Picking Up the Chards

When California's Chardonnay bubble burst, that overexploited star was suddenly shunned. Martin Filler revisits a survivor ready for Act II.

Bad things happen to good grapes, and manmade disasters can be as catastrophic to the wine industry as natural ones like phylloxera, the microscopic insect and nightmare of vintners everywhere. But while phylloxera epidemics have helped improve modern viticulture, the needless harm inflicted by greedy, lazy producers can be harder to reverse. The most spectacular shift in recent American winemaking has been the precipitous plunge in the status (and sales) of California Chardonnay, once promoted as the great all-purpose wine—"the white that drinks like a red," a claim made on behalf of other whites before and since. Now Chardonnay is a code word for bicoastal pretentiousness and signifies liquid mediocrity to metrosexuals and soccer moms alike.

Yes, glassy cliffs of $10 to $20 Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara Chards still bank the broad aisles of big-box retailers across the country. And when you order a glass of white at the average bar, you're still likely to get a Chardonnay. But in fashion-conscious restaurants, that same request now requires you to choose among Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling—never the unspeakable C-wine.

Chardonnay's fall from grace is also evident at high-end specialty shops, which play a crucial role in educating the most receptive segment of the wine-buying public yet cannot ignore market trends indefinitely. There, top-of-the-line West Coast Chards have lost huge amounts of shelf space to whites from other regions. The backlash known in the trade as ABC—anything but Chardonnay—should be called ABAC because the best Chardonnays from Burgundy, such as the stately Chassagne- and Puligny-Montrachets, have suffered no such loss of cachet (even though exchange rates and international politics have taken their toll on French exports to America).

Here's more or less what went wrong in paradise: After the cultural watershed of the sixties, unprecedented numbers of Americans started drinking wine on a regular basis and in due course wanted something better (if not much costlier) than the jug brands they began with. Chardonnay is one of the three great grapes—along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel—on which California's winemaking reputation has been based. It grows wonderfully all over the state, which during the nineties enjoyed an almost unbroken run of abundant harvests and memorable vintages.

Those bumper crops convinced entrepreneurial types that Chardonnay was the wine of the future—consistent, appealing, and identifiable enough to become the oenological equivalent of the megabrand beers that have long dominated U.S. alcohol sales. California Chard could take on barbecued burgers as effortlessly as Coke did, plus it had more heft than Chablis, more class than Muscadet, and went down easier than the domestic reds that somehow still seemed foreign to neophytes.

With that apparent formula for success, the temptation to turn out ever-increasing quantities became irresistible to corporate conglomerates and boutique wineries alike. But things would have to be streamlined, of course. Out went the age-old art of rigorously pruning vines to reduce the quantity and increase the quality of fruit. To compensate for a loss of concentration in overabundant grapes, numerous producers on the West Coast took to "oaking" their Chards, an easy (though cheesy) way to create a big, mouth-filling first impression, even if the rest of the glass never delivered on that promise.

Master winemakers strictly limit their reuse of old barrels because wines absorb more wood as containers become more deeply saturated. Oaking was not just a matter of taste: The process could also improve the bottom line. As the worldwide demand for oak casks pushed prices sky-high, fastidious producers refused to stint on new barrels. In turn they found themselves undercut by complaisant competitors who increased profits by recycling containers that ramped up fake flavor.

Other by-products of oaking included strong vanilla and butter flavors reminiscent of cloying nursery desserts. Critics of these "matchstick wines" were drowned out by the ka-ching of cash registers as the new blockbusters bowled over those in the States with no experience of complex but subtle white French Burgundies. California Chardonnay also became a ubiquitous aperitif, an American preference that baffles Europeans, who prefer almost anything before a meal other than a nonsparkling wine, white or otherwise.

The problem with such one-size-fits-all products is that they never fit perfectly. California Chardonnay, the supposedly foolproof white, worked well enough with roast chicken, grilled swordfish, and other undemanding middle-American staples. As wine options increased, however, there always seemed to be another white that paired better with specific foods—Gewürztraminer with Asian fusion dishes, Grüner Veltliner with artichokes, Viognier with blanquette de veau. Furthermore, oaking limited not only Cali Chard's versatility but also its capacity for aging, to the chagrin of collectors who opened expensive bottles just a few years old and found them undrinkable.

By the turn of the 21st century, many thirtysomethings—the first generation of average Americans to grow up with wine on the dinner table—considered California Chardonnay as dated as Mom's spinach quiche. Dissing the old oaken bucket became a national pastime. As Robyn Tinsley reported on the irreverent, informative site Wineskinny.com: "I knew the Chardonnay backlash had spun out of control when the Britney-Love-Gellar girl handing out glasses of wine at the hair salon flashed an apologetic smile and cooed in her baby-doll voice, 'It's just a Chardonnay, but it's not too bad.'"

