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Bottled Blondes | California Chardonnays

Why does California Chardonnay continue to have so much sex appeal?
OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS AMERICANS HAVE BEEN SEDUCED by an endless array of culinary trends. We've grazed, we've grilled, we've (over) goat cheesed. We've eaten our food blackened and in bistro settings. We've flirted with fusion and fed on Floribbean (without necessarily knowing what it was). We've toyed with Tex-Mex and Thai, rediscovered the steak house and re-created home cooking at restaurants (cleverly renaming it comfort food). Yet through all this we've stayed faithful to one wine: California Chardonnay.

It's not because we've lacked for alternatives: with selections from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand nearly as common on wine lists today as bottlings from Italy, California and France, there's been no shortage of options for the fickle. It's not just a matter of price: drinkers looking to save a few dollars do better with South America, and those looking to spend a few more can always turn to France. It's not out of patriotic spirit: if local loyalty were a factor, there would be a bigger public for New York State wines. It's not even because Chardonnay possesses the most pronounceable name, especially now that Merlot has secured a spot in our vinous vocabulary.

It's hard to believe that our love affair with Chardonnay began but 20 years ago. Yet in a mere two decades, the number of California acres devoted to Chardonnay grapes has multiplied by a factor of almost eight, from 11,000 in 1977 to some 88,000 in 1997. The number of regions where the grapes are grown has expanded as well; once pretty much confined to Napa and Sonoma, Chardonnay has spread as far south as Santa Barbara, as far north as Mendocino and as far east as the Sierra Nevada. (The popularity of California Chardonnay has also precipitated a stampede of sorts among the world's winemakers, as savvy vintners from Argentina to New Zealand and parts in between have rushed to create competing versions of our domestic cash crop.)

Oh, sure, there's been a bit of a backlash--after all, Americans like nothing more than to condemn what we've previously championed. A faction of wine drinkers with a grammar-school moniker, ABC (Anything But Chardonnay), has tried in recent years to strip Chardonnay of its heavyweight title, suggesting Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and even Viognier as replacement grapes. Such efforts have met with notably little success.

How, then, has this wine remained so resilient? What does it have that its competitors lack? Why has it remained an American favorite for so long?

In considering these questions, I recalled my first bottle of California Chardonnay, which I purchased for my college graduation 15 years ago. I'd wanted to celebrate with a wine of significance but was handicapped by a remote location (the town I lived in at the time was so small that its total wine selection amounted to one shelf at a deli) and by a lack of experience (my preferences back then came from books, not bottles). While I'd memorized every premier cru and grand cru Burgundy and could recite the names of all five growths of Bordeaux (though requests for me to do so were surprisingly infrequent), I'd never tasted anything beyond what could be de-scribed (generously) as table wine. On this occasion, however, I was determined to do better.

So I drove 40 miles to a fancy department store in Columbus, Ohio, whose wine collection was reputed to be the best in the state. Alas, the French wines whose names were familiar cost far more than I had to spend. When I explained my predicament, the salesman produced a Wente Chardonnay, assuring me not only that it was equal in status to its French counterparts but also that its flavors would be more likely to meet with the approval of my family and friends. Needless to say, the wine was a success. I was roundly commended for a most astute choice, and even my demanding grandmother deigned to take a short glass, commenting that someone had finally offered her a wine she could actually drink.

Nearly two decades later, not much has changed. That is, California Chardonnay continues to garner accolades and gain converts. And the explanation seems much the same. According to Julian Niccolini, the managing partner of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City, two of the most compelling reasons for the popularity of California Chardonnay are its predictability and its affordability: "The wine is simple to understand. And it's half the price of white Burgundy." Kevin Zraly, the wine director of Windows on the World, puts it a bit more bluntly: "California Chardonnay is a safety-net wine. It's the Kleenex of the wine world, completely accessible." But, he adds, "I have no problem with that. After all, 90 percent of the wine sales at Windows on the World are California wines."

An ardent California Chardonnay fan might take exception to Zraly's analogy, but I know what he means. It's just that Americans like their pleasures straightforward and simple. (Certainly our collective taste in television and cinema suggests that much.) Todd Hess, the wine director of Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago, seemed to agree with my Baywatch in a Bottle theory: "Chardonnay," he says, "is a wine that people don't have to spend a lot of time thinking about." Peter Morrell, the chairman of the New York City wine retailer Morrell & Company, is more complimentary: "Chardonnay is the preeminent white wine grape in the world. And it's so versatile that you don't have to choose another grape to find variety, especially in California, where different growing climates produce a wide range of Chardonnay styles."

That's another of the attractions of California Chardonnay--it comes in so many guises. And Americans like to have choices, especially within the same category. (The cereal aisle of any grocery store offers a good illustration of this principle.) As Steve Wallace, the owner of Wally's wine store in Los Angeles, says, "My customers come in and ask, 'Do you have anything different?' What they mean is a different Chardonnay, not a different wine."

Chardonnay winemakers seem to share the same perspective: the Chardonnay grape offers vintners a seemingly infinite number of ways to ex-press themselves. As Tom Rochioli, who's been making some of the world's most sought-after wines for more than a decade, says, "Stylistically, you can do anything with Chardonnay. It's a true winemaker's grape." Mark Aubert, the creator of the fabled Peter Michael Chardonnays, concurs: "Chardonnay is very exploitable."

In short, California Chardonnay can claim every one of the virtues Americans prize most: affordability, accessibility and stylistic variety. But its two most important attributes are the ones that made my grandmother sit up and take notice so long ago: its smell and its taste. For no other wine's aromas and flavors--vanilla, butter, lemon, melon and cream--correspond more completely to the foods Americans crave. (We love these flavors so much that we even put them in furniture polish and air freshener.) Add to all this a character that's full-bodied but not blowsy, rich but not overpowering and dry but not without sweetness, and you have the perfect match for the American palate--and ultimately the reason I believe that Zraly is right when he says, "Come the year 3000, we'll still be drinking California Chardonnay."

Published September 1998
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