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Chardonnay


Joe Riley
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A very prestigious restaurant here in town has just selected this wine as their by-the-glass Chardonnay for the year (or at least the next quarter, I'm not certain of the duration).

The wine director is someone whom I have known for many years, and consider a friend, and they are extremely conscientious, professional and über-knowledgeable, a very well-respected person in the restaurant industry here.

I tasted this Chardonnay in my store last week, and I was stunned that it was even being considered by this restaurant for by-the-glass consideration. It was all butter-ball on the nose, and the medium-full body was incredibly confectionary. It wasn't just "not my style", it was truly dreadful. When I mentioned this to the supplier, they were quite surprised and believed that I must have had an "off" bottle.

So I got to re-try it today. It was somewhat better, but not earth-shattering. At best, I could describe it as "crowd-pleasing".

I've heard anecdotaly that Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, "the people who will buy this sort of thing are precisely the sort of people who like this sort of thing." or words to that effect. That sentiment summed up my feelings towards the wine in a nutshell. It is palate-pandering, which in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but speaks more to commercial rather than artisanal motives.

I seem to be of the minority opinion, though. Consider this, allegedly from a wine shop in Baltimore:

"Rutherford Ranch Vineyards and Winery produces such a wine. Rather than host a fancy tasting room or send hundreds of bottles out for the critics to taste and comment on, the folks at Rutherford Ranch put their money (and efforts) in the bottle and deliver solid, satisfying and very good wines at prices that haven’t been seen from Napa Valley in at least a decade. Call them… Saturday night wines at Tuesday night prices.

2004 Chardonnay (Reg. Price: $12.99/ *** Price: $9.99)

Yes, yes, we know, we’re all supposed to hate Chardonnay, especially that oaked stuff from Napa Valley. But while the ‘in-crowd’ is proselytizing, the rest of the world is buying Chardonnay because it tastes so good. Like this wine. Apple and pear with caramel and vanilla. Deny yourself no longer!"

I've long maintained that California (and most so-called "New World" Chardonnay) is the vanilla ice cream of the wine world. It is successful because when it is good, it is rather soul-satisfying. Think of the best vanilla ice cream you've ever had, be it Ben & Jerry's, Breyers, Haagen-Daaz or your grandmother's own home-made. You can just taste it right now, can't you? Isn't that satisfying? Well, most of those Chardonnays to me are just like that ice cream, delivering predictable goods with no surprises. I don't have anything against vanilla ice cream, but I get very bored with the same-old, same-old, and most of these Chardonnays do so little to distinguish themselves, preferring instead to be as inoffensive as possible. When you've had to try as many of them as I have over the years, they become less and less inspiring and you even begin to dread them a little bit, knowing that you aren't in for a treat, just more of the same predictable, innocuous flavors. Ho-hum.

I'd be very interested to hear from anyone else who has had this wine. Tell me why I'm wrong, or at least tell me what I'm missing here. I'm not looking for an argument here (shades of the Monty Python argument/abuse sketch) just greater insight into consumer wine buying habits.

I will credit this wine as having the Napa Valley appellation as a virtue at a very decent price. From a strictly commercial perspective, that says something. The last $10 (or so) Napa Valley Chardonnay that I thought had merit was Heitz Chardonnay and that was at least 7 years ago.

One last point I'd like to make is this - I don't envy my friend having to make this decision for a by-the-glass pour. I know that they sorted through untold dozens of wines to arrive at this decision, and they do strive for better than simply "acceptable", but who among us would want to have to deal with that chore? They are running a business after all. They are likely to do anywhere from 350-400 cases of this wine this year if the program is successful. That's over a case per day, and they aren't even OPEN every day of the week.

I have purposely tried not to identify the restaurant or individual that I've discussed because I truly do not want to risk embarrassing, ridiculing or insulting them in any way. That is not my intention, and I continue to hold their wine opinions in the highest esteem. I cannot vouchsafe every buying decision that they make. In a sense, they have done me a favor - I'll probably sell a boatload of this myself to people who are, as I paraphrased above with President Lincoln, "the people who like this sort of thing" because I can't ram my own sensibilities down every customer's throat. If they want a $10 California Chardonnay, I believe that they can do far worse than to buy the Rutherford Ranch 2004 and since I don't care for those kinds of wines, I might make some folks really happy with it.

If I were more mercenary and less conscientious, I wouldn't grapple with this vinous moral conundrum for two seconds, I'd just aggressively sell it as though my life depended upon it and not give it another thought, but I have to live with myself, and I cannot, in good conscience, recommend wines that I genuinely dislike. I'm happy to pass along the recommendations of others, though, and be honest about it.

I welcome a healthy discussion of these issues.

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hmm..their web-site says something like the following.....don't forget to serve this wine with desserts such as pumpkin pie, baklava, or fried apples and cinnamon ice cream with pastachio compote for an after dinner treat...perhaps there is a little RS in this wine? new catagory..."dessert chard" ??

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These guys were at the Boston Wine Expo, inviting guests to "Take the Napa Cabernet Challenge" by blind tasting two wines tapped from fake "barrels"--one from Rutherford Ranch, the other from someone else. Y'know, the Coke v. Pepsi thing. Come to think of it, if that's the style they make the wine.........