Big Chardonnay makers began to tone down excessive oaking and moved increasingly to steel or concrete containers that gave less wood to the finished product. But for the most part this was merely a sop to changing mass-market taste, exceptional though it may have been for consumers to rebel against a specific winemaking style with such immediate commercial impact. These "sleeker" Chards were not as obvious as their precursors from the same wineries, but they were rarely superior in terms of careful winemaking either.

For more distinguished producers who hadn't succumbed to the oaking fad, it became a case of back to basics. Yet, high-end or low-end, the entire category felt the fallout, and the good guys went down with the rest. "There's no question we all took a tremendous hit," says second-generation Monterey vintner Robb Talbott, whose impeccable Chardonnays reaped reviewers' accolades well before the millennial debacle. "Though it was incredibly frustrating not to get a fair hearing in many places, there was nothing we could do but try and ride it out." To offset his losses, Talbott increased his production of Pinot Noir, just as other beleaguered colleagues turned to Merlot and Syrah. Still, his core commitment to Chardonnay never wavered. "We didn't change a thing," he explains, "because our philosophy from the beginning has been to grow the best fruit we can, do as little to it as possible, and let the wine speak for itself."

California Chardonnay remained off my radar screen until two years ago, when I had lunch with Don Bryant—the fringe-benefits tycoon, MoMA trustee, and owner of Napa's Bryant Family Vineyards— at a club he belongs to in Saint Louis. I demurred when he asked me to order the wine, so to accompany our sautéed soft-shell crabs he chose the 2000 Kongsgaard Chardonnay. "It's the best California white being made today—everything a Chardonnay should be," he declared, high praise from a vintner whose own cult Cabernet Sauvignon is similarly regarded by its fanatic followers. For me, the Kongsgaard was one of those love-at-first-sip experiences less expected as one grows older. I immediately got what Bryant meant: It was big but never overbearing, perfectly integrated but with that nonstop sequence of unfolding sensations, from bouquet to aftertaste, that defines a great wine, whatever the specifics.

Through this convincing reintroduc-tion I realized how unfair it would be to write off all California Chardonnay in the wake of its late-20th-century misadventure, and it prompted my in-depth reappraisal of the field. Even those mass-produced Chards with market-tested, adjective-noun names that sound like gated communities (Bosky Hollow, Golden Run, whatever) have shrewdly toned down the oak, yet not many bottles under $60 have made me want to buy a second one. I've been happily contradicted by a few exceptional examples, including Truchard's extroverted 2003 Carneros Chardonnay ($30). Talbott Vineyards continues to deliver terrific value at every price point, from its charming 2004 Kali Hart Chardon- nay ($14) to the 2001 Talbott Diamond T Estate Chardonnay ($65), an impressive Corton-Charlemagne clone that gives $100 bottles a run for their money.

Though you always hope to get what you pay for, as I reached that $100 range of current California Chardonnays I was shocked that so few possessed the definition and development you've every right to expect in a luxury wine. If I were to spend that much on any Chardonnay, I'd first consider comparably priced northern French whites (especially those under the Louis Jadot label, a reliable guide through the labyrinth of Burgundy appellations).

As much as I admire several top-of-the-line California Chards, I would never mistake any for a celebrated white French Burgundy, easily recognizable even in blind tastings by an inimitable mineral backbone. I'm convinced this telltale marker has everything to do with the vastly different soils in which each is grown. No matter which old-world clones aspiring Californians import, the stony terrain of Burgundy imparts an essential crispness absent from our Chardonnays, whatever their other attractions.

The international trend toward big, fruity wines that taste much the same no matter where they originate has prompted serious California vintners to emphasize terroir—that varyingly defined amalgam of geology, climate, and regional practices that gives wine a distinctive sense of place. Low-production single-vineyard Chardonnays (using grapes from one plot, as opposed to the multisource blends typical of high-volume labels) epitomize this movement. I find nothing morally superior about unblended wines, and if a reasonable amount of natural artifice means a more compelling product, I'm all for it. Paradoxically, some of those single-vineyard cuvées cast doubt on the long-unquestioned assumption that California and Chardonnay are a foolproof match.

Nonetheless, the potential that the Golden State still possesses for turning out outstanding Chardonnays is not lost on the French, and at a time when alliances between new- and old-world makers are commonplace, one is being watched with uncommon interest. I view "wine destination" restaurants as bellwethers of emerging tastes and was recently intrigued to find the rare addition of a new American Chardonnay—HdV Carneros—to the encyclopedic list of New York's Veritas, where California versions of the varietal have been in short supply of late.

