America's Third Ocean
Spring Mountain Chardonnay 1976. Delicious! Huge, yet crisp, but
also soft and very creamy, filling mouth with big creamy taste.
Very complex, with contradictory tastes. Lots of pepper. Very much
Cuvaison Chardonnay 1978. Delicious. Classic Chardonnay nose, very
buttery. Green-gold. Half alcohol and half butter, huge and plump.
Massive aftertaste comes back up and gets you. Thick yet clean,
a little wood but not overwhelming wood. Knocks your socks off.
Guenoc Chardonnay 1980. Delicious! Big and rich and creamy, filled
with sunshine and butter. Long finish of nutmeg and wood.
Kistler Chardonnay 1980. Delicious, but shocking in its bigness.
Massive and oaky. Long oak finish. Powerful, chewy, very American.
Ah, the Chardonnay of our youth. "Powerful, chewy, very American"--those
words from our notes back then said it all. Chardonnay has been
the world's greatest white-wine grape for centuries. It is, after
all, the grape of the famous white Burgundies of France. In the
1970s, California winemakers discovered just what was possible with
this grape in the New World. They took the big, superripe grapes
provided by California's perfect weather, then fermented and aged
them in oak barrels and produced wines that offered a uniquely American
taste and, in a sense, a reflection of the American character: bold,
unrestrained, and outsized.
We look back on those chewy Chardonnays with the affection of a
first crush. As it happens, we fell in love with Chardonnay at about
the same time the rest of the country did. Chardonnay became America's
sweetheart. Americans now drinkabout 400 million bottles of Chardonnay
a year. It is far and away the country's most popular "varietal"
wine--that is, a wine named after its grape. America became a nation
of three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Chardonnay.
This is both good and bad. Let's get to the good part first: Chardonnay
can be a terrific wine, soul-satisfying and just plain delicious.
We--and, we'd guess, most wine lovers--have had more great experiences
with Chardonnay-based wines than with any other white. Not only
that, but if you enjoy Chardonnay, there's no reason to settle for
a simple "glass of white wine." There are excellent, flavorful
Chardonnays out there, some of them remarkably inexpensive. And
some expensive Chardonnays still have the kind of character, class,
breeding, and personality--even the drama--of the Chardonnays we
first fell for.
What does a fine California Chardonnay taste like to us? It's big,
rich, ripe, and buttery. It's mouthfilling, so you have to take
small sips. It has a little bit of toastiness, vanilla, maybe some
butterscotch and some cream, and it's almost chewy. Sometimes your
nose can pick up hints of fruit--grapefruit or pineapple. Its tastes
are broad, rather than focused and sharp, with maybe a hint of oiliness,
which doesn't sound so good but adds texture and complexity. The
very best Chardonnays have all of this power going on in your mouth,
but when you swallow, something miraculous happens. The finish is
a clean, light one that lingers for several minutes, like the essence
of plump, sweet grapes.
Now that is Chardonnay. But now the bad news. As America's affair
with Chardonnay grew, wineries began producing a great deal of yucky
Chardonnay. ("Yucky" is one of those highly technical
wine terms that we will use throughout this book.) The recipe is
easy. Get some second-rate vineyard land with plenty of sun. Let
the vines grow and grow and don't prune back much, which will leave
you with plenty of grapes but little flavor. (Imagine that every
vine has only so much flavor in it. The fewer the grapes, the more
flavor each grape has.) Let them get overripe, which produces a
great deal of sugar--and, later, alcohol--but breaks down acids,
leaving the wine simple and flabby. Maybe leave the wine slightly
sweet, too, because, as the old saying goes, Americans talk dry
but drink sweet. During fermentation or after, maybe throw in some
wood chips for flavor. Now, you can still call that Chardonnay,
because it is, indeed, made mostly from Chardonnay grapes. There
you have it. Sound good? No, it doesn't sound good to us, either,
but America's demand for Chardonnay is so insatiable that bad Chardonnays
The other bad thing that happened is that critics began hammering
California Chardonnay for being too woody, too buttery, too big.
It doesn't go with food, they said, and it won't age well, either.
