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The Chardonnay Symposium

June 29, 2012 - June 30, 2012

Sierra Madre Vineyards

Sierra Madre Vineyards

Note: The following is a review of the 2011 Chardonnay Symposium

Ah, Chardonnay! Loved and cherished by so many, and yet dismissed, even derided by so many others. A recent dining experience was, in my mind, emblematic of the challenges that Chardonnay faces with the newest generation of wine drinkers.

Whenever we dine out with friends, the wine list inevitably falls into my hands. A venture to a well regarded LA restaurant found me scanning futilely for a great Santa Barbara County selection (why isn’t LA embracing it’s fantastic local wine scene?), so as I thought about the food choices being discussed at the table, I thought a nice Burgundian Chardonnay would be a great choice to kick off the evening. On presenting this idea to the table of 30-somethings, however, I was met with a combination of curious looks and furled brows. “Uh, Chardonnay?” one of them finally said. It was if I was proposing we drink dirty dish water with our meal. Despite my immediate regret for even asking (should’ve just said “we’re having a nice white Burgundy” and taken my chances that anyone would even know that it’s Chardonnay), and a half-hearted attempt on my part to defend the choice, I succumbed to the pressure of the situation and switched to a Vouvray – quite pleasant as well, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking “these people have no idea what they’re missing!”

Chardonnay is the one varietal that, more than any other, was responsible for the transformation in the wine drinking habits of millions of Americans. When Chardonnay started gaining popularity in the 1980’s, its sales skyrocketed and drove massive planting of its vines across California. Indeed, Chardonnay’s very ability to grow and thrive in such a wide variety of climates and soil types is undoubtedly part of the reason why for some people it has become a symbol of mediocrity in California wine. For while there is a tremendous amount of high quality California Chardonnay that will please and excite just about anyone’s palate (given the chance), there’s also tens of millions of cases of cheap, unbalanced, over-ripened, over-oaked, and just plain overdone Chardonnays. These mass production wines have surely contributed to the vastly oversimplified “ABC” (anything but Chardonnay) rule of thumb for inexperienced wine drinkers.

Sierra Madre VineyardsSo how did Chardonnay grow from an obscure varietal found almost nowhere outside of Burgundy and Champagne in the mid-1960’s grow to become the most widely planted grape in California just 20 years later? How can Chardonnay excite and draw in the newest generation of wine drinkers who are exposed to an ever-expanding range of choices? What does the future of Chardonnay in America hold in store?


These were but a few of the topics being discussed at the 2nd annual Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria, put together by the good folks at Santa Maria Wine Country. And if the answers to the questions above strike you as just a bunch of wine esoterica, there were plenty of Chardonnay tastings from top California Chardonnay vintners throughout the event to keep the palate pleased! Sure, this is an event for lovers of Chardonnay – and what’s not to love? But this event should be on any Chardonnay skeptics calendar as well. For after attending this event, one can’t help but walk away being surprised, amazed, and very happy about the trajectory of Chardonnay in California, and especially in Santa Barbara County.

Vineyard Bliss

Friday night started off with a trip to the famed Sierra Madre vineyards, a source of grapes to several of the top wine makers in the Santa Maria Valley and surrounding areas. We drove up the dirt roads into the vineyard, parked along a hillside block, and hiked the rest of the way up a hill to a fantastic view of the Santa Maria valley – a perfect backdrop for an afternoon of wine education, followed by a delicious meal accompanied by wines from Sierra Madre (and a few bottles snuck in by some party crashing wine makers).

A panel discussion hosted by Doug Circle, proprietor of Sierra Madre Vineyards which also included Sierra Madre winemaker Steve Rasmussen, Rusack and Falcone Family Vineyards winemaker John Falcone, Sanford Winery winemaker Steve Fennell, legendary viticulturist Bob Steinhauer, and UC Davis Editor of the National Grape Registry Nancy Sweet, to discuss clonal diversity in Chardonnay – what it means, where they came from, why winemakers use different clones, and what the various clones bring to the resulting wines. Backed up with side-by-side tastings, even a wine novice can gain a lot from attending these kind of events. Instant comparisons of wines, whether of different varietals, or in this case different clones of the same varietal, is definitely one of the best ways to improve understanding of wine and to develop a discerning palate.

Chardonnay Symposium

But what came after the panel discussion perfectly represented what the Santa Barbara County wine scene is all about. A tent perched on a hillside overlooking gorgeous vineyards and the Santa Maria River, with the lights of Santa Maria twinkling in the distance. A stroll through the vineyard with some of the top winemakers in the area talking the group through more tastings, answering any and all questions with enthusiasm and nary a trace of competitiveness among them. Excellent food catered by Far Western Tavern (my favorite steak house in all of SBC), and of course, outstanding Chardonnay. Earnest yet casual wine lovers gathered with enthusiastic and experimental wine makers. These elements come together in a wine community that, quite apart from the cutthroat attitudes and tactics so prevalent in business at large, feels like a throwback to a simpler time when business men gathered Friday evening on a porch to discuss the latest goings-on. Only now the porch is replaced by this place – where great wines come from, where wine makers dreams and ambitions are both nurtured and put to the test – a living place where the air, the soil and the vine combine to bring connection with people, and on this night with me. Although Saturday is the main attraction for this event, if you’re looking for a more low key and rustic experience away from the crowds, then Friday night is not to be missed.


