Yesterday, the sixth and final day of my road trip south, primarily consisted of a blind tasting of 60 Chardonnays. The tasting was held in a small meeting cottage at the Santa Ynez Inn, and was kindly set up by my friend Sao Anash, who assists many writers when they visit Santa Barbara County.
I had never done a standalone tasting of Santa Barbara Chards. (There were two from San Luis Obispo.) I was interested to see if I could discern differences between the county’s various appellations. Most of the Chardonnays were from either Santa Rita Hills or Santa Maria Valley, with some marked simply “Santa Barbara County.” These latter were either from Santa Maria or Santa Rita (so far as I could tell) but preferred to keep the better-known countywide appellation on the label, or they were from an interesting region around Los Alamos, which is more or less inbetween Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, but does not yet have its own AVA but should. There are fewer and fewer Chardonnays from the Santa Ynez Valley these days, which is as it should be, as it’s too warm there, although SYV is great Sauvignon Blanc county.
I’m sure there are people who would conclusively state that there are vast differences between Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley Chards, but I’m not one of them. Clonal and barrel differences are at least as important in imparting character as a few miles of separation. Both regions have more reasons to be similar than not. In fact, I think of them as basically the same, separated only by the accident of the 101 Freeway. They’re both west-east running valleys (unlike any others in California), thus allowing chilly Pacific air (and believe me, the ocean is cold out there) to funnel in, given the westerly or northwesterly breezes that characterize the California coast most of the time. That makes them cool-climate regions. You don’t want to grow Cabernet in Santa Maria or Santa Rita Hills. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the grapes of choice, although Syrah does just fine, and the occasional other white grape (Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc) can excel. Not much Sauvignon Blanc works here: too green. Gewurztraminer would probably succeed; Riesling, too, but nobody would buy them, so it’s not worth it for vintners to grow.
Soil-wise, I can’t tell. They’re a jumble down here, now clay, now chalky, sometimes sandy, sometimes stony. As near as I can figure, it doesn’t matter as long as they’re well-drained. Of course, you need superb viticulture, which all the Chardonnays in my tasting had. One vineyard in particular, Bien Nacido, stood out. But then, it had more entries than any other source.
Santa Barbara County is one of California’s great Chardonnay areas and a case can be made that it is the greatest. Certainly there’s a consistency of style. The wines always are acidic; that goes without saying. Acidity is one of the touchstones of a great wine, especially a white one, and super-especially when the fruit is as ripe as it tends to get in Santa Barbara. The reason the fruit gets so ripe is because the growing season is incredibly long. Budbreak begins earlier than in the North Coast, and harvest can extend as long and leisurely as the grower wants. It doesn’t rain much down here, and such rains as do fall usually wait until November. That means the grapes can hang, hang, hang until they rid themselves of all green flavors and develop marvelously fruity ones. To my palate the fruits tend toward pineapples, Meyer lemons and limes, but that’s over-simplifying. The pineapples often have a grilled quality, as if they’d been on a skewer barbecued over hot red oak. The Meyer lemons have an intense, pie-filling quality, while the limes likewise have a pastry taste, like the Key lime pies I used to bring home with me when my parents lived in Florida. Of course, part of that pie and pastry quality is oak, toasty and smoky and slightly sweet. These Santa Barbara Chardonnays can handle new oak as easily as Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, for the same reason: they’re rich, voluminous wines, broad and impressive in body. Flamboyant in themselves (just try Cambria’s 2007 “Unwooded” from Santa Maria Valley if you want to see what unoaked Chard can do), they adapt to oak the way a Hollywood actress on the red carpet shows off haute couture. Beauty clad in beauty equals dazzle.
Santa Barbara whites also have a minerality. We can argue all day what that means and where it comes from. Locals insist its from the white chalky limestone that’s exposed on outcroppings. Maybe. The acidity certainly helps inspire a tangy, cold metal-like taste. Whatever the source, this minerality is bracing. So that becomes another factor in Santa Barbara Chardonnay. They have a nervy, electric quality without which the fruit would be merely ripe. Edna Valley Chardonnay has this electric quality. But it seldom has the depth and interest of Santa Barbara Chardonnay.
The overall quality of the wines I tasted was extraordinary. Sao came in two or three times during the nearly five hours (!!) I took, just to see how I was doing, and I swear, every time she did I told her in marveled and ecstatic terms how thrilling this tasting was. Wine after wine, so pure and intense, so visionary and translucent, it was hard to pick winners from losers. And in truth, there were no losers. But the wine critic must rank order. That is his job.