There's even a name for the critics: the ABC Club--Anything But
Chardonnay. Ever sensitive to the market, some winemakers began
to rein in their Chardonnay. Pretty soon, American winemakers were
boasting about their "French-style" Chardonnay, meaning
the wine had more restraint, a bit more lemon-acid taste, which
made them better with food, and less obvious flavors of wood. And
sometimes those can be great, too. You can see the change in our
tattered old notebooks:
Chalone 1979. Delicious! Really fantastic. French in its complexity
and terrific finesse. Ripe, full-flavored, complex, fruity, and
woody without a wood taste. Long, lemony finish. Yellow, Chardonnay
look and a classy lemony nose. No real butter as such, just fruit.
Nutmeg, vanilla, and smoke on the nose and in the finish.
Many of the less-oaky wines were delicious, but all of this created
such a split personality for Chardonnay that wine drinkers have
a hard time figuring out which is which. We get letters every week
from readers who are looking for Chardonnays that have wood or Chardonnays
that don't have wood, or just wondering what the fuss is about.
When people talk about wood or oak in good wines, they're talking
about wooden barrels. Some wines, especially white wines meant to
be fresh and fruity, never see the inside of a barrel. They're treated
to stainless steel tanks and they're crisp, fragrant, and delightful.
But most Chardonnay, like most good red wine, spends some time in
oak barrels, which doesn't just give the wine additional flavors
but also extra depth and complexity. Whether the wine is fermented
in oak or just aged in oak matters. How long it's in oak matters.
The size of the barrels matters. So does the kind of oak itself.
We find that American oak imparts more dramatic flavors than French
oak, which lends more elegance and finesse. New oak has more power
than old oak, whose flavors have been depleted over the years and
are mellower. "High-fire" barrels, which have been subject
to more fire or charring in the barrel-making process, have more
vanilla, toast, and caramel tastes than "low-fire" barrels.
How much wood a wine gets--more generally, how a good wine is made--is
a reflection of the character and vision of the winemaker.
There's a lot of magic in the process, but there's a lot of method,
too. Consider the wine-making notes about a Napa Valley Private
Reserve Chardonnay made by Ed Sbragia, winemaker at Beringer Vineyards:
"All of the juice went into small French Nevers oak barrels,
most of them new, custom-toasted to caramelize the neutral sugars
in the wood and contribute a sweet vanilla note to the wine. The
wines were fermented and aged in these barrels, and the lees [spent
yeast cells] were hand stirred back into the wine every week for
about six months. . . . We also put the wines through 100-percent
malolactic fermentation to further enhance their dense, creamy mouthfeel.
The wines were aged in barrels for over nine months before we made
the final assemblage."
You don't need to understand all of that. The point is that winemaking
is an art, and a highly personal one. But you know what? In the
long run, nothing matters more than the fruit. As Page One editor
of the Wall Street Journal, John always told reporters: "No
matter how good a writer you are, your story won't be great if you
don't have great reporting"--the raw data, the facts that go
into a story. It's the same way with wine: it all starts with the
fruit. Even a great winemaker can't make great wine from so-so fruit.
California can produce great Chardonnay fruit--big, plump, rich
fruit that can stand up to, and even benefit from, some oak. That's
why we tell people that the problem with many Chardonnays isn't
that they're overoaked, but that they're underfruited.
Unfortunately, too many people have made peace with the idea that
Chardonnay is a simple, inoffensive wine that's slightly comfortable
instead of genuinely good. In tastings year after year we have found
many substandard Chardonnays that taste vaguely familiar, like "strawberry"
soft drinks made entirely of artificial flavors. The wines have
little body or mouthfeel. Many have a hot, alcoholic taste and more
than a hint of sweetness. Tellingly, Dottie said at one point during
a tasting, "They all taste warm," so John made sure the
refrigerator was working properly (the bottles had been in there
all day). No matter how well chilled, they'd taste too warm. In
fact, many Chardonnays taste pretty much the same. Dottie calls
them "paint-by-numbers" Chardonnays. They aren't unpleasant,
but there's little about them that tastes like grapes. Instead,
it's as though they were made in a lab and put together by computer,
the way paints are mixed at Home Depot.
