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Monday Manifestos
Look Out, Chardonnay, You Are In Decline

By Charles Olken

Look out, Chardonnay, you are in decline. You are a has-been. You are all washed up. You are going to follow Merlot and Syrah into the dustbin of history. We know this because a report by Napa Technologies says so. And they know because they asked 90 people in the wine business and 40% of them said so. And if 40% of 90 people say something, it must be true. Why else would Napa Technologies trumpet that “finding” in its web site?

The problem is not with the data, but in the manner of its collection. Asking a bunch of sommeliers and high-powered insiders anything is going to lead to inaccurate results. They certainly can speak for themselves, and no one who frequents leading restaurants in San Francisco will miss the point that there is a trend towards little known white varieties like Albarino and Arneis and Gruner Veltliner and Ribolla Gialla and away from Chardonnay. But San Francisco restaurants and their hip cousins in other hip burgs are simply responding to the desire we “too knowledgeable folks” feel about eating in the hip places like Francis and AQ and Commonwealth. We like to experiment. We like to try things.

And so it is probably true that we are less invested in Chardonnay than we used to be. We are also less invested in Bordeaux First and Second Growths and Tete de Cuvée Champagnes. That does not mean that we like those wines any less. But when LeFlaive and Ramey Chardonnays cost in the hundreds of dollars in restaurants, it makes sense that we seek out something else.

The wine-consuming world is a much bigger place today than it was forty years or twenty years ago or even ten years ago. Chardonnay plantings and sales have not suffered in absolute terms—any more than Merlot sales suffered when the New York Times declared the variety dead twenty years ago.

So, my advice to you, Chardonnay, is to take reports of your decline with a grain of salt. Those reports, to bastardize the immortal words of Mr. Clemens, are greatly exaggerated.


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An Anecdote
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/25/2013 9:45:14 AM

I was in the Napa Valley not so long ago attending a tasting of rarely seen wines that a few intrepid growers up there are playing with.

One of the big themes of the night was "Isn't this better than Chardonnay?". In fact, it was the mantra of this group apprarently because almost none of them could talk about their own wine without taking a jab at Chardonnay.

Well, OK, I get it. If you think you are the "new wave", and have been anointed as such by the local newspaper of record for northern CA, then you been to believe your own that your 32 acres is some day going to rule the world. It may be fancy or it may be folly, but it hurts no one and "belief" is one of the big keys to the continuing growth of the wine industry. Fifty years ago, when Chardonnay was still being listed as an also-ran red variety in the Annual Grape Acreage Report, it was the faith in the variety shown by folks like Ambassador Zellerback at Hanzell and Fred McCrea at Stony Hill and Dick Graff at Chalone that helped bring the grape out of its local obscurity.

So, I have nothing but hope for the purveyors of little known grapes.

Yet, in that setting of true believers, we (Steve Eliot and myself in our meeting and greeting of the assembled) were twice confidentially (a bit strange that grown men had to whisper) that this new "love" was simply not Chardonnay. I understand why they were keeping their subversive opinions to themselves. It was a nice day, the food was good, the array of wines interesting for their diversity and color (if you like orange wines) and, besides, they would have been chased from the property if they had spoken aloud.

There is a need, usually among the young, to look for the new, the different, the unusual. Those are the folks who want to move past, far past, Chardonnay. They have been there, done that, bought the T-Shirt, served it to their mothers-in-law, and now they are ready to move on.

But some of them are discovering that new is not always special. "I'm beginning to believe that the emporer has no clothes", one of them intoned in our shell-like ears. "I am acutally drinking Chardonnay again".

Some of us have never left because Chardonnay is that good.

Re-discovering Chardonnay
by Sherman
Posted on:3/25/2013 8:06:15 PM

Whilst out & about my small market (southern Oregon), presenting and tasting through various wines with accounts for their consideration, I occasionally take out the various chards for a walk. It amuses me to see the reactions from some of the younger folks in positions of being decisoin-makers at their venues when I put a chard in front of them -- usually it's one of puzzlement. You can see the confused look on their faces, as if the inner dialogue is "Why is he showing me my Mom's wine? I haven't had a chard in like forever!"

Then I talk 'em into at least trying a nice crisp WA chard from Mike Januik, or a Chablis with verve and minerality that wakes up their palate, and gets the juices flowing. You can see the light bulbs come on -- and I tell 'em, "See? It's not your mother's chardonnay, is it?"