How do you determine preferences between wines of such quality? There’s only one way: balance. Balance is the exquisite tension between ripeness of fruit (so easy to achieve) and all the other moving parts: Acidity. Oak. Tannins. Length. Finish. Lees influence. Minerality. Richness. Dryness. Malolactic fermetation. Creaminess. Utlimately, balance is impossible to define. It’s like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
Well, I know balance when I encounter it in wine. Here are some of the great Santa Barbara Chardonnays I tasted yesterday. All should be current in the market. My full reviews and scores will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
Alma Rosa 2008 (Santa Barbara County)
Byron 2007 Wente Clone (Santa Maria Valley)
Fontes & Phillips 2008 (Santa Barbara County)
Cambria 2007 Clone 95 (Santa Maria Valley)
Fess Parker 20008 Ashley’s (Santa Rita Hills)
Longoria 2008 Cuvee Diana (Santa Rita Hills)
Melville 2008 Estate (Santa Rita Hills)
Ojai 2007 Clos Pepe Vineyard (Santa Rita Hills)
Rusack 2008 Reserve (Santa Maria Valley)
Vino 2007 Solomon Hills Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley)
Testarossa 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley)
Au Bon Climat 2007 Los Alamos Vineyard (Santa Barbara County)
These are awesome Chardonnays that prove there is a “Chardonnay zone” of climate that snakes its way through the county’s western canyons and up onto the foothills. They show, also, that both 2007 and 2008 were very great years for Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County.
Richard Sanford and I spent the morning tasting and talking about the Santa Rita Hills and his fabled career. Lest you know him only for his Alma Rosa Pinot Noirs, particularly from his La Encantada Vineyard, his twin white Pinots — Gris and Blanc — with their natural crispness — are worthy of your attention. The latter is rich, the former sleek as a Brancusi swirl of steel. More on Richard at another time.
From there my friend Sao Anash whisked me up to Bien Nacido where four fabulous chefs — Matt and Jeff Nichols, Frank Ostini and Rick Manson — prepared a Santa Maria-style barbecue to put all previous barbecues I’ve even seen to utter shame. Bien Nacido’s Miller family were my hosts, and my gladness was diminished only by the absence of Nicholas, the “face” of Bien Nacido Vineyard and someone whose joy in life is infectious. After lunch it was back down to Los Olivos for a visit and tasting with a winery I’ve followed for a long time, owned by one of the premier wine families of the Santa Ynez Valley, Gainey. It is about this tasting I want to concentrate in today’s blog.
I’ve given quite high scores for many years to Gainey’s wines, and the barrel samples they offered me certainly didn’t disappoint and in fact raised the bar higher. We went through various samples of block-sourced 2009 Chardonnays that did and did not go through the malolactic fermentation. If you’ve never had that exercise, do so. Here’s a non-ML that’s so crisp and savory in fruit it makes your mouth water. Then there’s the ML version and, as I said, almost apologetically, “I know we’re not supposed to say the word ‘buttered popcorn’ but…”. They smiled. A touch of that movie theater treat is great; too much would be a disaster. But Gainey has seldom if ever been guilty of “too much” of anything, or “too little” either.
It was the 2009 Pinot Noir clonal tasting that excited me and, to be blunt, challenged me. Usually I grill winemakers. This time it was the other way around, courtesy of one of Gainey’s longtime winemakers, and a person I decided I liked way back when I first met him, Kirby Anderson. The four clones we went through were Pommard, Swan, 667 and 114. (Well, I guess technically the first two would be called “selections,” not clones.) Kirby made me explain my impressions of each. My spiel went something like this:
“From left to right [i.e., Pommard to 114], we went from fruitier and lighter to denser, more full-bodied and weightier.”
Kirby: “Right. What fruits did you find in the 114?”
Steve: “No fruit, in fact. I wrote: ‘tannic, beetroot, dry, sassafras.’”
Kirby: “Very good. The 114 is earthy.”
Steve: “That’s what I meant by ‘beetroot.’”
Kirby: “What else?”
Steve: “The Pommard was all cranberry-cherry. Also very spicy. The Swan reminds me of Russian River: cherries, cola, raspberry. The 667 is deeper black cherries, with greater structure.”
Kirby: “And overall?”
