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Praising California Chardonnay, and a remark about my new job



Wines & Vines last Friday reported that Oregon winemakers, like their counterparts in California, are trying to understand how best to grow and vinify the variety, “but defining Oregon Chardonnay remains an ongoing work.”

There were a couple things in the article that struck me. One is the opening statement that “Chardonnay is enjoying a revival of sorts.” I hadn’t been aware that Chardonnay was in need of a revival. It certainly isn’t here in California, where plantings are at an all-time high, of 101,900 acres, far more than any other grape variety.

So maybe there’s a Chardonnay revival in Oregon. Everywhere else, as far I’m aware, Chardonnay is the definitive white wine in America. For all the ABC sentiment that may or may not exist among some aficionados, when the typical consumer asks for a glass of white wine, more often than not it’s Chardonnay.

What is it about Chardonnay that keeps generations of winemakers seeking to understand it? In some respects, Chardonnay isn’t any different than Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon: there will probably be panels on them forever. When winemakers and wine lovers stop inquiring about “defining” the major varietals, we’ll have a definite clue that the world is coming to an end.

The Oregonians apparently are determined to establish a style of Chardonnay that’s different from either Burgundy or California, the two regions that are most famous for Chard. Veronique Drouhin, the winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, was quoted as saying that following the California model of buttery, oak-warmed Chardonnay would be “a disaster.” I myself don’t care for buttery, popcorny, butterscotchy-sweet Chardonnay–I’ve reviewed enough of it to last a lifetime–but I sometimes fear we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with all this hating on oak, malolactic and fruit. I don’t mind a good unoaked Chardonnay, but to me, that defeats the whole purpose of Chardonnay, which is to be rich and opulent, in an oaky, buttery, creamy but balanced way. Unoaked Chard is like going on vacation to Maui and staying in your hotel room the whole time, never enjoying the sun, the balmy air, the rustle of the wind in palm trees, the scent of passionflower and night jasmine, the romantic chords of Hawaiian music. Surely, the Oregonians would not want to avoid a “California style” Chardonnay, if that style were defined by, say, the likes of Flowers, Williams Selyem, Stonestreet, Failla, Joseph Phelps, Hartford Court, Talley–all fabulous, world-class Chardonnays that are, or ought to be, the envy of Chardonnay producers wherever they are.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I just praised Hartford Court and Stonestreet. They are part of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio, where I just started work as director of communications and wine education. Before some of you start freaking out, let me just say this: I’ve been giving those two wineries, as well as others in the JFW portfolio, high scores for many, many years. I am not about to stop praising them, just because somebody thinks I’m trying to please my employer. That’s not how I roll, and I should hope everyone knows that.

  1. Steve, I don’t think anyone will fault you for singing the praises of the JFW oenoempire even outside your regular job requirements including this blog. What I wonder about anyway is that your touting Hartford Court and Stonestreet and any of the fine wines in the portfolio has to end there. As a journolist you could roam far and wide in California. Now must less so, yes?

  2. Ian Norris says:

    Hey Steve

    Would never suggest that you’re anything LESS than objective.

    And? Congrats on the new post : )

  3. Randy Arnold says:

    Perhaps OR could pursue a French Chablis style for Chardonnay. They are much cooler than CA.

  4. Steve,

    Chardonnay was originally planted in Oregon in the 70’s by the dozen or so pioneering wineries of the Willamette Valley. By the 90’s and 00’s, when Oregon wines were starting to get some nationwide and international recognition, Chardonnay had been replaced by Alsatian varietals like pinot gris and riesling. pinot gris is still the #1 white varietal in Oregon by planted acres and sales, but chardonnay is starting to creep up to #2, hence the “resurgence”.

    As far as avoiding a “California style”, I can only speak from my own perspective, which is to say we are trying to build our own reputation for chardonnay in Oregon, something that is different and unique from what is happening in California. We want you to taste a Willamette Valley Chardonnay and think it tastes like Oregon. And if we’re being honest, right now there is hardly anyone who has an opinion about what Oregon chardonnay tastes like. Hopefully, as our Oregon chardonnay resurgence continues, that will change.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    I see no conflict of interest in your including a couple of wines from your new employer in that list in that you sincerely (and I believe that you do) see them as worthy of inclusion. My only quibble with the list is that ABC and Hanzell are probably more worthy of inclusion than almost anyone in Cali. It’s easy to be Raj Parr or Gavin Chanin and ride the wave of momentum against that style. It was a hell of a lot harder for ABC or Hanzell to stick their guns against the dominant zeitgeist of the industry ten and fifteen years ago.

    As for your point about unoaked Chardonnay, unoaked Chablis is one of the greatest expressions of the grape on the planet and, I would argue, one of the benchmark white wines in the world.

