—even though they have been doing just that for years. Some wineries tell me they’re not allowed to send wine overnight. What’s up with that, if I’m willing to pay for it? These rigidities all are the residue of Prohibition, that stupid “experiment” when alcoholic beverages were considered “demons” and their transport within the country was made almost impossible.

Anyhow, on to Chardonnay, still #1 in America after all these years. There’s a rumor going ‘round that says vintners are making it more “balanced.” That means, I suppose, picking it less ripe. That’s fine, but the risk is turning Chardonnay into a lean, green machine, instead of the opulent wine I, and most other people, like. As usual, it’s a balancing act.

TO ALL OUR FRIENDS WHO ARE SUFFERING FROM THE VALLEY FIRE: This is truly awful. Our hearts and prayers go out to you.


Thoughts on the far Sonoma Coast

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In anticipation of our tasting this Friday of wines from the “true” Sonoma Coast, I’ve been going over in my mind my understanding of this American Viticultural Area, which was declared an A.V.A. in 1987.

That was 28 years ago, but I don’t recall the controversy surrounding it until sometime in the late 1990s, when people began to point out that, at 480,000 acres, and stretching from the Pacific beaches to the Napa County line, it was not only one of California’s larger appellations—bigger than Napa Valley or the Santa Cruz Mountains—but containing so many different climates that to call it a single appellation was senseless.

Conventional wisdom was that the Sonoma Coast A.V.A. was pushed through and largely paid for by a single individual, who wanted to be able to label his Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays with something other than Sonoma Valley. Although the Sonoma Valley A.V.A. extends right down to Carneros, the popular view is that it’s a warmish to hot place, which, northwest of Sonoma Town and along the Valley of the Moon highway, it is.

There have long been a handful of vintners, though, who chose to grow grapes along what eventually became known as the “true” Sonoma Coast: an area just a few miles inland from the beaches, encompassing the first two or three mountain ranges. The unrest caused by the gigantic Sonoma Coast A.V.A. eventually grew so fierce that, in 2012, the government was compelled to recognize Fort Ross-Seaview as a sub-appellation of Sonoma Coast. At a mere 27,500 acres, most of it wildland. Fort Ross-Seaview represented an intelligent approach to detailing Sonoma Coast, one that I entirely supported. When it was finally approved, I was hopeful that additional “true” Sonoma Coast appellations would follow. Annapolis, in the north, seems logical. So does Freestone in the south, and possibly Occidental, although who knows what the names will be, because these things require agreement amongst warring parties, and the names often are compromises reached through lawyerly negotiations.

For me, the question concerning the “true” Sonoma Coast is, What are the differences between, say, Annapolis in the north, the done deal of Fort Ross-Seaview, and points south, whatever they’re called? It can’t be as simple as temperature, because if anything, the south is cooler, being closer to the Golden Gate; and elevation plays a crucial role on the far coast, with vineyards in the north higher up in the mountains, and thus above the fogline and more exposed to the intense solar radiation.

It will take us many years to really figure out the “true” Sonoma Coast. I hated the original appellation because it was so huge and amorphous, but I will give it credit for sparking the imaginations of writers, many of whom thought the only credible place for Pinot Noir in Sonoma County was the Russian River Valley.

The far Sonoma Coast is, and always will be, a place only the wealthy can afford to plant vineyards. I think the days of pioneers like Daniel Schoenfeld (Wild Hog) and Ehren Jordan (Failla) are gone. But I also reject the contention that major players, like Joseph Phelps, Jackson Family and Jayson Pahlmeyer, cannot succeed, with diligent and thoughtful approaches. The far coast, more than any other Pinot Noir region in California, will be a testing-ground for winemakers who aspire to greatness and are willing to gamble with disappointment. This is grapegrowing at its extremities, where an off vintage, much less a winemaking mistake, can result in catastrophe.


Blend or single vineyard? It depends on the variety

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Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grape varieties that seems to benefit from judicious blending from multiple sources in California. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc can be audacious and savory in gooseberries, with a touch of pyrazine that can be too green for many people. Warm-climate Sauvignon can have delicious tropical fruit flavors but be a little candied. Either, by itself, can have limitations, especially in an off-vintage; but blending them together seems to smooth out the divots. While it’s true that some of my highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs ever were Mondavi Tokalons, this is a rare exception in California; Sauvignon Blanc in our state veers towards the ordinary, and it takes some great grape sourcing and careful blending to come up with a serious wine.

Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is considerably more interesting as a single-vineyard wine. I’m not sure why, other than to trot out the usual theories of site-specificity, thinner skins and terroir transparency. Perhaps psychically we’re more forgiving to a slightly flawed Pinot Noir from a vineyard. I used to wonder why a great Pinot Noir couldn’t be a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. It can in theory, of course, but while I’ve experienced many, many very beautiful blended Pinot Noirs, the wine always seems more interesting and complex when the grapes are from a single vineyard.

Then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m tempted to say it, too, wants to be from a single vineyard, but there are so many interesting, great Cabs that break that rule. I, personally, am a huge fan of Cardinale, which is a blend of various vineyards in Napa Valley. Yes, I work for Jackson Family Wines, but I didn’t when I gave the 2006 100 points, and I’ve never had a Cardinale I didn’t find dazzling. So I can’t say that Cabernet has to be from a single vineyard to be world class.

I think Zinfandel is probably best as a vineyard-designate, although it has to be a super-great vineyard, well-tended, and, if possible, old vines. As for Chardonnay, I’m divided on that one. It’s such a winemaker’s wine (barrels, malo, lees) that the sourcing doesn’t seem like it should matter, as long as it’s from a cool climate. And yet, as I look over my Wine Enthusiast reviews, I notice that my highest Chardonnay scores were reserved for single vineyard wines: Failla 2010 estate, Williams Selyem 2010 Allen Vineyard, Rochioli 2010 South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard, Flowers 2011 Moon Select, Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch.

There’s something intellectual about a single-vineyard wine, especially if you’ve been to the vineyard, walked it, had it explained to you by the winemaker or grapegrower. The Allen Vineyard, for instance, is such a distinctive place; every time I have an Allen Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I imagine that particular place, the slight slope, the vineyard tucked up against the hills to the west, Westwide Road on the east, and the Russian River just on the other side of Rochioli. It’s a “sweet spot,” midway between the chill of the southern valley and the warmth of Dry Creek Valley, a lovely corner of the Russian River Valley that I hope will someday be appellated as The Middle Reach.

The market, of course, rewards single-vineyard wines. I can’t prove it with data, but I bet if someone crunched the numbers, they’d find that single-vineyard wines are more expensive, on average, than blended wines. I think that a winery that produces a single-vineyard wine as a very special bottling, superior in their view to their blended wines, is in the catbird’s seat, but you can’t simply assume that a vineyard-designated wine has special properties. I’ve had plenty of sad vineyard-designated wines; some have been horrible. So you never know; you have to taste the wine. Consumers want assurances, but there are none in wine. Every rule has an exception.


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