Steve: “None of them is complete in itself.”
Kirby: “Mix the Pommard with the 114.”
I did so, and said, “A more complete wine. Fuller, richer. But still, something missing.”
Kirby: “Add a splash of Swan.”
I did, and said, “The most complete wine yet. Very nice. But still, something missing.”
Kirby: “What’s missing?”
I thought. The middle was a little hollow, and the wine, good as it was, trailed off to a quick finish. I said so, and Kirby said, “Good. So what is it missing? How would you fix that?”
I thought. What’s he driving at? Does he mean it needs a splash of Swan? Or some other clone? My mind went blank. In such circumstances, with others around the table watching the wine critic suddenly being critiqued, there was dead silence. Of course, all you can do is be honest — transparent, in our current vernacular — and admit bafflement.
“I don’t know, Kirby,” I said. “You’re the winemaker. You tell me.”
“Oak!” Kirby beamed, triumphantly. He’s got great twinkly eyes and a dazzling smile but now his eyes were twinklier, his smile more dazzling than ever.
I had thought he was asking me how to fatten and length the barrel sample through the addition of other samples, but of course he was entirely right. The wine needs the 8 or 10 months of partially new oak barrel aging that will complete it. I just hadn’t been thinking “outside the envelope” or, as it were, beyond the table. I asked Kirby to tell me 4 things that oak barrel aging does to Pinot Noir to make it better. Kirby gave me five:
I’ll say one more thing about the Gainey tasting. They know that, with rare exceptions, I have never liked Santa Barbara Cabernet Sauvignon from anyone (although I’ve been praising Gainey’s Merlot since the 1990s; Merlot doesn’t need as warm a temperature to ripen as Cabernet). But this time they had a bunch of barrel samples of Cab and they also had assembled their entire Cab team around the table: John Engelskirger (the longtime Napa vet who consults for them), viticulturalist Jeff Newton, and their Cabernet winemaker, young Jeff Lebard. And, of course, Dan Gainey was there. Hmm, I thought, this could be ugly. If I have to complain about the Santa Barbara veggies, it will be embarrassing to everybody.
Well, I didn’t. The clone 337 and clone 15 Cabernets were very fruity and rich, not a trace of veg. Then they gave me a barrel sample of a blend of ‘09 Cab and Petite Verdot. I swirled, sniffed, tasted, repeated, repeated a third time, and looked up. All eyes were upon me.
“This is, quite simply, the best Santa Barbara Bordeaux-style red wine I’ve ever had,” I said. They told me it will be even better when they’re finished with it, after probably adding Merlot (a no-brainer) and maybe some Cabernet Franc, then aging it for 16-18 months in 50% new oak.
Lots of things can happen between cup and lip, so we’ll see. But the 2009 Gainey, which will probably have a proprietary name, is a wine I hope I’m going to be able to review someday.
But then it was on to dinner, another barbecue, this time up at Fess Parker with two of my favorite Santa Barbara people, Eli and Ashley Parker, who had another trio of chefs — Joanne and Eddie Plemmons and Kevin Hyland — pile on an incredible, amazing, unbelievable table of grilled chicken, tri-tip, you name it. I’ll be writing all about Santa Maria-style barbecue in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.
Now that Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 wines of 2009 list has been published and absorbed, I want to talk a little about some of the California wines I reviewed which made the list. Some people have asked me how and why particular wines are chosen while others aren’t. Understand, these are group decisions and others involved will offer different perspectives. Here, though, as the reviewer/scorer, are mine.
I mentioned our #1 wine, the Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, yesterday in this blog. I’m sure that wine would have made any critic’s best-of-year list, because it’s such a genuinely fine wine in itself, and the fact most people will find it below $20 makes it a great value, which, in this economy in particular but also in Wine Enthusiast’s constant philosophy, is important. The wine is from the Santa Maria Bench, where Bien Nacido Vineyard also is situated. This terroir is extraordinary for Pinot Noir (and other cool-climate varieties but not, alas, for Bordeaux grapes which require warmth). The area isn’t well known to wine tourists because the Santa Maria Valley is a barren, windswept place with few amenities, although there’s talk down there about developing an infrastructure. Anyway, the wine’s price-quality ratio was the driving factor in giving it our top slot.
