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Carneros Chardonnay Better Than Ever

By Stephen Eliot

The other day were sitting and tasting a selection of wines from the Petaluma Gap district of Southern Sonoma when a long-time writer and critic turned to us and made the surprising declaration that contemporary Carneros Chardonnays were but a shadow of their former selves. In all honesty I could not tell if this unsolicited non sequitur was meant to be funny or genuine sentiment that he seemed to think needed voicing, but it was a curious comment that set me to thinking.

I suppose it is true that when I think of Carneros these days, it is Pinot Noir that first comes to mind, and there is reason enough to do so given that Pinot acreage claims a good 60 percent of the appellation, but Chardonnay as a failed effort? Not only, do I disagree with the notion that the district has somehow lost its touch with the grape, I would argue that the Hudson and Hyde vineyards rank with the best Chardonnay sites anywhere in the state, and the roster of accomplished current Carneros Chardonnays is crowded with names like Ancien, Artesa, Bouchaine, Cuvaison, Donum, DuMol, Frank Family, Ram’s Gate, Ramey, Saintsbury, Shafer, HdV, Hyde, ZD and…well, you get the idea. I would prefer to believe that my colleague’s assertion was nothing more than a failed attempt at humor—but frankly, I doubt it, and thus I must necessarily dismiss it as nothing more than a cranky blovation of nattering negativity.

As fate would have it, I happened to be in Carneros the very next day for a round-table discussion and tasting of, you guessed it, Carneros Chardonnays. The occasion was a gathering to preview the appellation’s thirtieth birthday next year, and, while there was no hand-wringing show of angst, there was a quiet, but palpable concern on the part of the assembled members of the Carneros Wine Alliance that a bit of the luster may have come off the Carneros name. That may be, but I would suggest that it is only because the fickle finger of fashion writes and moves on, and the writers who chase it are obsessed with what’s next.

Wine writing these days is transfixed on the one hand with what’s new; the new varieties, the new districts, the new people and styles, and, on other, with wistful and sometimes inventive recollections of an unspoiled past and legacies betrayed. I understand the fascination with looking ahead and at times find myself fondly looking back. What I am most concerned with, however, is what is in my glass now, and I would offer an early birthday toast to the folks in Carneros and those like me, who love what they do.

Carneros Chardonnay is not a failed category. It is alive and well, and it should not be dismissed out of hand like some yesteryear Green Hungarian, Grey Riesling or French Colombard.


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