A divorce does strange things to a person. Divvying up communal property and being jettisoned by longtime friends can take a toll on one’s psyche. Before you know it, you’re drinking California Chardonnay.
I used to be an “ABC” type of guy: Anything But Chardonnay. But lately, I’ve found myself drinking buckets of the stuff. Maybe it’s a matter of discovering my inner Firesign Theater, whose motto is “Everything you know is wrong!” Or perhaps it’s just a case of loosening up that old wine snob corset a bit. Whatever the cause, I’ve been on a Chardonnay binge.
In case no one told you, drinking California Chardonnay is, among wine geeks, very uncool. That is, unless you’re imbibing a precious little boutique wine, like Helen Turley’s Marcasin Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay or maybe a sleek and pricey Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Chardonnay. But if you’re drinking Chardonnay that costs under 20 bucks, according to most wine snobs you might as well be drinking White Zinfandel.
Wine writers tend to be anti-jingoist, which is a good thing, generally speaking. But it sometimes causes them to poo-poo American wines in favor of those from (usually) Europe. And California Chardonnay is sort of the Britney Spears of wine—the one everyone loves to hate.
Part of the problem with Chardonnay, especially in California, is that the Chardonnay grape is so adaptable and easy. It practically cries out, “Use me! Abuse me!” Chardonnay is a cute, sexy little plaything and winemakers just can’t keep their hands off it. So Chardonnay gets manipulated before it hits the bottle more than any other wine. The main source of manipulation (some would say abuse) is with the use of oak.
White Burgundy from France (which is Chardonnay) is traditionally aged in oak barrels, imparting a subtle, nutty flavor. The key word here is subtle, not a hallmark of California Chardonnay, which is more often than not fermented in new oak barrels, as opposed to the older oak used in France. In that American bigger-is-better manner of thinking, California wine producers surmised that if a little bit of oak is good, a lot of oak will be great.
Unfortunately, over the years California has come to be known for making excruciatingly big, flabby, heavily oaked, over-filtered, in-your-face Chardonnay. And Americans love them. But since the masses can never be right, wine writers love to diss California Chard and the people who drink it.
I was one of those writers. And although I might not be completely reformed, I have been drinking my share of Chard lately. Don’t get me wrong: If I were to choose a desert island wine it would most certainly be a Grand Cru French white Burgundy. But for everyday sipping around the trailer park, California Chardonnay ain’t so bad, especially when you compare prices. The equivalent of a decent $15 Chardonnay from California will cost you $40 if it’s wearing a French label.
Still, there are an awful lot of really icky California Chardonnays out there. And unless you try them, it’s pretty difficult to tell one from another. Here are a few that I’ve found appealing both to my palate and to my pocketbook.
Edna Valley Vineyard Chardonnay 2001: You won’t get any closer to French Burgundy at this price. Nutty and creamy, with a hint of smoke ($15.95).
Hess Select Chardonnay 2000: Nice bang for the buck with loads of tropical fruit flavors ($11.95).
Heron Chardonnay 2001: Aged in French oak just long enough to add some vanilla to the apple and pear center. A lot of elegance for the price ($9.90).