Our #4 wine was 2005 The Matriarch, from BOND, which is of course a sister wine line (if you will) to Harlan, although made from contracted, not estate-grown, grapes. Where the single-vineyard BONDs (such as Vecina, St. Eden and Melbury) all have lately cost well north of $200 a bottle to club members, The Matriarch 2005, a blend of them all, is priced at a relatively modest $90, suggesting that the Harlan team views it as “lesser”; yet I rated it (98 points) higher than any of the vineyard designates (which suggests, perhaps, a certain penchant for accessibility on my part). I once told Bill Harlan, only semi-jokingly, that The Maiden, the “second” wine of Harlan Estate, was getting so good it might soon rival the first wine, and so it was in 2005 with The Matriarch and its single-vineyard siblings. How and why would a “second” wine be as good as a “first”? Keep in mind these decisions (of which barrels to bottle under which labels) are made by mere human beings, in the guise of Mr. Harlan, his winemaker Bob Levy, their consultant Michel Rolland, the general manager Don Weaver, and perhaps one or two others; and humans, being only such, are capable of doing surprising things. No doubt the Harlan team believes in their decisions, but it is far from clear, in a blind tasting, that Harlan Estate or the single-vineyard BONDs are superior to the “second” Maiden or Matriarch. And that is why The Matriarch 2005 is one of the top wines of the year.
We then move to the #10 wine, Testarossa’s 2007 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir. It comes from the Chalone appellation and costs $39 the bottle. To tell the truth, any number of other Testarossa Pinots might have taken this slot, or even some from other producers. I think there were lots of Pinot Noirs in our list this year because Pinot is obviously the hot variety from California, the 2007 vintage was so spectacular (but wait for 2009), and Testarossa deserves a nod because they do such a good job, so consistently, from so many different vineyards. They practically invented the concept of non-vineyard-owning people obtaining grapes from famous vineyards and then crafting beautiful wines, and their prices are generally $10-$20 lower than they might be. Then there’s our #12 wine, the Sequana 2007 Sundawg Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Green Valley ($50). It is clearly a fabulous wine from that cool district bordering on the Sonoma Coast, but what made it especially fun for me was that it’s a first-ever bottling from a new brand. Wine writers love new discoveries. The pedigree of the people behind the wine did not surprise me, when I eventually learned of it. The owner is Donald Hess, of Hess Collection. The winemaker is James MacPhail, of MacPhail Family. And although it may not really matter, the wine was made at Copain.
Immediately following the Sequana is Au Bon Climat’s 2006 Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay. It retails for $35, which is cheap considering the wine’s vast, Clendenenesque dimensions, which clearly put it near the top of the pile for white Burgundian-style California Chardonnays. At #18 is another Pinot Noir, Melville’s 2007 Carrie’s ($52, from the Santa Rita Hills), an achievement of considerable proportions even in this historically great vintage; Melville (with winemaker Greg Brewer) obviously deserves recognition for their long and distinguished performance. Finally, at #21, yet another Pinot, this time Lynmar’s 2007 Hawk Hill Vineyard. At $70 it’s not inexpensive, but it defines the southwestern Russian River Valley’s terroir. This is a wine I would like to have many cases of.
I had many other wines on our Top 100 list and if the interest is there I can offer brief sketches of them in future blogs.
I completely agree with Laurie Daniel’s column today in the San Jose Mercury News about the dismal state of California Chardonnay. “A lot of the wines are downright undrinkable, with noticeable alcoholic ‘heat,’ too much residual sugar and/or oak that’s way too aggressive,” she wrote. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I’ve said many times that I’m a Chardonnay lover. Never have been an ABC guy, never will be. And when I say Chardonnay, I mean Burgundian Chardonnay: barrel fermentation, new oak, sur lies and battonage, the whole works. Chardonnay is the world’s greatest white grape and wine (along with Riesling) and there’s no way I’d ever dismiss the whole category, categorically.
But! Let us get real here. When you taste as many Chardonnays as I do — 500 last year? something like that — you reach the point where you want to tear your hair out and scream (and with what little hair I have left on my head, that’s not a good thing). I hate to single out particular wines for criticism on this blog, but in this case, I will, because it’s a poster child for sweet, flabby Chardonnay. It was Geyser Peak’s 2007 (Alexander Valley), and here’s what I wrote: “Sugary sweet, simple and over-oaked, this Chard has one-dimensional flavors of pineapple candy, vanilla and smoke. 83 points.” Granted, it was only 13 bucks, but I might have said the same thing, or something similar, about Robert Stemmler’s 2006 Chardonnay (Carneros, $34) or Frank Family’s 2006 (Napa Valley, $32) or ZD’s 2007 Reserve (Napa Valley, $55). Buttered popcorn, caramel corn, sugary sweet, candied — what’s going on?