One bottle at a time ---

ABC or NBC: You Decide
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:3/26/2013 9:40:34 AM

Funny how the ABC crowd goes all wacko on chardonnays in general but when you slap a Burgundy label on a bottle of chard they go all gaga. Crazy hypocrisy again.

In the meantime, lots of wineries (and restaraunts) are making big dollars selling to the NBC crowd (that's Nothing But Chardonnay). ABC or NBC--you decide and see where the money goes....

My Money
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:3/26/2013 10:05:37 AM

Goes to QVC...

by Chris Miller
Posted on:3/26/2013 1:27:09 PM

Syrah is a has been? Merlot I get the reference but Syrah?Doesn't something have to be very (or at least a bit) popular to become a has been?

I musta been sleeping during Syrah's reign.

No Subject
by Syrah
Posted on:3/26/2013 1:39:51 PM


Maybe you are too young.

Frank Prial wrote a famous piece in which he said that Merlot is dead and that Syrah had taken its place. We saw Syrah planting shoot up from nothing to almost 20,000 at the peak during the late 90s, early 00s.

Whether that qualifies as "hot" or just hoped-for hotness, Syrah did enjoy a big flash of apparent success.

by TomHill
Posted on:3/28/2013 12:23:48 PM


Hmmmmm....I assume the reference in your post was to the FriuliFest event of last July. 

   I certainly didn't come away from that event with the same impression that they were an ABC crowd. Some of those folks...gasp...even make Chard. To me, these were just a bunch of folks who happen to be pretty passionate about Ribolla. And I didn't get the impression that they thought Ribolla would be the next great thing to take on Chard.

   I (and you, too, Charlie) can easily go out a buy (or dig down into our cellar) and pull out a good to great Chard. that we can drink w/ great enjoyment. But, in many cases, I'm not interested in drinking a "great" Chard all (or most of) the time. Sometimes, I just want to expand my horizons...recognizing that this skin-contact SauvBlanc may not fit my definition of great (and I have no illusions...sometimes the Emperor is merely stripped down to his skivvies...if not totally naked).

   Tues night at Soif/SantaCruz (great resturaunt & wine bar), I saw some SCM Chards on the list I thought would be very good & I'd not tried. Instead, I went w/ a skin-contact Zelen-blend from Slovenia and a SCM PinotGris Rose. They weren't great...I'm sure the Chards would have been better, much better...but they were, at least, interesting and expanded my horizons.

   Same thing at RhoneRangers (missed you Syrah really dead??). The wine that interested me the most was a skin-contact GrenacheBlanc. I could (and did) walk up to any number of tables and got a GrenacheBlanc that was far better than that Ambyth GB. But that was the wine that interested me to most.



Hmmm or Not So Hmmm
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/28/2013 2:49:00 PM


The tasting itself was a pure joy because it explored new territory. Steve and I were delighted to attend, to meet folks who are pushing the envelope and to try their wines. But my recollection of the many digs, even slurs, hurled at Chardonnay add up to a certain bias that went beyond pure preference on a taste basis.

Certainly not universal, and I won't name names except yours of course and Lee Hudson who is experimenting with Riblolla Gialla in a cold section of his cool-climate vineyard.

I was surprised by one of the makers who proudly proclaimed that his wine was under 11% alcohol and whose wife then interjected something like "10.3, actaully, try that with your Chardonnay" or the restaurant owner who went out of her way to tell me that she had more Ribolla Gialla on her list than Chardonnay and did not really want Chardonnay.

Now, Tom, I am not trying to pillory those folks, or the Napa Technologies people either. But, it is my thesis that they are all talking to themselves and they believe what they hear. And then they basically take the position that Chardonnay is dead.

Chardonnay is not dead. It may be boring to those of us who have been drinking it regularly for thirty years or more and who love to try new things. But wishing to try new things has not and will not, in my humble opinion, kill off Chardonnay.

by TomHill
Posted on:3/29/2013 10:00:00 AM

"Chardonnay is not dead. It may be boring to those of us who have been drinking it regularly for thirty years or more and who love to try new things. But wishing to try new things has not and will not, in my humble opinion, kill off Chardonnay."

Yup....can't argue that point, Charlie. And I, and I'm sure you, hardly find Chard boring. But I do pine for the days of those over-the-top DavidBruce Chards. They were something else.

   I guess I didn't hear the ABC didn't get that "attitude" impression that you did. I hear that stuff so much that I pretty much tune it out.



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