A lot of perfectly fine people have said to me, “I don’t drink Chardonnay.” Or, “I don’t like Chardonnay.” This doesn’t mean what they think it means. I doubt these perfectly fine people would turn up their nose at a bottle of Premier Cru Puligny-Montrachet. I bet they’d enjoy a lip-smacking glass of a good Maçonnais.
What they mean–and with good reason–is that they don’t like the average bottle of California Chardonnay that you’d find at your local grocery store or wine shop. This a good opinion to have, because there are oceans of bad California Chardonnay out there, enough to drown yourself in many times over. “Bad” meaning horribly overoaked, overly alcoholic, flabby, cloying, disgusting pits of oak and butter and vanilla. There are any number of ways to achieve this kind of wine, from leaving the grapes on the vine for longer than usual, to aging the wine in all spankin-new oak, to the unthinkable act of dunking large sacks of oak chips into the wine to get the oak effect in rapid time. (Are you throwing up in your mouth yet?)
I’m not quite sure why and when California winemakers decided that this was the market niche they wanted to pursue (were there really that many Real Housewives across the country who were demanding the stuff back in the 70s and 80s?), but the point is that if you go into a store and pull a random bottle of California Chard off the shelf, you’re likely to end up with something that’s probably pretty gross, especially if it’s under $20.
So I applaud Eric Asimov in his attempt to give the genre a second chance, but the fact that most of the wines he profiled only got 2 or 2.5 stars, not to mention that most were north of $20, doesn’t inspire confidence in me that California winemakers have learned the error of their ways. Really, I’m to pay $30 for a wine that’s “Plush and rich, with flavors of buttered popcorn, oak and vanilla”? Can’t I just buy a big bag of Jelly Belly instead?
Well-made chardonnay (refined, balanced, minerally, either unoaked or judiciously oaked) can be amazing. In particular, I like everything that Au Bon Climat puts out. But when there’s so much good, and good-value, wine out there to try and love, why should we waste our time on something that, for the most part, just keeps failing us? While the CA chard guys may be eager to prove themselves to us, to show that they learned their lesson, I’m just fine letting them continue to cater to the slightly tipsy, well-to-do moms of the world.