Someone or something has to take the blame, but who or what? Well, first of all, there are places Chardonnay simply shouldn’t be grown because it’s too hot. I’ve seldom encountered a great Chardonnay from Paso Robles or Lodi, although there are other factors in those places that limit the wine’s potential. Large tracts of central and northern Napa Valley also are unsuitable, as is Sonoma Valley as you move north from the Carneros.
Whenever I get a distressed wine the question arises in my mind, Did the winemaker do this on purpose, or did he not know this is dreadful? When in doubt, choose the more compassionate interpretation: the winemaker did it on purpose. Why would a smart winemaker make a sweet, oaky Chardonnay he, himself, probably wouldn’t drink? We know the answer to that one: THE MARKET DEMANDS IT. Or so it’s said: Americans like their Chardonnays gooey.
Laurie also wrote: “I made the observation that a lot of the wines seemed to be made to a recipe. The winemakers who churned out some of these wines couldn’t possibly have been proud of them. I suspect that the marketing departments determined that their wineries needed to have an $18 chardonnay in the portfolio, so the winemakers just did what they were told. The wine was treated like a commodity.” Exactly.
I’d love to hear from people who actually sell Chardonnay, particularly merchants. Is this true? Does the average consumer really prefer a flabby Chardonnay to a dry, crisp one? Certainly, California is capable of producing very great Chardonnay. Bjornstad, Au Bon Climat, Hartford Court, Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell and Failla come to mind. They have the richness, mind you, but also the sleek acidity and dry finish for balance. Unfortunately, they’re expensive. It may be that California is unable to produce reliably inexpensive Chardonnays that are also of high quality. That’s the case with Pinot Noir. We may have to face the facts. If my budget was limited to, say, $15 for a bottle of white wine from California, I doubt if it would be Chardonnay, even unoaked. More likely Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer.
We say “Chateau,” Europe says “Shut up!”
The spat between the European Union and American wineries flared up again last week, as a group of members of Congress teamed together to urge the U.S. Trade Representative, the nation’s top trade negotiator and principal advisor to the President, to clear the “traditional expressions” logjam with the European Union.
So-called “traditional expressions” are words on labels. They include chateau, clos, classic, noble, vintage, sur lie, champagne and ruby, among others. The E.U. long has objected to their use on American wines, claiming they poach on traditional European territory and mislead consumers. Back in 2006, the U.S. agreed to stop using the terms, but under a “peace-making clause,” wineries using them at that time were grandfathered in, and allowed to continue their use for 3 years.
That 3 year exemption ended in March. The expectation was that the E.U. would issue 2-year renewals, in order to further the peace-making period, while the hard issues were hammered out. “But they didn’t renew it,” says a source with close ties to the industry. It is this impasse that the U.S. Trade Representative is now being pressured to resolve by the politicians.
(For a good background story on this issue, see this Wines & Vines article.)
I asked the industry source what is likely to happen next. “It remains unresolved what the people with trademarks are supposed to do, like Chateau Montelena or Korbel [Champagne Cellars]. So we probably have a case for the World Trade Organization,” the international body that resolves trade disputes between nations.
My guess is that every winery currently using traditional expressions will be allowed to keep them. After all, nobody expects Clos du Val to change their name! I also suspect the list of words the E.U. objects to will be narrowed. I mean, sur lie? Come on.
Beckstoffer’s big Mendocino gamble
“Are we really too early?” That’s the question top grower Andy Beckstoffer asked rhetorically when he was quoted, in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, concerning his planting of 300 acres of organic Chardonnay vineyards by the banks of the Russian River in Hopland, which is in central Mendocino County.
Andy B. is one of the smartest guys in the industry, a veteran who came up through the ranks and bears the scars to prove it. (I have a chapter on him in my book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.)
Andy’s question concerns, of course, when the Recession will end. Since nobody knows, it’s something of a gamble to be developing a big new vineyard at this time. Beckstoffer’s optimism runs in his genes, but it’s based also on his assumptions that (a) downturns always end, and (b) inland Mendocino County has been underrated as a source of premium wine.
