(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on June 25, 2012)
No doubt about it: chardonnay remains king among grapes. It is still the top selling wine in the country. And in Santa Barbara County, it is the most widely planted grape variety; the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association says more than 7000 acres of the popular white wine grape are planted throughout the region.
But at the same time, chardonnay has suffered a bit of an image issue, lately. “We’re certainly cognizant of the fact it’s fallen out of style in certain circles and become somewhat of a punching bag,” admits Nicholas Miller, whose family owns three of celebrated Santa Barbara County vineyards, including famous Bien Nacido, which is planted mainly to chardonnay. He attributes the seeming wave, recently, away from chardonnay in favor of other white wine varieties to a skewed focus by many wine producers.
“Many wineries started seeing [chardonnay] as just a cash flow wine instead of a centerpiece, and that ocean of chardonnay in the marketplace turned some people off,” he says. “But people tend to be turned off by categories instead of by certain styles of wine. The fact is that wineries that have built their programs around high end chardonnay – Au Bon Climat, Littorai, Kistler – those programs never really fell out of style.”
Indeed, chardonnay is consistently seen – both by industry stalwarts and savvy consumers – as a wine of diversity and distinction, of complexity and value, and as an especially food-friendly beverage. And the Santa Maria Valley – with its special soils and unique maritime weather influences –is consistently regarded as one of the premier regions in the state to grow it extremely well. So it makes sense that this is where a new movement is afoot to bring a fresh focus to this coveted grape.
“There are multiple events dedicated to pinot noir, and there are Rhone events and Italian wine events, and there are zin festivals,” says Miller. “But chardonnay was a gap not being filled, and it’s one of the real strong points of Santa Maria.”
The three-day affair is expected to draw some 400 people. It begins Friday, June 29, with a Santa Maria-style BBQ at Sierra Madre Vineyard, where attendees will bring a bottle of their favorite chard to share. And it ends Sunday, July 1, with an open-air chardonnay brunch at Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard and an afternoon pops concert by the Santa Maria Philharmonic – with more chances to sip on chardonnay – at Tres Hermanas Vineyard.
But the pinnacle of this year’s event will be Saturday, June 30, when consumers will get unprecedented access to some of the most revered chardonnay makers in the state, and to the wines that have made them famous. The day at Byron Vineyard begins with a panel session led by popular wine blogger and Senior West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine Steve Heimoff. It’ll feature chardonnay superstars like Bill Wathan of Foxen and Bob Cabral of Williams Selyem, and is dubbed “Chardonnay and Terroir: What’s it All About?”
The afternoon Grand Tasting at Byron will feature dozens of chardonnay samplings from 50 wineries, and foods to match. Guest chefs will share chardonnay food pairing tips under a demonstration tent. And the open setup will offer visitors spectacular views of the valleys of Santa Maria.
The evening will be marked by a pair of wine dinners featuring the chardonnays of Kenneth Volk Wines (this dinner is already sold out) and Riverbench Winery.
“This is going to be an eye opener, a chance for people to taste and learn all that can be done with chardonnay,” says Laura Mohseni, general manager at Riverbench. “And it gets winemakers excited about making chardonnay again.”
Event pricing varies. The Friday night BBQ at Sierra Madre is $30, the Saturday Grand Tasting at Byron is $55 (or $65 at the door) and the Sunday brunch at Cottonwood is $30. Buy tickets online at www.thechardonnaysymposium.com.