|"What was the question again?" Also, that's not actually Larry Hyde; it's his son Chris|
I want to support the Chardonnay symposium, but I'm going to get meta here: I attended two of the most worthless wine panels of my life.
This is not to say that there aren't, at every symposium, worthless panels. There's the ever-popular "pairing wine with cheese" panel, which is usually just an excuse to drink good wine and eat (hopefully) good cheese. That's fine; I'm not talking about that. And I'm not talking about weekend consumer-focused panels (great Russian River Zinfandels!) that the media has no business attending. I'm talking about weekday panels with an interesting-sounding topic that come off so poorly that you learn nothing at all.
Now, I've moderated some wine panels and people who were in the audience at those can jump in here if you like. But I like to think that when I run a panel, that panel will say something.
Here are the two panels I attended: "Wente Clone Comparative Tasting," and "Taste the Difference: Exploring California's Distinct Chardonnay Regions."
Both of those sound like they will provide information, right? Like, one could learn something about what the Wente clone tastes like, or how it is treated by different vintners. And that second one sounds like a surefire blog post at least: Santa Barbara County Chardonnay tastes like this, while Carneros Chardonnay tastes like that.
Instead, we were treated at each seminar to lecturing on how nobody can say anything definitive about either topic. In that case, what is the point of having a seminar?
|The real Wente clonal selections: Karl and his father Eric|
But the important point for wine communicators, especially when talking to beginning consumers, is not the exceptions, but the rules, or perhaps better stated, principles. People want guidance. When you tell people "it doesn't matter what wine you drink with what food," you aren't helping them. We don't want to be as rigid as "Carneros Chardonnay with chicken breast in lemon-pepper beurre blanc," but "chicken is generally better with white wine" is helpful.
At the second seminar, I asked three times, "Can you tell me some regional differences in California Chardonnay?" I mean, the panel was called "Taste the Difference: Exploring California's Distinct Chardonnay Regions." A PR person I know told me that he couldn't see me at the front of the room, but, "When I heard somebody say, 'Let me ask the same question a different way,' I knew it was you."
What I got was a lecture from the moderator on how winemakers make a variety of choices that are more important than the region: barrel regimen and picking date and commercial yeast and when to dump in which additives and blah blah blah and there's just no way blah blah blah and all these Chardonnays are a product of their individual sites and blah blah blah.
Yes, this is all true. But I didn't sign up for a panel called "Reasons Why Nobody Can Make Any Statement At All About the Regional Character of California Chardonnay."
If you go to Burgundy, the Burgundians will tell you Puligny-Montrachet is like this, and Rully, just a few miles away, is like that. Is it possible to make a Rully that tastes like Puligny-Montrachet, or vice versa? Of course! (Actually, a Burgundian might argue that it's not possible.) In any case, that isn't the point of making Chardonnay in Rully. The point is to make a wine that is a distinct product of its region, not to deny that regional character exists.
Moreover, it undermines the purpose of having artisanal producers speak, and I believe that's what all of the speakers would like to be called. If the region doesn't matter, what matters is the producer, which in California equals brand. The new owners of The Prisoner would be happy with the message of this panel; why not just buy Prisoner Chardonnay, if it's all about the winemaker?
The Wente Clone panel was significantly better, as Randy Caparoso and Karl Wente gave us an interesting history of how the Wentes planted Chardonnay in Livermore Valley in 1912 and the grape spread out from there. Unfortunately that's where the story gets complicated.
There is no actual Wente Clone as we understand the term. The Wentes brought in a "trunk full of cuttings from Montpellier," Karl Wente said, and planted them all. Not all survived but the ones that did were essentially a field blend of Chardonnay clones. Karl Wente said that farmers tended to favor the vines that looked healthy, so there was some selection process, but many people looking for vine material to graft chose Chardonnay Musqué clones for the aromatic qualities, while others didn't.
Then UC Davis applied heat treatments to "Wente clones" that were infected with leafroll virus, creating virus-free Clone 4, Clone 5 and Clone 6 and maybe others I'm not listing. Without very productive Clone 4, good supermarket Chardonnay would not exist. Is it a Wente clone? If so, Caporoso says that 75% of the Chardonnay in California originated in some way from the Wente ranch.
Now that's an interesting story, but about that comparative tasting ... I beat my head against the same wall with this panel as I did with the other. So what does the Wente clone taste like? Compared to Dijon clones?
The best answer anyone could come up with was Eric Wente saying, "There's a reason why the industry has consistently selected it. It works in California. If it didn't work, you wouldn't do it." It's a good answer. It's an accurate answer. It's just not a particularly helpful answer if you want to know what Wente Clone Chardonnay might taste like.
There were some excellent wines at these two panels. A quick note on the links: All of these wines are new releases, so the Wine-Searcher links below will work for the actual vintages I tasted when they reach the market, which should be soon. Until then, just earlier vintages, sorry.
You can buy earlier vintages here.)
The Wentes held an internal contest of all their winemakers and enologists to make the best Chardonnay. Most used French oak, long lees contact, etc. Karl's father Eric Wente, who wasn't there at harvest time, gave instructions. "My father said pick it at 21 brix, ferment it cold in stainless steel, leave it on the lees for two months, rack it, and make sure it's in the bottle by April."
You can buy the 2014 here.)
Always interesting Jim Clendenen made a dull panel on regional differences tolerable with anecdotes on other topics (without him, I would have had no Wine Searcher story from this symposium, so thanks Jim), as well as a fine wine. Au Bon Climat Los Alamos Vineyard Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2014 ($28) is moderately rich, earthy, and not fruit-driven, though there is citrus. (You can buy earlier vintages here.)
DeLoach Vineyards Hawk Hill Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($50) is "the most Burgundian wine we make," said vineyard manager Eric Pooler. Hah: If we can't say what a Santa Barbara County Chardonnay is, or a Green Valley Chardonnay, how the hell can we say what a Burgundy Chardonnay is? Is it Chablis? Maconnais? What about the barrel regimen? The winemaker's personal expression?
I digress. The DeLoach wine is all about the toast, with good freshness and length, and it blossoms with air. (You can buy the 2012 here.) I wish I had spent more time drinking it and less time listening.