As the restaurant's wine director Tim Kopec says: "There are lots of bad Chardonnays from France as well as the States. The trick is to find the good ones. I think HdV is the best Chardonnay being made in California, especially at its price. You can taste that it comes from California because of all the fruit, but it also shows a fine Burgundian hand in the way it's made."

HdV links the last initials of Larry Hyde, the 175-acre Napa estate's ecologically minded vineyards manager, and its director, Aubert de Villaine, who is also codirector of Burgundy's legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and the husband of Hyde's cousin Pamela. Their shared goal is seemingly simple but perhaps not so easy to bring off after all. The very best wine, De Villaine is convinced, "is reached not through technological interactions but from the reflection in the wine of the affinities that subtly marry a terroir and a varietal." It's hard to imagine how this seventh-generation scion of DRC proprietors could fail to take California Chardonnay to new heights if that is at all possible. De Villaine and other true believers have already helped restore its tattered reputation, but only time will tell if California Chardonnay's potential for true greatness has been merely misconceived rather than fundamentally mistaken.



Aubert Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2003 This Sonoma Coast ingénue is the Audrey Hepburn of California Chards—deceptively demure at first but with a finish that lingers long after more blatant stars have faded. Velvety, elegant, and complex without being needlessly complicated, it's an admirable, sophisticated wine. $50

HdV Carneros Chardonnay 2003 Rather oakier than you'd expect from the Franco-American collaboration between the Hyde and De Villaine clans, the fourth vintage of this Napa newcomer gets away with it thanks to an overall finesse. Whether Burgundy vignerons can best express the Carneros terroir remains the big question. $55

Peter Michael Winery "Mon Plaisir" 2003 The rich volcanic soil of northern Napa Valley encouraged British tycoon Sir Peter Michael to evoke the grand Burgundian whites. One of his several fine (if pricey) monoproperty bottlings, this Puligny-style Chard won't put the original out of business, but it's a worthy try all the same. $70

Talbott Diamond T Estate 2001 The flagship Chard of Monterey wizard Robb Talbott, this impressive cuvée—full of fruit and intriguingly spiked with ripe kiwi—seems a steal at two thirds the price of top-of-the-line competitors. Diamond T's deep color and aroma are exceptional, and a crisp acidic tang accentuates its unusual food friendliness. $65

Kongsgaard Chardonnay 2002 Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this Napa winery, I believe, sets the new gold standard for California Chards. Vintner John Kongsgaard has perfected a huge but judiciously restrained white, with everything in equipoise to ensure it as an ideal dinner companion, rare for such a blockbuster. $100

Paul Hobbs Richard Dinner Vineyard Cuvée Agustina 2002 Massive but lithe, this Sonoma sensation brings to mind a heavyweight champ skipping rope. There's fruit galore here and just enough oak to prove it is nothing to be afraid of if used with restraint. The lengthy finish has almost as many codas as a Bruckner symphony. $75

Kistler Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay 2003 Kistler, an early Sonoma convert to traditional French techniques that have redeemed the honor of high-end California Chards, creates serious, subtle wines that reward careful contemplation. I'd save this gentle and gracefully integrated gem to be savored with knowledgeable friends. $65

Truchard Chardonnay 2003 A luscious Carneros Chard recalling the big forward style of circa 1990 (the year this mom-and-pop winery was founded), Truchard will appeal to those who find today's "reform" approach too austere. But this is no nostalgic throwback, and it shows more finesse than some bottles at twice the price. $30


The way oenophiles obsess over storage conditions, you would think they'd worry more about wine temperature when a bottle is finally opened. But just as reds are often served too warm, whites are invariably too cold. A constant 50 to 55F (about 10 to 13C) is recommended for cellaring most wines, and reds are best poured in that range. Whites are trickier; I prefer really good examples at 55 to 60F, which allows them to open more fully and exhibit nuances that would be lost if they got much colder. Nothing ruins complex whites more than overchilling, and in restaurants I insist they remain on the table, not in an ice bucket. At home I refrigerate—it's easier to calibrate and less messy than icing, if also less theatrical.

Chill time for whites should be gauged in inverse proportion to quality: A vapid Pinot Grigio can actually seem better when quite cold, but a great Sauternes should be cooled very slightly. Wine in a refrigerator set at the standard 40 to 45F is said to go down one degree every seven minutes; thus it takes an hour and a half for a bottle of room-temperature white to reach the cooler side of the ideal range. That seems excessive—one hour should suffice, half that for a smaller bottle of fine dessert wine. For alfresco summer lunches (when whites really can get too hot), I use a thermal-insulated Lucite cylinder, my only tabletop concession to plastic.