As I prepare to moderate the panel this week at The Chardonnay Symposium, I find myself thinking about this white wine, its phenomenal rise in popularity since the 1960s, and the fierce attack it’s come under, especially from the 1990s up to this day.
Forty years ago, there was very little Chardonnay planted in California, but today it’s grown virtually everywhere, from the Sierra Foothills, across the vast central Valley to the warmer inland valleys of the coast, all the way out to within sight of the Pacific Ocean. It is an easy plant to cultivate and a high producer, which is why wineries like to grow it. And, of course, Chardonnay is the #1 wine in America, meaning that its high production is almost automatically absorbed into the distribution system, and from there into the stomachs of wine drinkers.
Last year, there were 93,153 acres of Chardonnay planted in California, making it the most widely grown of any variety in the state, red or white; and those acres accounted for more than half of all white varieties (the runner-up, alas, being French Columbard; and I wonder how many varietally-labeled “Chardonnays” contain up to 24% of that inferior variety).
Where in the state is most of this Chardonnay grown? Fortunately, the majority is along the coast, in the counties of Napa (presumably mostly in the Carneros), Sonoma, , Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. A good deal also can be found in the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Fresno and Merced, but again, the presumption must be that most of that goes into inexpensive California-appellated Chardonnays, many of them in jugs and boxes.
Of this latter group, of course a lot is plonk. The vines are made to yield very high tonnages of grapes; the resulting wines are thin, but have enough Chardonnay taste (peaches, pears) to get by, and of course the wineries then slather oak, or oak-like, substances upon them, to give the buttered toast and caramel aromas and flavors consumers think come from the grape.
It is often these wines that have been responsible for giving Chardonnay its bad reputation, but that is an irresponsible position to take. It’s as bad as if you defined white Burgundy only by the lesser, often mass-produced Chardonnays from the most basic Bourgogne, Macon-Villages and Chablis appellations.
To step up in quality in Burgundy you have to turn to the smaller prestige appellations: the Montrachets (Chassagne, Batard and Puligny), Corton-Charlemagne, Grand Cru Chablis, Meursault and the like. And even there, the producer is key, with names like Leflaive (Domaine and Olivier), Louis Jadot and Vincent Girardin often guaranteeing the highest Chardonnay character.
The situation in California is exactly the same. Ninety percent of California Chardonnays may well be boring or mediocre, or may pall after a sip or two, but that’s always the way it is in big appellations the world over. You have to head for the coast for the good stuff. In general, the further you get towards the Pacific, the more the wines turn steely, acidic and minerally–more “Chablisian” if you will. And the more the grapes come from the warmer inland valleys–the southern part of the Alexander Valley is a great example–the riper and more opulent the wines become. Vintage, too, plays a key role: Chilly vintages may favor the inland valleys, warmer ones the coast: but so much depends on the elevation, orientation and physical characteristics of the vineyard and diligence of viticulture. In general, you can think of the twenty or so miles from the beaches (or close to them) inland as the oscillating sweet spot for California Chardonnay, which despite the ABCers must be counted among the world’s greatest white wines.
It’s been so hot in California I don’t even want to think about red wines. So instead I’ll think about whites. Here are my 12 highest-scoring white wines of 2013 (so far):
Rochioli 2011 River Block Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 Quail Hill Vineyard Chardonnay
Testarossa 2010 Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 La Serenité Chardonnay
Gary Farrell 2010 Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay
Paul Hobbs 2011 Chardonnay
Williams Selyem 2011 Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay
Rochioli 2011 Sweetwater Chardonnay
Stonestreet 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay
Joseph Phelps 2011 Freestone Vineyards Chardonnay
Dutton Goldfield 2011 Walker Hill Vineyard Chardonnay
You’ll notice that all are Chardonnay. My highest-scoring white wine that wasn’t Chardonnay at least had Chardonnay blended into it, along with Roussanne and Viognier: That was the Sanguis 2011 “Incandescent.” My highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs were Ehlers Estate 2012 (St. Helena), Ziata 2011 (Napa Valley), Brander 2011 Au Natural (Santa Ynez Valley), Robert Mondavi 2011 Reserve To Kalon (Oakville) and B Cellars 2012 (Napa Valley). Napa Valley really doesn’t get enough recognition for the quality of its Sauvignon Blancs. But why shouldn’t it? If it makes great Cabernet Sauvignon, it should make great Sauvignon Blanc which, after all, is one of Cabernet’s parents (along with Cabernet Franc).
