I don't know many great winemakers much inclined to false modesty. And Mark Aubert, who is the hottest Chardonnay producer in California right now, is no exception. Aubert's belief in his abilities and in the quality of his wines is unmistakably clear. And he's just as clear about the deficiencies of other Chardonnays, no matter how vaunted their reputations. "Okay, but a little pedestrian," is a typical response when Aubert is asked his thoughts on a competing wine.
And yet, when I dined with Mark and his wife, Teresa, at Redd restaurant in Napa not long ago, I sensed his discomfort when his own wine outshone another highly regarded Chardonnay: the 1999 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles, a Burgundy with a lofty reputation and an equally lofty price ($400) on the wine list. Aubert has a soft spot for Domaine Leflaive and what he calls its "fanatical upbringing of vines." But on this particular evening, the Leflaive remained deep in the shadow of Aubert's own 2001 Aubert Ritchie Vineyard bottling. Ritchie is one of four Chardonnays (the others are Lauren, Reuling and Quarry) that Aubert sources from the cool Sonoma Coast region. The Ritchie was full-bodied yet not excessive, tightly knit but not uptight, and brimming with an array of complex flavors that ranged from lush fruit to steely minerality. As the meal progressed, I noticed that Aubert's Chardonnay grew more and more lively and more expressive. By the end, my glass of Leflaive remained half full while I drained the last drops of the Aubert Chardonnay.
Park B. Smith, a collector with one of the greatest wine cellars in this country and a passionate Aubert fan, wasn't surprised when I described my Aubert experience to him. Smith recalled a time he'd accidentally left an unfinished magnum of Aubert Chardonnay in his kitchen overnight without recorking the bottle. Though this might well have turned the wine sharp, instead, as Smith recalled, "The next day, it still had so damn much stuffing!"—an allusion to the wine's rich fruit and substantial structure. Another collector, John Green, also had an Aubert story to tell: "Before the Aubert, I'd never served my friends a white wine that they'd liked enough to ask me to get more of it for them. Red wines, yes, but never a white wine until Mark's Chardonnays."