You Don’t Know Chardonnay

The man with the empty Chardonnay glass looked confused. We were milling about before “The Art of the Oyster” seminar during SAVOR the Central Coast 2011 and were both in line for a splash of Ortman Family Cellars Chardonnay to sip during the demonstration. Held in the historic Asistencia on Santa Margarita Ranch, this delightful presentation featured Neal Maloney of the Morro Bay Oyster Company and Sunset magazine’s food editor and host Margo True. Neal even showed off his mad shucking skills for a beaming Margo and interested audience.

“It’s delicious, isn’t it?” I said while the wine poured. “Yeah,” the man said, sounding shocked. He didn’t need to tell me he never drank Chardonnay—his demeanor and dudewear suggested he always opted for a beer, a cocktail or at least a macho red wine when given the chance. However, because this rich, expressive white varietal pairs so well with oysters, it was the only wine available for that seminar.

Sierra Madre Chardonnay, Wente clone

“You don’t know Chard,” I thought to myself as he walked away carrying his glass and a very recent paradigm shift. Lucky for him, he was able to have his wine-mind blown by a creamy, complex vintage produced with the care and passion of our Central Coast Mr. Chardonnay, Chuck Ortman. Starting with the good stuff: a good place to begin rethinking Chardonnay.

On the Bluff at Sierra Madre Vineyard

What did I know about Chardonnay that this guy didn’t? Well, if he’s been avoiding this wine because he thinks it might be too girly or taste like so much buttered popcorn, he’s missing a world of fantastic Central Coast Chardonnay produced by male and female winemakers alike. While buttery Chards assert themselves during cocktail hour, Chards produced with restraint such as those from Sierra Madre Vineyard, Clos Pepe Vineyards, Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, Kenneth Volk VineyardsLiquid Farm and Deovlet Wines (just to name a few Santa Barbara County favorites) are some of the smartest, tastiest wines in the room and at the dinner table. If you’re not drinking Central Coast Chardonnay, you have no idea what you’re missing.

Another thing we learned about this varietal during the second annual Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria Valley in 2011? Winemakers are crazy for the stuff and, if I’m looking for something great to enjoy, I follow the lead of my favorite vintners. At a seminar, vineyard walk and family-style meal on the bluff at Sierra Madre Vineyard to celebrate Chardonnay and kick off the Symposium weekend, we enjoyed catching the passion for this varietal—one of the most widely planted in California—from UC-Davis academics, vineyard managers and winemakers alike.

Walking among the various Chardonnay clones planted along the bluff at Sierra Madre with the smell of the ocean breeze mixing with the aroma of the wine in our glasses, how cool to see the thrill of winemakers like Steve Rasmussen of Foghat Cellars (& former Sierra Madre winemaker) and John Falcone of Falcone Family Vineyards who know that the wines they make will only ever be as good as the carefully tended fruit they bring to their wineries. “Winemaking, it’s a liquid kitchen,” says winemaker Paul Lato of Paul Lato Wines, another fortunate and talented winemaker who sources some of his fruit from this special vineyard because the quality of his wines can only begin with quality grapes.

We certainly don’t know enough about viticulture to geek out about particular clones in the manner of Steve Fennell of Sanford Winery and Vineyards who declared his love for clone #17 with the passion of Romeo for Juliet, but we do know what we like in our glass. In the end, that’s really what matters: “Do you like it?” Tasting events like the Chardonnay Symposium shorten the space between the experts who produce great wine and all of us who enjoy it. Wine writers, viticulturalists, vintners, and Chardonnay enthusiasts of all stripes come together every summer to throw a party for Chardonnay and its many fans. Don’t miss this fun, unique opportunity to change your mind about Chardonnay or have your love confirmed for California’s favorite white wine.

Another reason to attend this year: Chef Budi Kazali of The Ballard Inn will take care of the food beautifully and flavorfully in a way that lifts and inspires the wine. Check out Chef Budi on The Inn Crowd, coming to a KEYT3 time slot near you and filmed by the talented team at Bottle Branding.

The Chardonnay Symposium, June 29-July 1, 2012

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