Opening Up to Chardonnay

tasting Chardonnay at Byron Winery, Santa MariaThis July, we’re bringing a Chardonnay skeptic with us to The Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria. From the morning seminar and lunch through to the Grand Tasting in the afternoon, it will be fun to watch her expand her flavor horizons with each sip of this incredibly diverse varietal.

Now in its fourth year, The Chardonnay Symposium offers an intellectual-sensory event featuring over 50 wineries celebrating the white grape from Burgundy. My friend loves Zins and Cabs but long ago closed her palate to Chard after too many overly buttery, overly oaky wines that wouldn’t cooperate with food. I’m confident she will discover many lovelies that will open her up to Chardonnay at this unique event.

More information and tickets: The Chardonnay Symposium, Santa Maria July 19-21

Chardonnay Homework

Before The Chardonnay Symposium kicks off with a special dinner at the Bien Nacido Vineyards adobe for local legend and Au Bon Climat winemaker Jim Clendenen, my friend can prime her mind for rethinking Chard with a little light reading, hopefully paired with a nice glass of wine. The first tasty homework comes from Chablis-style Chardonnay producer Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards who grows grapes and makes wine with Burgundian varietals in Sta. Rita Hills AVA near Lompoc.

Wes delivers a rapid fire geological history of the Santa Rita Hills

Wes delivers a rapid fire geological history of the Santa Rita Hills

In “Chardonnay, a Perspective,” Wes describes how, as a wine judge, he has witnessed the shift away from an overdone style of Chardonnay to something far more restrained and interesting that pairs wonderfully with food. As a winemaker and wine educator, he hopes Chard skeptics will give this varietal another try once they realize that many winemakers today—especially in northern Santa Barbara County—produce delightful, food-friendly wines with the noble grape. Wes writes, “Maybe when the wine geeks realize that the world is no longer dominated by overblown, buttery, oaky Chardonnay, they’ll be willing to take a step back towards the most expressive and complex white wine varietal in the world.” Chardonnay: it’s definitely not just for cocktail hour anymore.

Another piece of delicious homework before attending The Chardonnay Symposium? Read up on Chuck Ortman’s views about the dismissive ABC attitude of “anything but Chardonnay.” Chuck writes, “A certain backlash against Chardonnay was inevitable, as is the case with anything that becomes wildly popular. But there is a reason why Chardonnay remains California’s dominant white wine. When done right, it’s hard to beat.” Once people realize the variety and richness in today’s Chard landscape, the Central Coast’s Mr. Chardonnay expects that wine lovers will become “anything but closed-minded” about Chardonnay. Whatever you do, don’t be this guy who apparently never tasted killer Chard until it was almost too late because his preconceptions kept him from enjoying what can be a beautiful, complex and very interesting white wine.


A Drinking Party to Celebrate Chardonnay

Sierra Madre Vineyard, Wente CloneMy friend and I will have a chance to taste and learn at the morning seminar hosted by Central Coast wine country enthusiast Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast. In the “Bring in the Clones!” session, Steve and a collection of Chardonnay winemakers will help everyone investigate through palates and minds the how, why, and who cares of understanding Chardonnay clonal selections such as Wente, Robert Young, and clone 17. If you think all Chardonnay grapes taste the same, this seminar will provide some  clarity to the nuance of clonal influence on a finished wine. The panelists include Chamisal Vineyard’s Kiwi winemaker Fin du Fresne, Riverbench Vineyard & Winery’s talented Clarissa Nagy, and 9th generation Santa Maria Valley resident James Ontiveros, whose Native9 label honors his family history in Santa Maria Valley agriculture that began way back in 1781. After lunch, we’ll cruise the Grand Tasting held at Byron Vineyard & Winery from 1-4pm. Thankfully, shuttle bus service is available from Santa Maria out to the winery and back to town for the safety and enjoyment of Symposium participants.

In ancient Greece, a symposium was a drinking party for men during which discussions ranged, dancing women entertained, and much wine was consumed: Plato’s Symposium remains one of the most famous accounts of such a classical get-together. Today, the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country invites everyone to participate in this modern-day drinking party to discover & celebrate Chardonnay and spread the delicious word beyond the boundaries of this annual event.

Wes Hagen photo: Jeremy Ball for Bottle Branding

Greek symposium photo: Toledo Museum of Art

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