You’ll notice, on my top Chardonnays, that all are from the Russian River Valley, with these exceptions: the Testarossa is Arroyo Grande Valley, the Stonestreet is Alexander Valley and the Joseph Phelps is Sonoma Coast. So does Russian River Valley make the best Chardonnay in California? Well, I have more scores, and higher scores, for RRV Chard than from other regions; but I also review far more RRV Chardonnays than from any other region, so the question is moot. What’s not in dispute is that RRV is a fabulous place for Chardonnay and even in the recent string of cool vintages a superior vineyard will shine.
I have encountered 2010 and 2011 Chardonnays that were leafy or moldy or vegetal, but not from top vineyards, where not only the viticulture is supreme, but the winery can afford the most scrutinized sorting regime, to weed out unfit berries. One word about that Stonestreet Gravel Bench Chardonnay: Yes it’s Alexander Valley but the vineyard is way the heck up in the Mayacamas. Some very famous wineries in the mountains prefer to put their Chardonnay at high elevations, sometimes even higher than their Cabernet vines. We don’t hear much about mountain Chardonnay but in general it shows the concentrated intensity of all mountain-grown fruit, red or white. These are Chardonnays whose underlying power easily accepts all those winemaker bells and whistles, from barrel fermentation and aging in new oak to malolactic fermentation and extended sur lie aging. Whenever I read some fancy pants critic complaining that California Chardonnay is too oaky etc. I always think “But they’re not tasting the good ones.” Because if they were, they wouldn’t say that.
P.S. Please offer a moment of grateful silence for the 19 fallen firefighter heroes in Arizona.
“Even as Americans chug down Chardonnay in record quantities, few buyers are dropping more than $50/bottle on the coast’s most popular white. Unless your name is Kistler, Ramey, Kongsgaard, or Peter Michael, there’s no market at over $50,” a popular online wine retail site declares. We’ll call these Chards the KRKPM group.
Well, a quick search of my Wine Enthusiast database found the following brands all of whom have at least one over $50 Chardonnay: Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Jarvis, Joseph Phelps, Del Dotto, Hanzell, Paul Hobbs, Lynmar, Stonestreet, Martinelli, La Crema, Ram’s Gate, Carte Blanche, Signorello, La Rochelle, Knights Bridge, Sanguis, Two Sisters, Merry Edwards and Migration. And I’m sure if I’d spent another three minutes poking around, I would have found even more.
So why would that online pub say “Unless” you’re a KRKPM nobody cares about you? Because it’s written for a type of wine snob who only buys the “big names.” This person either doesn’t know of the existence of any other wines, or, if he does, thinks that nothing can be as good as his KRKPMs. And of course, the situation is mirrored by other varieties for which Mr. Snob also has his “must buys”. (Click on “Napa Cabernets” on the aforementioned website and the first name that shows up is Abreu. If that’s not the snobbiest wine in California, I’d like to know what is.)
I’m not here to complain about the quality of the KRKPM Chardonnays. I just want to delve a little deeper into my ongoing exploration of the snob mentality that sees the world in such pigeon-holed blightedness that it honestly believes “there’s no market” for any wine not anointed with its imprimateur. Let me start with a question: Do the people who covet the KRKPM Chardonnays not also covet Williams Selyem, Rochioli and Merry Edwards? That’s hard for me to believe. But then, I don’t hang out in KRKPM circles. (I can’t afford to.) It is true that I occasionally run into these people, usually at events that attract a wealthy crowd. There, you do see them marching with zombie-like outstretched arms to the Kosta Browne table (and by the way, how come the online pub didn’t include Kosta Browne on their Chardonnay short list?), passing right by perfectly fine Chardonnays that don’t happen to have been raised to sainthood by the Popes of point score perfection. It always makes me sad, and a little mad.
I headlined this post “Dog Whistle Wines” because the term dog whistle, when used metaphorically (and usually politically), refers to “coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) In politics, to use one example, “family values” is a dog whistle term, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
In the case of the online wine pub, the KRKPM brands mean nothing to the general population, but to the “subgroup” who must have only the approved wines of the world, they mean something far different. The dog whistle message here is that the online pub is their kind of retailer–one of us, so to speak, not them, “them” being the unwashed, unsophisticated booboisie who think that La Crema (gasp!) is great Chardonnay. * This need for exclusivity separating them from the common man is one way that snobs are different from you and me (and this certainly is not a blanket indictment of the rich, per se, but of an attitude one occasionally finds among them).
