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 funny that I never really thought about it until recently, when I was browsing through my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database and realized that I had chosen the special designation of “Cellar Selection” for about 80% of my highest scoring wines.
If you’d asked me what parameters form the basis of a high score (let’s say anything above 95 points), I would have referred you to the magazine’s guidelines. They say things like “truly superb,” “great complexity,” “memorable,” “pinnacle of expression,” “complete harmony and balance,” “absolute best,” but the guidelines are silent on the question of ageability.
Had you pressed me to more fully explain a high score, I suppose at some point the “A” word would have arisen. But in and of itself, “ageability” does not equal great wine. Many wines will age, some for a long time, yet are not particularly complex or beautiful, either in youth or in old age.
And yet, my highest scoring wines, from this year alone, include Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Pinot Noir, Rochioli 2011 West Block Pinot Noir, Freemark Abbey 2009 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet, Flora Springs 2010 Hillside Reserve Cabernet, Tantara 2010 Gwendolyn Pinot Noir, Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey, Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Cabernet, Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet, B Cellars 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet, Jarvis 2007 Estate Cabernet, Von Strasser 2010 Sori Bricco Cabernet, Sodaro 2009 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet, and, another Beckstoffer coup, Janzen 2010 Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet. All 95 points or higher, all Cellar Selections.
What I look for in predicting ageability are two things, or three, depending on how you define them. First is an immediate reaction (from the nose/palate via the brain) of stunned impressionability. It’s a simple “Wow!” factor, although of course there’s nothing simple about it. Now, any wine can possess the “Wow!” factor without being ageable. A lot of it has to do with what Dr. Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. where you are (the external circumstances) and your mindset (subjective factors). A silky Beaujolais, like the one I had the other night, achieved the “Wow!” factor, because it was a warm evening, I had slightly chilled the bottle, and with it I enjoyed a soy-glazed tuna burger (homemade) and the company of someone special to me. But that Beaujolais was not an ageable wine, and if I were scoring it, I would have given it around 90.
The next thing I look for, in determining ageability, is an immature quality that makes the wine, good as it is, undrinkable, this latter word used in the old British sense of “too young to enjoy now” (although I’m always careful to point out that even a California wine that’s “too young to enjoy now” is, of course, enjoyable now, if you like it that way. The Cellar Police will not slap you into Guantanamo). What makes a wine “too young now,” for me, are, usually, dense tannins that numb the palate, but this is not so great a problem as it used to be (in California or in France) because modern tannin management regimes render even the hardest tannins more mellifluous (the adjective “mellifluous” being a good example of its own definition). A greater problem is what I call the unintegrated quality of a young wine’s parts. Those parts include oak, fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins, and if they feel (in the mouth) like a herd of cats, each going its own way, resistant to corralling, then the wine is unintegrated. A subset of this is that California fruit can be overwhelming in youth, a detonation of jam that makes them too obvious–“Tammy Faye Bakker,” in the words of a Frenchman I know who crafts wines (or seeks to) of greater finesse and control.
The final aspect of determining ageability is the history and reputation of the winery. I make the previous two determinations blind, but this third factor weaves its way in when I take the bottle out of its covering bag. If I’ve already determined that the wine is ageable, that is going to appear in the review; but if I then see that it’s a wine I know for a fact ages well (say, a Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir), that seals the deal, as they say. In general, I don’t like to stretch the window of ageability too far into an uncertain future (the way RMP does), but if I know the wine has a good history of hitting, say, 10 or 20 years, I’ll say so. (Corison Cabernets are a good example of this.) Which obviously makes it difficult when the wine is a new brand, without history, of which there are many, particularly in those bastions of ageability, Napa Valley Cabernet and cool-climate Pinot Noir. But, going through my highest-scoring wines, I see very few new brands among them. Mostly they are the older, traditional names, which is just as you’d expect.
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.
The last few years there’s been a ton of stuff published about how inaccurate critics’ reviews are. You’ve heard it all: We’re influenced by price. We give different reviews to the same wine. Different critics give widely varying scores to the same wines. (For a summary of the various complaints, click here, to this article which appeared yesterday on Yahoo Finance.)
All of the individual criticisms are largely true. In a moment, I’ll tell you why none of that matters, but first, I want to try and figure out why some people get so psychologically bent out of shape about wine critics.
The latest to do so is this guy, David Derbyshire (great name), who writes for the British publication, The Guardian. Here’s the link to his article, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science.
Why don’t people get so upset about restaurant critics or movie critics? You’ll never see an article headlined RESTAURANT REVIEWS ARE JUNK SCIENCE. That’s because restaurant reviewers don’t pretend to be offering anything but their opinion.
Well, neither do wine critics. If you want a “scientific” analysis of a wine, send it to ETS. But how useful would that be for the consumer? Not very. Consumers don’t want scientific analyses of wine and they don’t need them. They want to know what it smells and tastes like, and how it feels in the mouth, and maybe a few other things. For these, they turn to critics.
What’s wrong with that?