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I feel for the restaurants who have to serve these wines, but the customers that they attract seem to like such wines, so they really have little choice, we can always go about trying to change the world, but in the end it is futile. If a great wine list can change the minds and habits of a handful of customers I believe they have succeeded in advancing enology. But wines like this are perfect for people who do not want to be inspired by what is in their glass, they can have something that they simply enjoy.

These types of wines can also act as gateway wines. My mother drank them for years, now since discovering Chardonnays with less or no oak, she won’t touch these butter balls. If she had not started with a wine that she could easily enjoy, I doubt that she would be have progressed to the point where she is opening a bottle of Bertrand Ambroise Corton Charlemagne for dinner guests tonight.

While I have not had this wine, being a $10 California Chardonnay even without opening the bottle, it would scream oak to me, and it is a style that I am not attracted to. But I strive for balance in what I eat and drink, I find that similar to the heavy use of oak in wines, many of the small brewers are over hopping their beers, but that is a subject for another thread.

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I was speaking to a wine writter recently about chardonnay. Many a wine drinker says "I love chardonnay" or I hate it" where their frame of reference is the Glen Ellen Yellowtail South of France Vins du Pay d'Oc variety of chardonnay selling for under $10. These wines are oaky (usually from oak chips or overly toasted barrels), sweet and devoid of varietal character. California chardonnay today is characterized typically by 100% ml fermentation, use of new french oak, high sugar grapes to start with etc etc. But there are other styles available. These people have never actually tasted chardonnay, just chardonnay flavored beverage alcohol!

There are chardonnay from Green Valley in Sonoma with lesser amounts of oak and ml: Iron Horse and Marimar Torres (the Don Miguel standard bottling) are two that come to mind. Talbott in Monterrey uses a mix of old and new barrels along with extended lees aging allowing the flavor of the grape to shine thru. Chehalem, Morgan and others are now making non oaked chards. Mayacamas makes a mountain grown chard with no ml at all. Ridge chardonnay from Santa Cruz Mountains is full of spice and acidity with a lot of oak, but the chardonnay character is unmistakable. Its just too bad that the production of ALL of these wines mentioned doesn't begin to approach the sales of Glen Ellen for one month!

Of course Brittaney Spears sells more records than Luciano Pavarotti. Does that maker her the better singer? The market decrees yes but to any with an ear for music and the experience to hear different forms of music, would the answer be the same?

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What I wouldn't give to hear Terry Theise opine on this subject :) He would type volumes. He's such a busy man though that waiting for him to chime in on a wine thread is akin to waiting for Godot :)

Still, I'm amusing myself right now imagining what he WOULD say.

Oh, great, now I have a serious jones for some Pfalz Riesling. :lol:

Of course Britney Spears sells more records than Luciano Pavarotti. Does that maker her the better singer? The market decrees yes but to any with an ear for music and the experience to hear different forms of music, would the answer be the same?

Dean, I'm going to shamelessly steal that line from you - many thanks :wub:

This is just another good reason to drink white Burgundy.

Mark, it's truly interesting to me how many dedicated California Chardonnay drinkers won't even consider a simple white Burgundy, whether Bourgogne blanc or a nice, simple Mâcon. I try to slip these things in on them from time to time, and I think I've won the occasional convert over the years, but it still amazes me how many new world Chardonnay drinkers won't even consider white Burgundy. Have you had much luck in your guest interactions? You're an awfully persuasive person, after all :huh:

Folks, please understand, the top 50, or even perhaps the top 100 or more white Burgundies are quite different from the top 50-100 Californian, Australian, South American, or South African (sorry, JP) Chardonnays. Microclimates, soil, days of sunshine, amounts of rainfall, clonal selections, trellising techniques, etc.. they all create amazing diversity as evidenced by the burgeoning shelves in wine shops across the globe. Though personal preferences are highly subjective, to steal a line from Porsche, there really is "no substitute" for great white Burgundy.

Perhaps Dean's comparison with music is more apt than I first realized. Have you ever heard a certain song that you like as recorded by one artist sung a different way by another artist and the second interpretation doesn't appeal to you? "Light My Fire" sung by Jim Morrison and music by the Doors is quite different from the same song as recorded by José Feliciano. I can't even bear to LISTEN to the José Feliciano version, I find it so off-putting. And yet, I'm sure that there are music lovers who find his version really enjoyable. Sid Vicious' version of "My Way" is quite a different one from Frank Sinatra's.

I wish I were more musically educated. I think I really would start to equate certain wines with music. After all, harmony and balance are crucial in great, classical music aren't they?

Factoid for the interested: The wholesale cost of a bottle of wine that sells for $9.99 is $6.66.  Devil wine!

The Dark Lord of $9.99 wines?

SatanJr.jpg

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No hard feelings on SA chard--of course it can't swing with the top few percent of white burgs. But there are a few out there that reflect the sensibility of good and proper white burg--that is, leesy and mineral, reflective of soil and sight and built to age at least medium-term. Those of you who are interested, I'd be glad to pour them for you. I promise, nothing over $25 retail.

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I was asked to give a caterer some tasting notes on a particular California chardonnay that I hadn't had, and so I went to the winery website to see just what quivering verbiage I could read for inspiration.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the words, "Limited quantities available", but for an instant, I thought that it read, "LETHAL quantities available" :o

The funniest part is, both sentences would be accurate. :lol:

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