I like to think that with the coming of age of a younger generation in this new millennium, we in America are moving away from this crass fixation on dog whistle wines, and I think we are. I’ve spent a great part of my career trying to get people to break their addiction to a handful of “cult” wines, but sometimes it’s like Sisyphus rolling that rock up a very steep hill because it’s trying to change human nature, and human nature changes very slowly, if at all. (And the older I get the less I think it ever changes.) Just when you think American consumers might be making progress, as an older generation of dog whistle wine-slaves dies off, here comes China, which seems to be the new market for dog whistle wines. Sigh.
* I’d like to see the Ayatollahs of cult wines taste blind a La Crema 9 Barrel Chardonnay against any of the KRKPMs.
This article about how well Gallo is doing in the super-premium tier ($15 and above) squares well with the chatter at the recent Napa Valley wine auction concerning the rather sudden turnaround in the wine business. From misery to marvahlous was the song on everyone’s lips, cults and commoners alike, leading me to believe that, while the general U.S. economy may still be tottery, wine has become a leading indicator of recovery.
(Until yesterday I might have said wine has become the canary in the coal mine of recovery, but Chuck reminded me that that metaphor has a rather unfortunate implication.)
Gallo is selling a lot of MacMurray Ranch, Louis M. Martini, Frei Brothers and Ghost Pines, all of which indeed do offer sound wines reasonably priced. So I thought I’d dig through the Wine Enthusiast database and see what some of my best-reviewed wines have been over the last year in the $11-$20 category.
Exactly 50 scored 90 points or above. Several brands appear more than once: Cameron Hughes, Minassian-Young, Tangent, Rodney Strong, Courtney Benham, Zaca Mesa. These may be described as a deep bench of talent. Of course, some of them also produce much more expensive wines (Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah, for example, is $60 retail), but I like it when a winery can do more than one thing well.
Other names on my list appear only once, but that was over the past year. If you go back further, they appear with greater frequency. Longboard, Sebastiani, Huntington, Tercero, Claiborne & Churchill, Firestone, Kendall-Jackson,Vina Robles, Geyser Peak–we’re lucky to have them (or the consumer is). It is brands like these (and again, some of them produce super-ultra-premium wines) that make me put on my populist hat and be happy that someone is giving consumers wine they can afford.
On the other hand, here are two very good but expensive Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed lately. Both are from the Russian River Valley, and both are 2011: Rochioli River Block ($60) and Lynmar Quail Hill ($55). It never fails to amaze me how River Block–which as its name implies is on a bank above the Russian River, and whose soil consequently is pure, crumbly sand and gravel–can produce, not just Chardonnays of such exquisite poise, but Pinot Noir. In theory, it should not do so; and Tom Rochioli himself told me he doesn’t consider River Block his best. But don’t tell that to the wines! It just shows to go that, once again, the conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Or maybe all it shows is that great viticulture can make up for deficiencies in the soil. Or both.
Saturday’s two wine panels at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival were both on Pinot Noir. The first, “In Pursuit of Balance,” was about a newer generation of winemakers: Rajat Parr (Sandhi), Pax Mahle (Wind Gap), Jamie Kutch (Kutch) and Gavin Chanin (Chanin). The theory, I think, was that these are all wines of lower alcohol (although we weren’t told what the ABV was, so I’m only guessing. The only winemaker to tell us the alcohol level on one of his wines was Kutch, who said it was 12.8% on his 2011 Sonoma Coast).
Here are my very abbreviated notes:
Wind Gap 2011 Gap Crown (Sonoma Coast). Vibrant, delicate, ripe. Cola, cherry pie, cranberry sauce.
Wind Gap 2010 Gap Crown. Keen acidity, similar to but less advanced than the ’11 despite being a year older. The ’10 was made in concrete while the ’11 was in neutral French oak.
Kutch 2011 Sonoma Coast. Blend of 3 vineyards: Annapolis, Petaluma Gap, Sebastopol. A pretty wine, ripe and savory. Root beer, cherry pie.
Kutch 2011 McDougall Ranch. The vineyard is in the Fort Ross area and the wine showed that distinctly feral, foresty quality I always get from there. A brooding wine, tannic. 50% whole cluster gave lots of dark spice. Needs plenty of time.
