Monday, August 8, 2016

Rombauer Chardonnay: Accept no imitation (though my friend Myles did)

From Replica Wines' website
Last month I wrote a story about Replica Wines, a Colorado company that claims to have reverse-engineered the formula for several popular wines.

Replica liked the story, apparently so much that you might see my verdict of the company's imitation of Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay on a shelf talker. (Read the story here.) The company wanted me to try its new imitation of Rombauer Chardonnay, called Retrofit, so it sent me the wine, along with a bottle of Rombauer.

I learned something about the way ordinary consumers buy wine, because there's an interesting twist after the blind taste test.

For Replica's versions of K-J and The Prisoner, I invited a professional food writer to blind taste with me. For Rombauer, I asked a friend who drinks wine but is a non-connoisseur: he doesn't know the grapes that go into Burgundy, for example. It seemed appropriate because Rombauer is one of the most beloved wines by non-connoisseurs.

I set up the tasting the same way as the previous blind taste-off.

My wife poured four glasses of wine for Myles and myself. I told her to pour either two of both, or three of one and one of the other, without telling us. The task for Myles and myself was to determine which wines were the same. Could we tell the difference between the wines? Secondarily, which did we like better?

The difference was apparent. I only needed to smell the wines to tell them apart (my wife poured two and two.) Tasting was easy confirmation.

The real thing
Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay 2014 smells oaky and buttery, and its potency is apparent even on the nose. On the palate, it's distinctively rich, with nice bright lemon fruit and excellent length. It's sweeter than I like in a table wine, but it has the acid and body to carry it if you like that sort of thing.

Retrofit North Coast Chardonnay 2015 got the sweetness right, and the lemon-lime fruit isn't bad, and it also has good length. So it's not a bad effort. But even though its label alcohol is 14.5%, exactly the same as Rombauer, it's missing the richness, and that's a big difference. Texturally, it's nowhere near as satisfying as Rombauer.

That said, I'm not the right person to judge Rombauer Chardonnay. They call it Cougar Juice for a reason. It's not made for fussy oenophiles; it's made for average drinkers. My friend Myles is in the right age bracket, and though he's not the perfect gender, he did just get engaged.

Myles could tell the two wines apart from the nose, just as I did (I kept my opinion to myself so I would not influence him). He didn't initially trust his palate, but when I assured him there were no wrong answers, he said, "I like (Wine) A (Rombauer) the best. It's the softest-tasting. It doesn't have any afterbite or anything like that."

He said he would drink it. I asked how much he would pay and he said, "It's very good ... I'd pay like $18-$19 for that." Of course Rombauer actually costs about $30. He also said that while he didn't like the Retrofit as much, he would drink it, and, "I'd pay like $12-$13." That's inconvenient, because Retrofit is expected to cost more in stores. It's brand new and I can't yet find it on Wine Searcher, but the initial press release said it would cost "less than $25" and about 30% less than Rombauer.

Here's where the story gets interesting. Myles left San Francisco to visit his cousin in Sacramento. They went to Costco to buy wine. Myles asked about Rombauer, and a woman at Costco convinced him to buy a bottle of Highway 12 Carneros Chardonnay for $12.99. Myles told me by email, "It has a different name. The grapes are from Rombauer vineyard."

I wrote a feature story on Rombauer last year; it is one of my favorite features for Wine Searcher. "People think it's like Coca-Cola, we can just turn the tap on and make more," winemaker Richie Allen told me. "But it's very hard work and you have to have the right vineyard sources." 

Allen didn't say anything about Rombauer selling grapes from their estate vineyard. Doesn't mean they wouldn't, but I was surprised that the company would allow a non-Rombauer wine to be marketed in that way.

I told Myles that I needed a photo of the bottle (he's excited about appearing in this blog post.) So he sent it to me. Clearly not Rombauer. Clearly Highway 12 Carneros Chardonnay. Nothing on the front or back label about grapes from Rombauer Vineyard. Which I told Myles.