I remember when I first tasted a Chardonnay from the old Jepson winery, which was made from the same area as Beckstoffer’s new vineyard. I thought it was one of the best I’d ever had. Chardonnay remains America’s favorite white wine, and there’s no reason to expect that will ever change. So, if Beckstoffer can keep his prices moderate — and if the wineries that buy his grapes don’t charge too much — his gamble is likely to pay off. I’d expect the Chardonnays to retail in the $10-$15 range.
It was Groucho Marx who popularized the line, “Will it play in Peoria?” during the Vaudeville era of the 1920s. What he meant was, if an act could succeed in Peoria, Illinois — America’s Main Street, as it were — it would succeed anywhere.
(Which is the counterpoint to “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, It’s up to you, New York, New York.” I can still hear Liza, and later on Ol’ Blue Eyes, singing those words. I guess the ideal world is one in which you make it in both Peoria and New York.)
Wineries, too, have to “play in Peoria.” Maybe not Harlan or Latour. But any winery with a greater supply of product than demand will deplete has got to figure out how to appeal to the great mainstream of American consumers.
In order to do so, wineries test their markets to discover what the masses want. They do focus groups and conduct product placement studies, they tinker with the color of the label and even the wording. Does “Reserve” sell better than “Private Reserve” or vice versa? More to the point of what I want to talk about, they finagle with the actual flavors of the wine, in order to maximize its attractiveness. In case you ever wondered how marketing managers earn a living, this is the stuff of their daily lives.
I recently tasted through some wines with a winemaker. It was a real eye-opener. (I’m going to mask some of the details so you won’t know the brand, but the specifics aren’t important. What’s important is the point they illustrate.) The brand had recently changed ownership. We tasted 4 Chardonnays: one from the winery’s previous regime, one that the previous winemaker had vinified but the new winemaker had finished and bottled, and two 2007s, a regular and a reserve, that the new winemaker made entirely alone.
I had long reviewed that winery’s Chardonnays, both the regular and the reserve, and always liked them. They scored in the mid- to high Eighties, polished, friendly wines that didn’t cost too much. When I got to the regular 2007 — remember, this was the first vintage the new winemaker made — it was clear that a new height had been reached, not just in terms of power but of finesse and pedigree. The wine was riper and oakier than those that came immediately before, in a wonderful way; and, as many of you know, I am a fan of ripe, oaky California Chardonnays.
Then I tasted the 2007 Reserve, and it was so heavy in oak, it brought to mind that old saying, “drinking toothpicks.” Since I had been encouraged to be blunt in my appraisal, I told the winemaker, “I see what your thinking is. If the regular 2007 could be made better than the 2006 by making it riper and oakier and more malolactic, then the reserve 2007 can be even better by making it even riper and oakier and more malolactic.”
The winemaker agreed that the reserve was a little ponderous, and suggested that it was a barrel sample that would brighten up and improve by early next year. S/he asked me how I review barrel samples, and I replied I usually don’t. It’s like predicting what a fetus will grow up to be from a sonogram. Then I explained how the man I consider my mentor, the late, great Harry Waugh, would describe a barrel sample, or one newly bottled, that was not showing particularly well. “It seems like it will make a good bottle,” old Harry would say, in his polite, understated British way, meaning: I’m not really going to tell you, because I don’t know.
So what does this have to do with Peoria? Winery marketing wizards have concluded that Americans like buttered popcorn-style, fruity Chardonnay. That’s why Chardonnay continues to march down that new-oaky, malolactic fermentation-high alcohol path. (The unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon is not pertinent to Chardonnay’s future.) But, as I have written and argued for my entire wine writing career, in wine, as in life, it’s all about balance. It’s patently not true that, if 20% new oak and partial malolactic fermentation make a Chardonnay captivating, then 80% new oak and total malo will make it 4 times more captivating. At some point, you by-pass balance and wander into excess. And excess has always been what California wines need to avoid.
(I’m reminded of the remark an old friend, a Frenchman, once made about California wines. “They are like Tammy Faye Bakker,” he said. He meant, as opposed to the discrete way in which a French mademoiselle wears makeup.)
Tammy Faye Baker, R.I.P.
I’ll concede this to the marketing people, though: They have a tough job. Like Groucho, they have to figure out if it will play in Peoria. And in this ever-shifting and fickle market, that ain’t easy.
P.S. Check out this column Jancis Robinson wrote last week on the ethics of tasting. It’s a superb piece of writing and reflects my views and experiences 100%.