Chanin 2011 Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County). From this unappellated region between Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. Bit of mushrooms, sweet red fruit, complex and lovely.
Chanin 2011 Bien Nacido. Much tougher and more tannic, lots of spice. Needs plenty of time, as BNV Pinot always does.
Sandhi 2011 Sta. Rita Hills. Vinous, sappy, rich and sweet in baked cherry pie. Villages-style, young, but will make a sound bottle in a year or two.
Sandhi 2011 Sanford & Benedict. Really classic S&B. Spicy, earthy, red fruit, minerally, dry, complex. Needs plenty of time.
A remark about In Pursuit of Balance (the organization): In response to a question from the audience, Raj seemed to feel the need to defend the group, which perhaps has come under some criticism for the perception that IPOB claims that low alcohol Pinots are “better” than those over, say, 14.0%. To the extent this was the public’s perception (it certainly was mine), it cannot have gone over well with many of Raj’s (or Jasmine Hirsch’s) friends and colleagues. So Raj explained that this is not what they’re saying–although if it’s not, then it’s hard to know just what IPOB’s message is, beyond a vague “We’re trying to make the most balanced wines we can.” Well, who isn’t? I do think IPOB at first gave the impression of being an Old Boy’s (and Girl’s) network, an exclusive club of friends to which outsiders need not apply. They now have a “committee of wine professionals” (from their website) that decides who’s in and who’s out; that committee consists of Ehren Jordan (Failla, whose wines I’ve praised to the utmost for years), Jon Bonné (wine editor, San Francisco Chronicle, who’s been on something of an anti-high alcohol crusade himself), Raj Parr and Wolfgang Weber (an editor at Wine & Spirits, whom I do not know anything about). This selection committee certainly wouldn’t inspire me to ask to join IPOB if I were, say, Rochioli or Williams Selyem, two wineries (among many I could mention) I would hope we can agree make outstanding, balanced, ageworthy Pinot Noirs even though they dare to occasionally sneak over the 14.2% line and even approach —gasp!–14.5%.
The second Pinot Noir panel was named “Heroes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay” and was meant to counter-balance the first by featuring an older generation of famous winemakers: Fred Scherrer (Scherrer), Gary Pisoni (Pisoni), Michael Browne (Kosta Browne) and Geoff Labitzke (Kistler’s sales and marketing director, representing Steve Kistler).
These noteworthy names grabbed the audience’s attention; mine, too. Here are some very brief remarks. I found the 2 Kistlers (2011 Stone Flat Chardonnay and 2011 Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir) to be the most classic in the lineup, in the sense that they showed everything you want in Sonoma County wines: acidity, depth, length, dryness, varietal typicity, complexity, ageability, intellectual stimulation and no particular eccentricities.
Fred Scherrer (what a lovely man) chose an older Chardonnay, 2007 Scherrer Vineyard (Alexander Valley) which didn’t do much for me at first. In fact I thought it was too old, although I loved his 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir. But after 45 minutes that old Chardonnay emerged from its tomb like Lazarus, alive and vital and remarkable, and I told Fred so. He said, “That wine never shows well right out of the bottle. It needs time” despite its age. California Chardonnay that ages well is so rare; that was one I’ll remember years from now.
Kosta Browne showed 2011 “One Sixteen” Chardonnay and 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir. I have never particularly been a fan of KB’s wines, suspecting that their popularity is due to the lemming-like tendency of consumers to believe anything some reviewers say (and then to find in the wines what they expected to find, in a gorgeous proof of the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy). The ’11 Chardonnay was, I wrote, “over the top.” I did find the Pinot more interesting, “flashy” in fact, and in need of age.
Gary Pisoni’s 2011 Lucia Chardonnay was, in a word, dee-lish. I had formally reviewed it earlier for Wine Enthusiast and, while it wasn’t in the same league as Lucia’s ’11 Soberanes Chard (not included in this tasting), it was close, and also ten bucks less. Gary’s 2010 Estate Pinot Noir is a young, vinous, serious Pinot with vast tastes of the earth. It is just beginning to throw off its cloak and show some flesh. It needs lots of time.
I’ll report another time on my “Pritchard Hill Gang” seminar, which was the last of the festival.
I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)
It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).
Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).
It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.
Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)
As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.