Grand Chardonnay Tasting

Saturday brought another day of balancing wine education with some great tastings of both wine and food. A morning drive brought us to the Tantara winery along the gently flowing Santa Maria River. A “Taking Back Chardonnay” panel discussion was moderated by no less of a wine authority than Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible (not kidding), while tasting through a selection of a dozen wines brought in by the wine makers on the panel. Ms. MacNeil did an admirable job of keeping the discussion (and wine) flowing, but also peppered the session with some more piercing topics. In one of the more energetic exchanges of the day, she posed to the panel:

Tantara Winery

“One big question. You hear wine makers and wineries say the following: Sentence one – ‘We spend a huge amount of effort growing really impeccable grapes.’ Sentence two – ‘We don’t want to mask that fruit.’ Sentence three -’50% new oak.’ Why is there ever a sentence three? If you spend time growing impeccable fruit, and you philosophically stated that you don’t want to mess that up or mask it – why, ever, use any oak at all?”

Steve Rasmussen of Sierra Madre immediately shot back with “I’ve got a short answer. I want to sell the wine! I want to stay in business! Next question.”

Laughter of course ensued, but herein lies perhaps the biggest challenge to California Chardonnay. How to keep the buying public plumbed with luscious, buttery and oaky Chardonnay, while also appealing to the more discerning palates of wine journalists, oenophiles, and the newer generation of wine drinkers more likely to reach for a Pinot Grigio than a California Chardonnay. Luckily, the answer was not far away.

Karen MacNeil

After a short bus ride and another fantastic meal hosted at the Au Bon Climat winery, we headed off to the highlight of the weekend, the Grand Chardonnay Tasting. Featuring over 40 wineries and delicious offerings from over a dozen local restaurants, this was a chance to find out first hand what the newest vintage of California Chardonnay had to offer. Within the first hour, one thing became abundantly clear. The range of styles, flavor profiles, and textures from winemakers just tables apart was simply astounding. This range of experiences is uniquely a Chardonnay phenomenon, as it is the one grape that can respond so well to such a wide range of treatments, soils, and climates so as to allow each wine to stand on its own, secure in its place on the spectrum of what’s possible with Chardonnay. This diversity of styles is, I think, what makes Chardonnay so exciting.



2010 Diatom Hamon

Greg Brewer

I spotted Greg Brewer, co-founder of Brewer-Clifton, wine maker for Melville, and more recently someone widely considered to be at the forefront of the naked Chardonnay movement, not only in SBC, but in all of North America. Greg’s small production of stainless steel fermented wines under the Diatom label are well renowned, and proved why they could be considered a benchmark from which any lean, unoaked style of Chardonnay should be compared. While many unoaked Chardonnays are very crisp and lean, with a pleasant precision to the fruit profiles, I’ve often found them lacking in complexity and depth. Not so with these wines. The 2010 Hamon, while still being incredibly expressive, also brought a distinct weight and rounded texture that perfectly balanced the layers of lychee and kiwi fruit, light white mushroom and wet stone minerality. This was unlike any Chardonnay I have ever had, but one which I would very much like to enjoy with a nice dinner.

Dieter Cronje

2009 Presqu'ile Chardonnay

Another unoaked Chardonnay that showed very well was the 2009 Presqu’ile Santa Maria Valley. Under the guidance of winemaker Dieter Cronje, this cement tank fermented wine featured an enticing nose of orange blossom and citrus, with a clean palate of white peach and orange that’s pretty lean and mean, but at the same time very refined. A racy acidity runs through the wine, but it’s balanced with a soft edge that made it very approachable. The balance, precision and complexity found in unoaked Chardonnays such as Diatom and Presqu’ile are definitely exciting new developments that will surely appeal to buyers looking for a more refined and sharp style of Chardonnay.

It was also clear from the tastings that wines that have seen oak fermentation and full malolactic conversion can still be very lively and focused. A 2009 La Fenetre Bien Nacido Chardonnay that I reviewed from a previous tasting, and which I had the pleasure of revisiting this weekend, is an excellent example. Another 2009 Sierra Madre Vineyard Clone 15, which also saw french oak barrel aging and full malo conversion showed a nice minerality, crisp apple palate, and a focused, but long finish. With several other examples in this genre, there’s plenty of more traditional Chardonnays that do not even hint at being overworked.

Chardonnay Symposium

And if you’re a fan of what has become in some people’s minds the classic California Chardonnay, there was plenty of that too. There’s a reason why the oaky, buttery Chards became so popular. Noses brimming with nectar-like fragrance perhaps only surpassed by brilliant Sauternes or Royal Tokaji’s. Texture that is both vibrant and mellowed. Audacious tropical fruit flavors of pineapple and melon. At their best, they are almost sinful delights of luxury, silkiness, vivaciousness.

But are they over the top? At their best, I say “no”. But if all the elements aren’t singing together in harmony, it doesn’t take much for it to feel a little cheap. A pleasure not unlike that weekend cigarette – you know you shouldn’t have it, and you know it’s not even really that great, but maybe you love it nonetheless.

One thing is for sure, there is a lot to celebrate about SBC Chardonnay. With a stunning range of wine making styles – from cutting edge experimental wines that are crisp and racy, to refined Burgundian styles, to luscious and buttery California classics – there is simply no shortage of options for a wine drinker who’s willing to explore. And after all, isn’t that what great wine drinking is all about?

The 3rd Anuual Chardonnay Symposium will be held June 29-30, 2012 in Santa Maria, California.



June 29, 2012
June 30, 2012
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