We could settle this whole thing in 5 seconds if all the wine critics would take the pledge. What pledge? Admit that your review is the way you responded to that particular wine at that particular time. Don’t claim to be scientific about it, just assure readers that you’re doing your level best and have no conflicts of interest. I sometimes think critics invite this outside criticism because of their implication that wine tasting is science when it’s not. All the critics know this. They all know how fallible they are. They all know they could be fooled, and rather easily at that. But very few of them will admit it. They hide under a veil of authority and pretense, and that’s precisely why this field of wine reviewing is becoming suspect.
If social media has taught us anything, it’s to be transparent in our dealings. Transparency doesn’t cost people their reputation; it enhances it. And the most transparent thing a critic can do is to tell people, Hey, I could be wrong, but this is my opinion, just sayin’.
When I read Eric Asimov’s statement that “The polarizing years of California wine are over. No longer can its styles be summed up in a descriptive phrase or two,” I thought: “What? They never could.” I mean, I never summed up California’s “styles” in such simplistic, reductionist phrases as (to quote Eric), “plush, concentrated cabernet sauvignon; lush, jammy pinot noir; buttery oak-bomb chardonnay; or extravagantly ripe, blockbuster zinfandel.”
Any individual wine might be describable in those terms. But to describe all the state’s Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Zinfandels and whatever that way is just plain wrong. It was wrong ten years ago, it was wrong five years ago, and it’s wrong today. So it’s nice to see Eric finally coming around to that realization.
Of course, it’s been the conventional East Coast wisdom for years that California wine could be summed up in pat phrases. It was a smear, but I never was sure what their motive was. Even Eric concedes that this view of “a monolithic wine culture” was an “impression.” Impressions are not knowledge, but feelings. Impressions can be misleading, and it can be hard to separate impressions from their near-cousins, biases.
There are several possible explanations for this one-dimensional view. The first is that people simply didn’t taste enough California wines to know how diverse they are. They didn’t know that, even though there admittedly are a lot of oak-bomb Chardonnays, California has long had balanced Chards as well: Kistler, Failla, Rochioli, Marimar Torres, Morgan, Dutton-Goldfield, Chateau St. Jean, Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem, Hanzell, Mount Eden, to name a few. I could go through similar lists of balanced Cabernets, Pinots and Zinfandels, but it would take too much space.
Another explanation is that California’s recent string of cool vintages (2009 and counting) is resulting, per force, in wines of less fruity concentration, making them more appealing to a Europhile’s palate. This is certainly the conventional wisdom, and it may contain elements of truth. But, if California wines are leaner, or more elegant, or less alcoholic than they were, say, five years ago–to say nothing of less oaky, which would not have anything to do with the weather–it’s by very tiny degrees, certainly nothing so dramatic as to enable someone to proclaim the end of a “polarizing” era and the beginning of a–what is the opposite of polarizing?–more conciliatory one, in which the full diversity of California’s wines can be appreciated.
Anyway, I’m glad to see Eric, one of the nation’s leading and most important wine critics, who is in a unique position to guide America’s taste, come around. As they say, better late than never.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how we hierarchize wine. It’s almost reminiscent of the Indian caste system, in which the highest caste was the priests, then the warriors, followed by merchants and then, at the bottom, the untouchables.
Maybe the British social structure is more apt, with royalty at the top (themselves intensely hierarchized), then gentry of various orders, followed by an elite class of merchants and, finally, the poor. America is supposed to be a classless society, but it isn’t, as even a brief exposure to the Napa auction proved.
I suppose there’s something in human nature that likes to classify things, including where people are on the social scale. We do the same thing with wine. The First Growths and Grand Crus of France are wine’s Brahmins and Kings and Queens. Here in California, their equivalents are the you-know-whos of Napa Valley that go for high triple digits.
What I wonder is, we all know that pigeon-holing human beings into a caste system is wrong. All men are created equal and all that; all are the children of God, and each person should be appreciated for what he or she is–or so our liberal philosophy says. Regardless of whether or not we actually believe that, it’s patently obvious that we’re comfortable putting wine into castes. If you’re familiar with San Francisco’s neighborhoods, we might say there are Pacific Heights mansion wines, North Beach artisanal wines, Mission District working class wines, and finally there are ghetto wines nobody would ever be caught dead drinking or serving, unless they were poor and couldn’t afford any better.
I’ve always been of the opinion that all wines should be treated equally, which is to say, with respect. That comes from the way I was raised, in a household where my parents idolized FDR. They were far from wealthy and had to watch their expenses, so I grew up understanding the concept of value.
Today, I love value in a wine. I give credit to the Broncos and Wine Groups of California, companies that make wine affordable for the masses. Sure, you can call those wines peasant wines, the equivalents of the untouchables, the dreaded lower classes whom British royalty were so snobbish toward. I know people who would refuse to drink these wines; they’d rather drink nothing than to sully their palates.
But that’s a wrong-headed attitude. If I were a billionaire I’m sure I’d drink my share of old Burgundy, but I’m not. One of these days I’ll be cruising the supermarket wine aisle again, like I used to, looking for affordable wines. Here are some of the best value brands I’ve reviewed this year–some old names, some new names, all worth a round.
L de Lyeth
Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi
Robert Mondavi Private Selection
Are these great, world-class wines? No. But they’re the wines I’d be drinking if they were all I could afford, and they’d give me plenty of pleasure. All of them should be the envy of the world, when it comes to producing dry, properly varietal wines at a price ordinary working people can afford.