He sent me the screen grab at right from his iPhone. He was convinced, and I do mean convinced, that this screen grab proves that the Highway 12 Chardonnay is related to Rombauer. He told me repeatedly that this shows that the wine in the middle at the top is actually Rombauer by another name. Eventually he agreed to get me off the phone, but I could tell from his tone that he still thinks it's Rombauer.

I wasn't there at the Sacramento Costco. Perhaps the woman said that "the grapes are from Carneros, the same as Rombauer." That's not how he heard it or remembers it, but clearly the specificity of wine is not important to him. He got something he believed to be Rombauer Chardonnay for $12.99, and that made him happy. (He hasn't tried the Highway 12 as of this writing. I hope I didn't ruin it for him.)

So there's obviously a market for Retrofit. On Retrofit's website, the copy reads, "Compare to Rombauer Vineyards Chardonnay." That's probably enough to convince people who aren't paying much attention that it's not only like Rombauer, but maybe even made by Rombauer.

And while Myles thought Rombauer and Retrofit were pretty different when we had them both open, if you only have a bottle of Retrofit open, you might not think anything amiss.

One concluding note to this. While Myles was here in San Francisco we drank skin-contact Slovenian Pinot Gris rosé, Austrian Gruner Veltliner and Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, and he liked all of those. But the one wine he sought to buy after leaving was Rombauer Chardonnay. So don't blame me, fellow enophiles. I tried. But frankly, his fiancée will probably love it, and might even thank me for it. Accept no imitations, Myles. You wouldn't give her a cubic zirconia engagement ring ... or did you?

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Bob Rossi said...

Very entertaining. The one time I tried Rombaeur Chardonnay I thought it was repulsive, but I know that a lot of people love it. I also enjoyed the part about Highway 12. Your explanation about what the sales person might have said could very well be accurate. On the other hand, I can't count the number of times I've heard a pourer at a tasting or a wine salesman say that a particular wine is declassified AOC X, or made from excess grapes from Chateau Y, or some such thing. That's kind of what the business model for 90+ wines is based on. And one more line I really enjoyed: "For Rombauer, I asked a friend who drinks wine but is a non-connoisseur: he doesn't know the grapes that go into Burgundy, for example." And here I thought my father was dead. He once expressed surprise that I had no Chardonnay in my cellar. So I said I could open a Chablis. He said: "Chablis! That's the stuff they pour for free while you're gambling at a Las Vegas casino."

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Bob! Funny story about your father. I once ordered a bottle of Chablis for $37 at a restaurant in Florida and my dining companion expressed surprise that I would overpay so much.

Jack Everitt said...

" You wouldn't give her a cubic zirconia engagement ring ... or did you?' = I hope he did - real diamonds are such a scam.

So how was that orange rosé?

W. Blake Gray said...

Jack: Quite good. We had it at Commonwealth restaurant, but I didn't write down the name and their wine list isn't online, so I can't tell you the name of the wine. It was served cellar temperature and had a little more texture than the average rosé. Very good with tuna tartare.

Paul Giusto said...

Rombauer is the gold standard for Carneros Chardonnay or CA Chard for that matter for the American consumer. What Myles bought in Sacramento was actually our Carneros Highway Chardonnay, a sister brand to our Highway 12 wines. As producers of the Carneros Highway brand we admire their program and respect that they can get $30 plus a bottle. But we don't buy fruit from Rombauer...don't even know if they sell grapes in fact. We do source from neighboring vineyards which is common practice in winemaking. That said, our dedicated team of promotional representatives are well versed in our sourcing and winemaking style. Although I can't guarantee 100% that the representative did NOT say it was from a Rombauer vineyard, I do know that we've been producing and marketing this wine for 10 years now and have not heard this before. #welovechardonnay

W. Blake Gray said...

Paul, thank you for clearing that up.