Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chardonnay vs. the world

Chardonnay is planted all over the world. Should it be?

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.


kschlach said...

There is some truth to what you write, but if Chardonnay is given more press, there will be even less opportunities for the Chardonnay-only crowd to be exposed to wines/grapes outside their comfort zone. Are you more concerned with increasing readership or educating readers and expanding their horizons?

W. Blake Gray said...

The answer to your question is Yes.

John M. Kelly said...

Growers the world over plant Chardonnay because compared to other varieties, many Chard clones yield consistently well and because the variety is relatively easy to farm and get ripe.

And because there is demand. When the variety is in oversupply (as it was here in CA about 8-10 years ago) and the prices drop far enough, vineyards get pulled or budded over. A couple years ago we had a shortage, prices went up and acreage went back up in response. [As if you need a grade-level lecture on business cycles ;-)]

"Chardonnay" seems indeed to have become so identified with "white wine" in the mind of the average consumer that I don't know why we bother to write it with a capital "C" any longer.

But I blame the American obsession with varietal labeling and varietal purity, along with the European obsession with place names, for the decrease in popularity of other white grapes more suited to hot region viticulture.

Honestly I don't think too many consumers were moronic enough to confuse that $30 Chablis with all the French words on the label and the acid bite with that sweet, fruity $2.99 "Chablis" coming out of Modesto (or anywhere else for that matter).

King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

Because too much Chardonnay drunk in the US became an oaked beverage fortified with wine that was awful with most foods, many of those who write about wine lost interest. As a bonus, prices surged up.

But interest is returning, especially with chardonnays from the Jura. And a good percentage of American producers have stepped down their "oak program" in recent years.

kschlach said...

I concur with your answer.

King Krak, Second Salvo said...

"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."

How does this differ from 1 in my dining out meals is at a chain restaurant yet not 1 in 25 restaurant reviews is of a chain restaurant?

And, how distinct are all of the Chardonnays being drunk? Would there be a reason to be writing about them?

Is there even a reason for this post?

W. Blake Gray said...

Actually, King, I think newspapers would better serve readers if they stopped ignoring chain restaurants. I'm out of town right now in a place where chains dominate and Village Inn came in 5th in a Trip Advisor poll of favorite local restaurants, but places like this never get coverage.

Re a reason for this post: To make you comment twice. Or is it going to be three times?

Anonymous said...

While I agree with you.....

people in Atlanta do not call orange soda/pop,Coke. LOL.

The reason so many wineries are planting Chard is that it sells and while there are great chardonnay based wines there are also many that are ummm, watery or worse. Look what happened to the Pinot Grigio.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: YOU might not call orange soda "Coke," but I have had discussions with more than one Georgian who does. I'm sure Bill Addison doesn't.

Larry Brooks said...

It's hard to know where to start with this but I agree that not nearly enough is written about Chardonnay. As a winemaker with 30+ years making primarily Pinot and Chardonnay I'm a lot prouder of my Chardonnay than of my Pinot. Your Pinot Noir shows how good a grower you are, but Chardonnay really shows your skill as a winemaker. I'd also like to point out that of the 90,000 acres of Chardonnay bearing in California, 50,000 of those acres are in cool low yeilding coastal appellations. To say that most California Chardonnay comes from warm climate areas isn't borne out by the facts.

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry: I think that depends on how you define "cool." Very interesting statement about grower vs. winemaker regarding Pinot Noir vs. Chardonnay. I hadn't heard that before, but I can see it.

Larry Brooks said...

In my experience it is humidity the vines respond to more than heat. Vines don't function well under arid conditions. In California humid equates to coastal and that's how I did my rough analysis of quality vs. crap Chardonnay vinyard acres. I've also found direct sunlight on the clusters to be a negative with Chardonnay, and the foggier lower light regimes of the coastal locations contributes to quality in California.

Charlie Olken said...

Nice bit of analysis, Blake. Chardonnay is liked by the average punters because it tastes good to them. Even warm-climate Chardonnay of the type that Larry Brooks and John Kelly would not make is still better tasting to most people than the current alternatives.

And that is where this article really deserves more exposure to the debating world. It is not just Greco or Aristo that might be tried here. Catarratto and Fiano are also interesting alternatives. It would be a worthwhile exercise if other names were tossed into the ring and discussed.

You ask who will sell them, and since I am not of that world, I will answer with a guess. I am guessing that balanced, complete wines will sell once someone makes them. Sure, they have to first get in the hands of the geek (no disrespect intended) growers and the geek producers who will find a ready market in the geek wine merchants. If the world agrees that the wines are better to drink for the money than warm climate Chardonnay, or just represent a useful alternative, then they will take hold.

Otherwise, they are going to suffer the fate of all the other great white hopes. I agree that Chardonnay gets second-hand treatment and deserves better and I think you are onto something with your call for trials with grapes beyond those we have here now.

Charlie Olken said...

Nice post, Gray. Even a Chard lover like me would agree that we could use more diversity, and we certainly could use grapes that produce interesting, balanced, priceworthy whites that can be grown in warm area vineyards.