Why is most California Chardonnay so Bad?

Tasting the new vintage of Poppy Chardonnay 2014 an honest, fruit-filled, lightly oaked beauty that sells for a song – made us think of two questions:

  • Why isn’t there more really good, honest, generous California Chardonnay out there for under $12? And …
  • Why is so much California Chardonnay so…er…bad?

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of great California Chardonnay out there. But finding the good ones seems to involve tasting an awful lot of awful wine. In fact, I just looked at my tasting notes for the past year. We’ve tried something like 150 different Cali Chards, and fewer than one in five – 16% of you want to be precise – made it onto our “Open to Buy” list – meaning we thought they were good enough in quality and price/value to offer you. And fewer than a dozen of those actually made it onto the shelf by knocking off a current selection.

Admittedly, we’re pickier than some. We demand that any California Chardonnay we sell have nice ripe fruit, that any oak and butter flavors be balanced and attractive, and that the wine finishes clean and fresh without any bitterness or puckery bite or sticky sweetness. And the wine has to sell at a price that makes sense – if you’re paying $25 for it, a Chardonnay should be a nice step up from whatever you’d find for $6.99 at the grocery store.

Why are those kinds of Chardonnays so hard to find? Four reasons.

First, “Chardonnay” has become a “brand” as much as a wine. This all started back during America’s great white wine boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Folks were looking for something with less alcohol than cocktails and classier than beer to sip on the porch, at parties and while out showing off big hair and flared pants at the disco and fern bar. Crisp, clean, fairly low-alcohol white wine fit the bill and sales exploded.

Back then, if you ordered “a glass of white wine,” you’d get something either sickly sweet like Blue Nun or crisp but bland like Gallo Chablis – a wine named for a great French Chardonnay region but made without any Chardonnay at all. How to get something with a bit more body, a touch more flavor, and a ton more refreshing? Chardonnay fit all those requirements, was the grape used to make some of the world’s best whites (i.e., white Burgundy), and was fun to say, too. So, pretty soon, “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay” became one of the most common phrases heard in bars and clubs across the country – right after “What’s your sign, baby?”

When Chardonnay became the generic term for dry white wine, America’s vinous industrial complex swung into action, planting Chardonnay pretty much anywhere grapes would grow and banging it into bottle as fast and hard as possible. Hardly a recipe for quality!

Second, Jess Jackson accidentally discovered that Americans “talk dry but drink sweet.” In 1982, Jackson had a big vat of Chardonnay bubbling away when the fermentation “stuck” – the yeast all died before all of the grapes’ sugar had turned into alcohol. Jess could hardly afford to toss all that wine, so he stuck it in some barrels to add a little oak flavor, bottled it, and shipped it out to the market.

The crowd went wild. Sales of KJ Chardonnay exploded as folks discovered they really liked this rich, creamy, slightly oaky and a tiny bit sweet white wine. Over the years, a few winemakers how to make genuinely interesting wines in this style – Rombauer probably leads the pack here. But unless this style of wine starts with really great fruit and is very carefully nurtured through fermentation and aging, it ends up tasting like Butter Caramel Life-Savers dusted in ground oak chips and a dash of bitter quinine. Perhaps interesting for a sip, but you certainly wouldn’t want to drink a whole glass of the stuff!

America’s vinous industrial complex was less worried about quality and much more about making a quick buck. As demand soared, they kept planting Chardonnay – it’s a pretty flexible vine and it will produce a pretty large crop of grapes almost anywhere you plant it, including places like the scorching hot Central Valley where table grapes do well but wine grapes – not so much.

That leads us to the third reason why most California Chardonnay is so bad: most California Chardonnay vines are growing in places better suited for tomatoes and table grapes than for wine.

Chardonnay is the Golden Retriever of wine grapes. It’s friendly, agreeable, and eager to please. Given firm discipline and careful training, it will stay friendly but also develop real polish, finesse and class. Left to its own devices, it will slobber all over you and make a great big stinky mess. Either way, the dog has a strong tendency to end up resembling its owner – and the grape ends up reflecting the personality of its winemaker.

Chardonnay practically begs winemakers to do stuff to it. Pick it early, you get steely acids and minerality. Pick it late, and you get a tropical fruit basket. Ferment it cool in a steel tank and you’ll have fresh, crisp flavors. Ferment it warmer in oak barrels and you’ll get broad, creamy textures and spice.

Let it go through what’s called malolactic fermentation, and you’ll get even more softness and a new set of buttery, creamy flavors. Leave it in oak for a while longer, and you’ll add nutty, smoky notes. Use some kinds of barrels and – BAM! – you’ve got vanilla. Use others and get whispers of toast and spice.

When all these choices are made carefully, respecting the character of the fruit, the climate where it was grown, and the notion that a great wine is about balance and finesse, then Chardonnay can be a great, great wine even when grown in sunny California. But, we’re Americans, and we’re prone to believe that if a little of something is good, a whole lot of it will be better.

And having a whole lot of some stuff and not nearly enough of others is the fourth reason so much California Chardonnay is so unfortunately awful. And the hard work required to make a balanced, delicious Chardonnay is why so many of California’s best cost as much as they do.

We’ve got a whole shelf full of balanced, fruit-filled, lip-smackingly delicious California Chardonnays that prove that it doesn’t have to be this way – but, remember, we had to taste a bunch of bad ones to find the bottles worth your time.

Poppy Chardonnay 2014 is definitely in the “worth your time” class. It’s from a place that’s right on the edge of “too warm” for good Chardonnay, so the winemakers had to do a little extra work to keep it in balance. You can read more about how they did it here or swing by the store this week and give it a try. And, if you have any California horror stories or even some great finds, let us know in the comments below!



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