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Tuesday Tributes
Chardonnay: Fact Vs. Misinterpretation—DECANTER Gets It Wrong

By Charles Olken

Decanter Magazine has just published an article about California Chardonnay that masquerades as a paean to a new, brisker style, but is, in reality, a hit piece that relies on half-truths and misinterpretations to make its point.

I try not to pick on articles like this because they represent a point of view, and we all have our own views of the world. But, when the author starts making things up and demeaning both fine wine and the people who like it, then that is a step too far.

Let me be clear, I don’t care what anybody likes. That is their business. But the Decanter article goes far beyond like and dislike, and in so doing, reinvents California history in the process. The chance to champion the increasingly popular restrained style of Chardonnay gets lost along the way and asks to be set right. There is no disagreement on my part that Chardonnay is becoming lighter and higher in acidity for many upscale producers. It is a trend that has been going on for some time now, and it is not new. Moreover, the style is not a new style in California. Nor is it one that has not existed continuously.

Let’s start with the initial comment for it sets the tone for a series of misstatements and missteps that follow. In offering the quote, “Chardonnay is in the midst of a comeback tour”, the author suggests that Chardonnay had gone somewhere, and that this “somewhere” was some vinous backwater where the world stopped liking it. Given that Chardonnay is the single most widely planted grape in California and that its sales have remained strong, it is absurd to then write, “The ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement left the grape with deep scars.”

Frankly, the only folk who abandoned California Chardonnay were the geeks, the insiders, the folks whose narrow view of the world is supposed to be everyone else’s. These are the folks who write that Russian River Pinot Noir is failing because it has become a commodity even though small wineries are being priced out of that competition because the demand for grapes is so high that they cannot afford to buy them. These are the folks who call Napa Cabernet a parody of itself despite the fact that the demand for it slowed only a little in the recession and has already picked up ahead of the economy. These folks are not talking about wine quality but their own pinched vision of the world. If you disagree with them, you are an “apologist”.

Here is the sad proof that the author offers for the downfall of Chardonnay. Jess Jackson did it all through his Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. What hooey. To be sure, that style of inexpensive Chardonnay, with its slight boost from a spoonful of sugar, did become very popular. But to suggest that K-J’s wine somehow represented where California Chardonnay went for a couple of decades is flat out wrong. The author offers wineries like Peay and Donkey and Goat as members of the new direction, and no one would argue that their wines have been lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than many of their peers. They make very good Chardonnay that has rated well in Connoisseurs’ Guide.

But, citing those small, hand-crafted wines as evidence of anything is to ignore two major facts. The first is that wineries like Mount Eden, Cuvaison, Gary Farrell, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Au Bon Climat and dozens of others have been making lower alcohol, higher acidity Chardonnays for four decades without letup, and, secondly and perhaps more importantly, that they make and have always made scads more wine than Peay or Donkey and Goat or Lioco has ever made. For sure, size is not quality. But size is also not an ocean of sweet, simple wine.

The author then says the K-J, as of 1982, became the defining style of Chardonnay. Of course, he also calls it “the damning style”. So, let’s get this straight once and for all. Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, at $10 or so, did not define Chardonnay for all of California. It did not define Chardonnay for most of the labels in California. And, while a few up-scale labels imitated the style, such as Rombauer, the overwhelming majority of up-scale California Chardonnay, of the type the geeks like me drink, never ever contained residual sugar.

It is preposterous to compare K-J Vintner’s Reserve with the wines of Robert Mondavi, Morgan, Talley, Ojai, Franciscan, Rodney Strong, Ramey, Paul Hobbs, Lewis, Freestone, Flowers, Varner, Dutton Goldfield, Dehlinger, Sonoma-Cutrer. And if needs be, I can rattle off a couple of hundred other serious Chardonnay producers whose wines would not be confused with K-J by anybody with a reasonable understanding of the whole picture in California.

Here is another piece of surprising silliness that is offered in the Decanter article. “Even today, a Boomer preference lingers for the buttery style that the quintessential Napa example of Rombauer . . . .”. The implication, of course, is that the Baby Boomer generation is wed to the Rombauer Chardonnay. Yet, consider this. Rombauer Chardonnay is sweet. It is not buttery. It is sweet. And to suggest that a sweet Chardonnay is “the quintessential Napa example” is so wrong and wrong-headed as to be not just misinterpretation, but a mistake of significant proportion. We are not talking about his opinion versus my opinion here. We are talking about fact. Rombauer Chardonnay is not a quintessential anything as relates to what Napa produces by way of Chardonnay.

