Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Chardonnay vs. the world
Most wine writers would say no, but the American public disagrees. Who’s right?
Chardonnay is always undercovered by the wine press. It’s easily America’s favorite wine, accounting for 1 in every 5 bottles sold in the United States. But it probably accounts for less than 1 of every 25 stories about wine.
Part of that is familiarity, and part is contempt. Pitching a freelance story about Chardonnay is just about impossible; editors will say “we covered Chardonnay earlier this year.” It’s easier to sell an article about dry Hungarian Furmint or sweet wines from Georgia. Who has anything new to say about America’s favorite wine?
But there’s also contempt from the knowledgeable about Chardonnay’s kudzu-like takeover of the world’s vineyards. It’s like phylloxera; it escaped its home in Burgundy and has caused the uprooting of native vines in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain -- basically, any country where grape farmers are trying to make a living.
I can’t tell you how many wine writers and editors complain about the travesty of Greek or Italian Chardonnay. But we don’t own vineyards there.
While I’d rather drink Assyrtiko or Falanghina, I don’t believe we have the right to tell people in other countries that they must preserve their native grapes as a non-profit living world heritage. And Kendall-Jackson* probably sells more Chardonnay in an hour than all the Assyrtiko and Falanghina consumed in a year. So why wouldn’t farmers around the world want a piece of the action?
However, if I felt truly helpless in the face of the large American market, I wouldn’t write about wine -- or movies, or books, or politics, or anything else. All writers are evangelists at some level. Even those who try to stick to the outmoded AP “he said, she said” style evangelize through the issues they choose to cover.
I want to see Americans drink more Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc -- not to mention Grenache Blanc and Verdejo. I want the great Midwest to stop using “Chardonnay” as a synonym for “white wine” the way Atlanta natives call even orange soda a “Coke.”
* (A PR person recently told me of a focus group that found young African-American women in Chicago using "Kendall-Jackson" as a synonym for wine. Good marketing, K-J! I haven't verified this anywhere else, but if you've heard it, let me know.)
More importantly, I want to see the right grapes planted in the right places. Arinto is in the hot parts of Portugal for a reason. And that applies at home too. Chardonnay can be fantastic in cool coastal regions like Willamette Valley and Russian River Valley and Mendocino County.
Yet most of our domestic Chardonnay comes from places like Modesto and Fresno and is nearly a laboratory product: dealcoholized to save tax money, given a vanilla flavor from teabags full of oak chips, and often blended with small amounts of more flavorful varieties like Muscat to give it more fruit and floral notes. If you're spending $7.99 for a California appellation Chardonnay, that's most likely what you're getting.
We could produce white wines that cheap from California's Central Valley from hot-weather grapes that would thrive there; Portugal's Arinto comes to mind, or Italy's Greco. Probably the best bet for a great cheap domestic white would be to blend grapes and take advantage of the strengths of each.
But who's going to buy it? More importantly, who's going to sell it?
While we're all writing about the great Greek white selection at some tiny wine shop, across the street at Wines R Us the staff is treating the California appellation Chardonnay, without much media love, in the way distributors love best: "Stack 'em high and watch 'em fly."
As a group, the wine media has been fighting Chardonnay's domination. I googled the exact phrase "alternative to Chardonnay" and came up with 60,000 hits. You know what? That story ain't working. People who like Chardonnay don't want an alternative to Chardonnay, and people who are open to other whites don't need to be talked down to like that.
I think we're going about this the wrong way. Instead of writing about Chardonnay less, we should write about it more. That's counterintuitive, but hear me out.
For one thing, we should write about Chardonnay more because we need to sell more newspapers and magazines. But this isn't just about giving the people what they want.
Chardonnay lovers don't click on stories about Sauvignon Blanc. They don't click on stories about "alternatives to Chardonnay." They click on stories about Chardonnay.
The way to reach them is to write enthusiastic stories about Chardonnay from places where it's good. Leave off the idea that only the word "Burgundian" is praise; celebrate the great Chardonnays from Marlborough, New Zealand, for example.
And explain why Chardonnay from there is good: the weather is cool, the grapes develop good flavors without too much sugar, you can get wines that are buttery if you like or more pristine if you prefer.
Somewhere in the context of that article, you can contrast them to the Chardonnays from South Eastern Australia or California's Central Valley. That's a teaching moment. The message is that by itself, "Chardonnay" is not a seal of approval.
The Chardonnay market in the US is always going to be different from other countries because many here drink it not with dinner, but as a cocktail. Americans as a mass are always going to prefer more body, less acidity and more sweetness than Europeans for this reason. If people don't care about food matching, it's pointless to go on about it.
But that's no reason for evangelists like me to give up. I don't want people to give up Chardonnay. I love a good Chardonnay. Puligny-Montrachet, a region in Burgundy where Chardonnay is the only allowed white grape, is the source of white wines I'd want with my last meal.
What I want is for Chardonnay to take a more proper place on US wine lists and stores -- not as the default choice, but just one of many great choices.
To get there, I think we need to praise Chardonnay, not bury it.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:20 AM