The California Chardonnay Paradox

Is drinking Chardonnay a thing of the past?  That is what I used to think.

As a red wine drinker, enamored with the best that France has to offer, I rarely drank or even thought about California white wines or white wines in general (other than Burgundy’s Le Montrachet). The idea of opening up a California Chardonnay somehow seems pedestrian – just not what real wine connoisseurs do. Occasionally, when enjoying a food pairing, I would tolerate (and even secretly enjoy) a glass of Chardonnay picked out by the sommelier.  Still, on those rare occasions I drank Chardonnay without much reflection or appreciation of what this awesome grape has achieved for the wine industry, and its flock of loyal followers worldwide.

There seem to be at least two reason why Chardonnay, and particularly California Chardonnay, has a bad reputation among serious wine drinkers.  First, vast majority of California Chardonnay sells for less than $10 per bottle.  There is a monolithic assumption that inexpensive wine cannot be any good.  Second (and a related reason) is that California Chardonnay causes disdain among the cognoscenti due to the wine by the glass pandering to the masses and its “came-and-went” trend among people that typically drink cheap beer.  In fact, in the recent years there has been an ongoing movement that can be characterized as “Anything But Chardonnay”.  There is certainly at least some truth to the anti-Chardonnay sentiment.  But, it is only a small part of the Chardonnay story.

In many ways judging wine is a subjective exercise.  In fact, many will agree that to scientifically and objectively rate wine is impossible. Nick Passmore, in his Forbes article, The Finest California Chardonnay, likens wine rankings to “deciding the best actor at the Oscars or the best Chinese restaurant…”  Nevertheless, there are some objective parameters and clear differences between really bad and really great wines.  The difference between low end poorly made Chardonnay and its greatest examples is part perception, part personal taste, and part objective tasting characteristic assessed over time. This applies to all wine.

Chardonnay continues to sell very well and there are some very good California Chardonnays that, albeit distinctly Californian, can stand up to some tough competition from France and elsewhere.  For instance, Grgich Hills, Montelena, Kistler, Peter Michael, Kongsgaard Napa Valley, Aubert Lauren Estate, and Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley make excellent Chardonnay wines.

Why Chardonnay?

After some thinking, reading, and tasting, I realized that Chardonnay from California is a worthy wine, especially when it comes to its many better examples.  Equally important, Chardonnay is a money maker for the wine industry.  Its detractors are too hung up on the mass marketing of cheap Chardonnay that does not reflect the amazing talent of California winemakers, and the fact that well crafted Chardonnay is truly priced at a fraction of what you would be paying for good quality red wines.  Those same critics also seem to fail to see that the cheap Chardonnay they so despise delivers new converts to the ranks of wine collectors.  Being an occasional contrarian in collecting wine, I have reassessed California Chardonnay.

The gold standard of all Chardonnay, Burgundy’s mythical Le Montrachet, is certainly the most expensive and most venerated white wine on earth.  With prices starting at several thousand dollars for its finest examples, Le Montrachet is an outlier white wine even for many of its peers in Burgundy.  Chardonnay’s true home is in Burgundy, but unlike, the fickle Pinot Noir, which also is perfected in

Burgundy, Chardonnay is utterly adaptable, and is perhaps even more robust than Cabernet Sauvignon when it comes to surviving and even thriving in virtually any environment.  It is, indeed, the ultimate survivor chameleon grape.  Here is why.

Chardonnay is very easy to grow in different climates and soils. Burgundian Chardonnay is known for displaying more layers of complexity, than its California peer.  As Passmore observes, California Chardonnay is “lean and plush, austere and rich, refined and rugged”.  Needless to say, not all Burgundy Chardonnay is worthy. Just as low quality California white wine is flat, obese, buttery, sweet and cheap, the bad examples from Burgundy are thick, unbalanced in minerals, funky smelling, stale, and oddly enough still expensive compared to the California swill.  Not surprising, as quality improves, the two versions of Chardonnay seem to get closer to one another in certain tasting notes.