You don't have to settle for that! In our most recent tasting of
Chardonnays under $20, we found quite a few--some far under $20--that
were tasty, well-made wines. Some were woody and some were not,
but they had this in common: They tasted as though they were made
with ripe, plump grapes with good acids. "Fresh and alive,"
we wrote about one. "Good fruit left alone." This was
Callaway Coastal, which cost just $7.99 at the time. Another fruity,
delightful Chardonnay also came from an old favorite, Louis M. Martini
Winery. "Quite juicy," we wrote. "Lots of ripe fruit."
It was just over $10. About our favorite, we wrote: "It's green-tinged,
with lime on the nose. There's some mango taste, a little bit of
sourness. Quite crisp. More crisp fruit than wood. Classy. Tastes
colder than the others! Expensive?" Nope, not expensive at
all. In fact, it was just $9.99. What was it? Bogle Vineyards, whose
Chardonnay had been our best value the year before.
We should mention one wine that wasn't among our favorites but
that rated a solid Good on our scale. It was simple and a bit sweet,
but easy to drink and pleasant. We thought that a bottle of this
wine, put in a big tub of ice by the pool, would be lovely on a
hot day and we wrote: "Everyone would like this." We were
certainly right about that: It was Kendall-Jackson 1999, which cost
$9.99 at the time and which pretty much everyone does like. In fact,
K-J--reliable, widely available, and inexpensive--helped make Chardonnay
Of course, in that huge display of Chardonnays at the store there
are many over $20, too. What's the difference between a $15 Chardonnay
and a $35 Chardonnay? The answer should be something more than "$20."
Think about what your everyday Chardonnay tastes like--some creamy,
citrus fruit, a little bit of wood, nice mouthfeel that's a bit
like meringue. A more expensive Chardonnay should give you that,
of course, but much more. It should be a different experience, more
than just a pleasant wine. Are American winemakers crossing that
bar? We visited several stores and bought the first fifty we could
find between $20 and $50 for a blind tasting. For our under-$20
tastings, we focus on wineries that produce enough each year so
that their wines are widely distributed and generally available.
But for this tasting, we decided not to restrict ourselves that
way. Pretty much all more expensive Chardonnays are made in limited
quantities, and some high-end wineries specialize in Chardonnay.
So we picked up the first fifty, regardless of how big or small
the winery was. That meant we picked up well-known names like Mondavi
and Beringer, but it also meant we bought less well-known wines
and a few that were new even to us. Our selection was inevitably
arbitrary. There are hundreds of Chardonnays made in America. We
might have found a wholly different fifty at other stores. But,
as always, our point wasn't to find the very best Chardonnay in
America, but to get an idea of what's out there, and to try to find
some general themes.
What should you be looking for in an expensive Chardonnay? A wine
that's stretching the bounds a bit. It should be an experience,
not just a drink. It should take you places you haven't gone before.
It should have enough of a personality that you get some sense of
what the winemaker was trying to do. You might not think you could
tell, but you could. Is it especially acidic and lemony? Maybe the
winemaker was trying to make it a good food wine. Is it especially
creamy? Maybe the winemaker really likes oak and felt the fruit
was exceptional enough to handle a lot of it. Does the wine have
a certain pleasant sourness? Is it austere or is it plump? These
characteristics do not develop by accident. They're the winemaker's
signature. An expensive wine of any kind should make you notice
itself at some point, and often should make you appreciate its elegance.
An expensive bottle should at least hold out the hope of a memorable,
maybe even transcendent, experience. Extra money is no guarantee
of that, but for that kind of money, you have a right to anticipate
that the wine will be good enough to recommend to your friends the
How did they fare? Some weren't worth it. The fruit didn't seem
particularly ripe and the winemaker's attention to it didn't seem
particularly keen. Interestingly, the wines that we favored almost
all clustered around the $35 mark. Some were from large, well-known
wineries, including Beringer ("classy") and Mondavi ("ripe
and bold"). Some were surprises. Our second-favorite was from
Davis Bynum Winery, which we remember more for a wonderful old man
in the tasting room named Manny than for its wines. Its consulting
winemaker was Gary Farrell, who makes fine and very expensive wines
under his own name, and this Chardonnay was a shocker. "Lots
of taste after it's gone," we wrote. "Shy, in an interesting
way. Long, woody finish that lasts forever, with all the taste in
the back and a little bit of pine wood at the end. Like a slow-blooming
flower in your mouth. The taste grows. A winemaker's wine."