Because the article is so wrong on this basic fact, it relies on its mistake by stating that this trend set the stage “for Chardonnay as travesty”. Well, folks, I must apologize to you for going on at such lengths. I just cannot find a way to forgive a writer who equates most upscale California Chardonnay with the Rombauer style. It is nothing more than one style. And it is a style that is neither quintessential nor dominant among the wines that I review or the wines that the author, who after all is the wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, reviews. Yet, in his wholesale condemnation of the majority of all California Chardonnay, not just a few sweet, soft wines, he demeans most coastally grown bottlings and thus demeans the people who drink them.

Spare me your angry letters, you sycophants who think that the new Chardonnay was just invented. It has existed since Chardonnay came out of hiding in the 1960s, was compounded in the 1970s with the plantings of 20,000 acres of grapes and led the way to the expansion of the 1980s and early 90s that saw Chardonnay acreage grew to 100,000. No one is arguing that all that Chardonnay makes great wine, but much of it does and always has done. The author calls Chardonnay “a travesty”. He is wrong, and his resort to mistakes, misinterpretations and damnations of every wine satisfying his singular scope comes a lot closer to travesty in my view.


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Fact vs Decanter
by Gary Gebhard
Posted on:9/6/2011 10:32:36 AM


by richard
Posted on:9/6/2011 1:31:54 PM

Sounds like you have more of a personal problem with Bonne, rather than Decanter.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/6/2011 1:46:00 PM

Decanter published the article, and others associated with it--all of which take the tack that CA wine is corpulent, unpleasant and not worthy of being liked. It is Decanter's editorial position.

Jon Bonne is just the messenger. He has the gist right. CA Chard is changing. Decanter allowed him to publish an article that was wrong as to the facts. It is their magazine. As for Bonne, his bias is well-known and his style of insulting the wines he dislikes and the people who disagree with him are also well-known. Decanter chose to publish him. This is on their heads.

by John Kelly
Posted on:9/6/2011 2:08:59 PM

This would have been old news by Thursday I suppose. Where is your link to the original article?

I'm starting to wonder who Jon Bonne thinks he is. "Mr. Bonne, I know Robert Parker and you, sir, are no Robert Parker." Bonne will never posses a level of credibility or influence to change the course of this industry - as he seems to think he can do.

I'm disinclined to be as hard on Decanter as you are, Charlie. Across the pond they have little access to the diversity of wines we enjoy here. Their view of California Chardonnay may well be limited to what they can get off the shelves of Tesco or Marks & Spencer - which would be?... K-J and Rombauer.

Does Decanter have a West Coast editor? Is there anyone on their staff qualified to fact-check Bonne's fiction? Appears not.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/6/2011 2:54:43 PM


I don't have a link to the original article. It came to me in that old-fashioned, heavy, clumsy medium called "print". You remember print--the California Chardonnay of written expression. Or as John Bonne so nicely put it, "the cougar juice of the Boomers".

Cougar Juice
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:9/6/2011 3:04:21 PM

I wanted to ask Alice Feiring during her past visit that if Rombauer chardonnay is the cougar juice of the Boomer-type set, what is the cougar juice for the natural wine crowd?

Cougar Juice
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:9/6/2011 4:03:22 PM

@ Chuck- Radikon Ribolla?

by richard
Posted on:9/6/2011 7:34:31 PM

"Jon Bonne is just the messenger?" He wrote the article, Decanter merely published it. 

As for John Kelly, Linda Murphy is their California correspondent, and she does a great job.

I guess that if I was a Boomer writting on wine for decades, yet no one knew who I was and my impact on sales was irrelevent, I would hate Bonne as well.



by Brad
Posted on:9/7/2011 12:54:17 AM long has it been since you've tasted KJ. Last time I tasted it it wasn't sweet. Certainly that was it's base years ago when Jed was making the wines but the wine has consistently become less sweet over the past decade or more.  While certainly not bone dry and high in acid it is a well balanced wine these days. In fact I'd bet the Rombauer has considerably more measurable sugar than KJ. Never thought I'd defend KJ but felt your blog left an unfair impression of the current wine.

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