    As to your main point about hating on oak, malo and fruit. I don’t think anyone is so pedantic as to outright hate those things. What they hate is the style of California Chardonnay that placed cramming as much of those three things into the mix to the exclusion of all else–I think that the term Frankenwine came about as a reaction to California Chardonnay far more than to Cabernet. Has the reaction against that style (and let’s be honest, it was the dominant style for at least a decade and a half and is only now receding) led to some babies being thrown out with the bathwater? Certainly, but any reaction against excess is going to have its outlier moments of excess itself. I would guess that Ms. Drouhin is familiar enough with current market trends and her comments are indicative of a worry of her blindly getting thrown out with the bathwater alongside those people who really do deserve an honored spot on the ash heap of winemaking history.

  6. Bill Haydon, I easily could have included ABC, Hanzell, etc. But I was not attempting to make a complete listing of all great CA Chardonnays, just singling a few out that I’ve given high scores to recently.

  7. David Weintraub says:

    How dare you for not have taken a job at a place you truly detest!

  8. I recall a stylistic shift in Oregon Chardonnay that began a decade or so ago as blocks that were grafted over to the earlier ripening Dijon clones began coming into production. Newer plantings reflected a preference toward those clones as well.

    Oregon Chardonnay has come a long way in the past fifteen years. Perhaps some folks are just begining to notice.

    Best wishes for great success in your new position!

  9. I have no problem with you mentioning wines produced by folks that you work for, as long as theres a disclosure alongside. It need not be so emphatic, just a parenthetical phrase would suffice.

  10. Mark Lyon says:

    The topic of California Chardonnay is of much greater levity than being concerned about bias. We are ALL biased.

    I very much love your analogy about unoaked Chardonnay. I too have mixed feelings about making one, but it does sell and can be a learning tool for those who want to taste what is missing without the influence of oak.. To me, when California began barrel and Malo-lactic fermentation, the public adored that inception, including me. As California winemakers mature, perhaps we are really making more balanced, than exaggerated notes of toasty oak, diacetyl and flabby acidity. Also, let’s be fair and say certain producers are prone to “RS” up their Chardonnays that will remain nameless for their sake. (Never believed in outing anybody, including vile hypocrites). So, I think artisanal and passionate producers of California Chardonnay are keeping the faith, but there is still too much sweet, canned fruit cocktail styles of California Chardonnay that is boring.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Steve, et. al.:

    Unoaked Chardonnay supported by extended lees contact might add back in bouquet and flavor components that its non-partisans find lacking.

    I don’t know of any West Coast producer who embraces that approach.

    I’d be grateful for any leads.

    ~~ Bob

  12. Bill Haydon says:

    [[Perhaps OR could pursue a French Chablis style for Chardonnay. They are much cooler than CA.]]

    Easier said than done. Simply non-oaking a Chardonnay and declaring it “Chablisian” is almost as disingenuous as throwing some French Colombard into a jug and calling it Chablis……or John Kongsgaard insisting that his 15+% monstrosities are “Burgundian!” because he stirs the frickin’ lees.

    Oregon might be cooler than California, but it’s still warmer than Chablis: average high temp in August 82 vs. 77. That, however, isn’t the half of it. Unless the Willamette Valley has a mountain of chalk on which to plant those Chardonnay vines, they will never be Chablisian regardless of the level of oak and malo employed.

    I do agree with the notion of Oregon carving out a reputation for making more harmonious, lower alcohol and better balanced Chardonnay than California. That’s a worthy goal that would only be cheapened by some disingenuous attempt to declare Oregon Chardonnay to be some rough equivalent of Chablis.

  13. Bill Haydon,

    I think most Oregon winemakers see the potential of Willamette Valley chardonnay to fall somewhere in the stylistic middle between California and Burgundy. But while comparisons to those famous wine regions helps provide context, the ultimate goal is for Willamette Valley chardonnay to take on a style of it’s own. Hopefully, one day in the future, you will taste a cool climate California chardonnay and say “this tastes like a Willamette Valley Chardonnay”.

  14. redmond barry says:

    The dilemma created by your praising, however objectively and with due disclosure, wines you’re involved in selling is the shadow it must cast on your evaluations of other wines. It’s insoluble unless you recuse yourself from judging product you’re involved with.

  15. redmond berry: Not really. You’ll see.

  16. Blake Gray says:

    You should try an Oregon Chardonnay or two. Consider it research. I sometimes do that when writing about wines from an area.

  17. I could recommend a few. Brickhouse, Evesham Wood, and Cameron are probably my three favorite wineries in the valley, and they all make fantastic chardonnay.

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