It wasn't the best of our tasting, though. That was, instead, a
wine that we can still taste. "Fruity, soft, approachable,
creamy, and lovely," we wrote. "Elegant, with lots of
fruit, but confident enough to be restrained. Wow." This was
a wine that we could enjoy on many levels--so very drinkable, yet
also extremely complex, with a luscious finish. It was from Rombauer
Vineyards, and a steal at the time at $27.99. If you think "a
steal at $27.99" is an oxymoron, try an unfamiliar, high-end
Chardonnay that you discovered yourself. There's at least a good
chance you'll see just what we mean.
Make Your Own Chardonnay Wine Kit We're
not sure which is more fun-making this delicious treat or enjoying
it later with friends! Complete kit lets you create your own private
label goodies. Create four bottles of crisp chardonnay. Kit includes
four bottles, labels, one gallon fermenting container, air lock,
tubing, ingredients and instructions.
corkscrew,2 cotton napkins 14" x 14", Top carry handle, 2-8 oz.
wine glasses, Turn-key front closures.
Bodum Set of 2 So Long Stemless White Wine Glasses w
from Bodum, it's the wine glass entitled "So Long". From now on,
it's "good-bye" to the formal stem and "hello" to a new style of
glass for casually sipping your white wine. The set includes two
glasses, each one with an 8-oz. capacity. Dishwasher-safe.
Screwless Cork Pops Wine Opener Opening
a bottle of wine can sometimes be a chore what with all the screwing
and tugging involved just to remove the cork. From here on out,
opening your wine will be simple when you use this Cork Pops Wine
Opener. It's so easy and quick: just insert the needle all the way
into the cork and depress the button on top. In less than a second,
the cork will pop out and along with it, the outer foil covering.
The pressurized cartridge will open anywhere from 80 -100 bottles
of wine. When the pressure is gone, carefully remove the needle
and place it on another cartridge. A protective needle cover is
Eva Solo 6-bottle Wine Rack, Black and Stainless Steel This
Wine Rack can hold up to six wine bottles and is adjustable. It
is comprised of 7 plastic components and 24 metal wires for the
mounting of a strong and stable wine rack, which can easily be enlarged
or shrunken in size. Multiple kits of this wine rack can also be
combined to form tall, horizontal, or cubic wine racks according
to your imagination. An excellent way to display your finest wines
in front of company or just a fun way to store the bottles at home.
Picnic at Ascot Barware Collection Connoisseur Wine Set, Mahogany
comes in a sleek mahogany case and has all the essential tools that
a wine-lover needs. It includes an ergonomically designed corkscrew
that will allow you to remove corks like a professional. Additional
accessories include a foil cutter, two bottle stoppers, wine pourer,
replacement worm, wine thermometer and drip ring. Picnic at Ascot
has facilitated easy and stylish transport of delicious food to
both casual and special occasions after bringing the tradition of
an elegant English country picnic to the United States in 1992.
Award-winning designs and expert craftsmanship seplus lifetime warrantee.
Metrokane Metrokane Retro Ice Crusher White, White Metrokane
brings back the original 50's ice crusher. This blast from the past
crushes up to a quart of ice in 2 minutes and is ideal for frozen
margaritas and daiquiris and to serve food on a bed of ice.
Kuhn Rikon 7-in. Swiss Corkscrew with Foil Cutter, White This
ingenious tool combines the ease of a table corkscrew with the convenience
of a foil cutter that stows away directly in the turn handle. The
nonstick-coated worm glides effortlessly into (and out of) corks,
and works with all bottle necks. Lifetime warranty.