The better producers from California are certainly different from the mass produced California Chardonnay from Gallo, BV, and Kendall-Jackson.  Most of the California Chardonnays, as most wines, are produced for immediate consumption.  As I pointed out there are a number of California Chardonnays that do age; in fact, they improve with age.  California Chardonnay is still the most popular wine sold in U.S., points out Robert Whitley, in his 2012 article on creators.com, called “The Mystery of California Chardonnay”.  Whitley observes that Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills Estate, Nickel & Nickel, and Patz & Hall Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnays are some of the wines that fall into that age-worthy category.

Montelena, one of the most famous California Chardonnays proved its worth in 1975 at the Judgment of Paris, standing up to some serious Burgundy white wines.  This wine can easily age for 12 years +.  These better wines range from $35 to $55 retail, which is a bargain compared to Chardonnays from Burgundy or most red wines.  Chardonnay is a malleable and moldable grape that comes in a variety of styles. “Chardonnay comes in a wide range of styles, from the green-tinged, racy wines of Chablis to the rich, powerful grand crus of Corton and Chassagne. There are fruit-filled oaky Australian chardonnays and the new wave of lean, unoaked, non maloed examples emerging from the Yarra Valley.  Even California’s straw-colored, mineral chardonnays display a radically different approach to the variety, accentuating its chameleon character,” explains Stephen Yafa in his article, California Chardonnay: from Butterball to Balance, published on February 18, 2013 on wine-searcher.

Chardonnay makes up approximately 30% of all the table wine shipped from California to the U.S. marketplace, and yet “no one seems to drink it,” quips Whitley.  Whitley, argues that this apparent contradiction can be explained.  He calls California Chardonnay “the Wonder Bread of Wine”.  It is predictable from vintage to vintage, cheap, and generally has appealing taste for many people.  In other words, it is easy to produce and is accessible to the untrained palate.  It is a huge money maker for the wineries, producing easily several tons per acre.  The more expensive, but not deserving (in my view) California Chardonnay such as Rombauer or Far Niente tends to be rich, creamy, buttery, and almost oily.

No one cared or knew of Chardonnay until the mid 1970s before the Judgment of Paris declared that Montelena produced an amazing wine, elevating the Chardonnay grape to quasi-celebrity status.  Prior to that California Chardonnay was a cocktail wine made in one predictable style.  Whitley observes that, there has not been a dwindling of the planted acreage in California. 53 Million cases of chardonnay are shipped to U.S. consumers each year (California Wine Institute statistics as sited in Yafa’s article).  The sales of Chardonnay wines top those of Cabernet and Champaign combined.  According to New York based Impact Databank, practically 1 in 3 bottles of wine drunk in the U.S. is a California Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is also the good will ambassador of wine.  It is likely the first wine that people who don’t drink wine start drinking.  These tyro wine drinkers will often move to reds, and will finally graduate to the better Chardonnays, whether from famous Burgundy or from California’s top producers such as Steve Kistler.  Ergo, not only is Chardonnay the missionary that recruits and converts new generations of wine lovers, it is also a money maker for the wine industry, and in its better examples it is truly exquisite.

What Might the Future Hold?

Yafa seems to suggest where California Chardonnay is heading.  It is no longer a monolithic butterball saturated with residual sugar and Costco-style powdered vanilla flavors best paired with popcorn or potato chips, he whimsically seems to indicate.  Leaner, more complicated Chardonnay wines are finding their way into the marketplace.  Yaffa refers to it as the “anti-chardonnay rebellion” that is leaving the mass produced white swill and its diabetic higher priced cousins – epitomized by Rombauer and Far Niente – in the dust.

Many Chardonnay drinkers still prefer the less expensive and more accessible white wine.   This is not such a bad thing.  Chardonnay is the gateway drug that pulls wine novices into the world of wine. People who don’t understand wine may start out with the monolithic entry level Chardonnay, but can graduate to the Kistler style or Burgundian, more nuanced wines, and ultimately move into Pinot, and other varietals, gaining true appreciation for wine.  There is a redemption in sight for California Chardonnay, and its drinkers.  We should not underestimate the benefit and beauty of California Chardonnay.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine collector.  He resides in Southern California, but travels and tastes wine all over the world.)