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More thoughts about Chardonnay


We touched on a lot of topics at The Chardonnay Symposium, where my panel consisted of Greg Brewer (for Diatom), Dieter Cronje (Presqu’ile), Joshua Klapper (La Fenetre), Leslie Mead Renaud (for Foley), Mike Eyres (Chehalem) and Greg Stach (Landmark), all of whose Chardonnays were delightful.

The title of my seminar in the official handbook was “The Great Oaked Debate,” but I didn’t want to make it into some kind of hot-and-heavy competition between adherents of oak (like Joshua) and those who don’t use much if any oak (Greg Brewer), like those cable television shootouts between conservatives and liberals where the moderater has to practically keep the opposing sides from crawling onto the table and attacking each other.

That just wasn’t my intention. There’s way too much fuss and furor in wine media anyway. It’s like the debate over “France vs. California.” That might have been relevant 15 years ago, but no more. The wine media loves to take tiny differences or distinctions and blow them up into “wars.” Another example is “natural” winemaking versus what I suppose would be “unnatural” winemaking. Another version of that is organic (or biodynamic) vs. non-organic. Then there’s the high alcohol vs. low alcohol faux issue and the native yeast vs. commercial yeast debate. We seem to always be itching for a fight, and to pit stainless steel vs. oak is a natural for stirring up trouble.

Except that if I’m the moderater, it’s not gonna happen. As I explained at the outset, I don’t see it as oak versus stainless, I see it as oak or stainless. Separate but equal. Not better or worse, just two different approaches. Either one can go bad. If you take the oak approach, the wine can be appallingly overoaked (as too many Chardonnays are). If you take the stainless approach, the wine can be simple, like fruit juice. With all things, it’s a matter of balance, and as a journalist, I’m always looking for balanced coverage of the things I write about. (Or maybe I’m a journalist because I’m a Gemini and so I see everything from dual points of view). I’ve just always gotten upset and impatient when people take ideologically rigid attitudes in wine, claiming that their approach is the correct one and everybody else is doomed to hell.

I don’t know what the 60 or 70 people in the audience expected, but they liked what they got. I’ve done a lot of these panels over the years, and never had the overwhelmingly positive reaction I got from this one. When people walk up to you afterward–they don’t have to, they just make the decision to–to shake your hand and tell you how much they enjoyed the session, that’s pretty cool. The typical reaction was: Thank you for an interesting, informative and respectful discussion of the issues. People liked that I didn’t take sides, or bait one side or the other. Of course, there was disagreement among the panelists, but it was expressed in a good humored way that made the audience chuckle, even as it brought out fundamental winemaking issues. I don’t believe a single person in the audience walked away thinking that the oak adherents had “won” or that the stainless people had “lost.” Instead, they left thinking, “Hmm, you can make good wine anyway you want, as long as you start with good grapes.”

To be truthful, I did say I think an unoaked Chardonnay can’t rise to the level of complexity of a great oaked one, and I’ll stand by that assertion, in a general way. Would I turn down Greg Brewer’s unoaked 2003 Inox? Hell no. At lunch later that day I had a 1997 Qupe Bien Nacido Reserve Chardonnay from magnum (poured by a beaming Bob Lindquist himself) that was obviously oaked, and I have to say that both wines really turned me on. To have to choose between them would be a crime. Fortunately, we don’t have to. The bottom line is this: Great wine is an anomaly that cannot be explained. Even after every aspect of terroir, viticulture and winemaking is defined (as if terroir can ever be fully defined), the final satisfaction of a great wine is a phenomenon of nature, or perhaps a singularity is a better word. In a singularity, the laws of nature no longer apply. Anything is possible. Isn’t that what we look for in wine? Every time I open a bottle, I’m prepared to fall into a wormhole and be transported to some magical new place. That’s why I love this job!

One final thing I wonder about, which didn’t really get addressed during the panel, was if the consumer is confused by the oaked-unoaked Chardonnay thing. Lord knows consumers have enough to be confused about anyway (I’m just talking about wine). Since there’s no legal terminology to refer to an unoaked wine, proprietors use all kinds of different terms: unoaked, no oak, stainless, steel, naked, and even whimsical terms like Metallico. One of the winemakers on the panel related how a customer, tasting a Chardonnay from a bottle labeled unoaked, said he didn’t like it because he wasn’t getting the oak he expected. I wondered, if the same wine had been poured from a bottle labeled “barrel fermented,” would the customer have had a different reaction? Hmm.

  1. Rose Rivera says:

    Steve! I completely agree with everything you said – both here in the blog and at the panel tasting at Bien Nacido (it’s me, Steve – Miss “I don’t own anything and I don’t make wine, I just drink it!”). LOL!

    It was totally NOT an oaked vs. un-oaked discussion and I agree that we all went away with some great discussion points. I myself prefer the unoaked (Wrath Cellars near Montecito puts out a yummy one), but agree with you as well that lots of times, the unoaked comes out feleing more like juice, so yes, I do wish they could punch it up a bit…one can only hope.

    Great meeting you! 🙂


  2. What a fantastic panel discussion! I could not have agreed more with you and Greg in the on-set of viewing the positives from each wine and their distinctions as being a cool thing. I also really appreciated the global perspective and history you shared. Pleasure meeting you Steve!

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