Attack of the Clone (Talking American Chardonnay History With 5th Generation Vintner Karl Wente)

If you’ve enjoyed a California Chardonnay anytime in the last, oh, one hundred years or so, I bet I can tell you where it came from.

That’s a bet I can confidently make because I’ve got statistics on my side, provided we’re talking about the genetic parents from whence those Chardonnay grapes first came. You see, there’s about an eighty percent chance (that’s bet-worthy odds, statistically speaking) that the grapes that went into the California Chardonnay you enjoyed descended from those planted by the Wente family in Livermore, now in their fifth winemaking generation and heading the longest-running family winery in existence in the U.S. The Wente family actually bottled the first varietal-labeled Chardonnay in America, so let’s just say that they’ll probably forget more about Chardonnay than most of us will even learn.

During the 2013 Chardonnay Symposium, I sat down with fifth-generation vintner and musician Karl Wente to talk about the Wente Chardonnay clone in anticipation of Karl’s participation in the Symposium’s winemaker panel discussion on the topic of clones and Chardonnay growing and winemaking. Now. that might sound like a paint-dryingly dull topic, but don’t fear that you’ll get glossy-eyed watching this interview; we’re talking about a winemaking scion who, when I first met him, egged me on to pick up an upright bass at his house and got me jamming on some of his original acoustic “porch rock” tunes before we tasted (okay, more like drank) through a good bit of the modern Wente wine portfolio. So watch with reckless abandon, preferably with a glass of Morning Fog Chardonnay in your glass, and prepare yourself to learn a thing or two, because Karl is not only knowledgeable, but also entertaining and opinionated.

What You Missed (Chardonnay Symposium 2013: A Recap)

As part of my official duties as Social Media Ambassador for the 2013 Chardonnay Symposium, I’m tasked with trying to provide a recap of the core events of the weekend.

The trouble is – and I’m really not trying to sound condescending here – I’m not sure that I can do it, because if you missed it, then chances are pretty good that my weekend over the course of July 19-21, 2013 was… well… it was just cooler than yours. But this is work, and I’m a professional, and so as tough as this is going to be for both of us, I’ve got to try, right?

That's me doing my thing at The Chardonnay Symposium

That’s me tweeting to you at The Chardonnay Symposium

Let’s start with the  Jim Clendenen tribute dinner, which was held outside at the historic Ontiveros Adobe, surrounded by the gorgeous Bien Nacido Vineyards. If you missed that dinner, you missed Jim jamming singing The Doors’ Roadhouse while being backed up by fellow winemakers, a wine writer, and a bona fide rock star (Scott Thurston, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – you’ve heard of them). And honestly, if that isn’t enough to seal the deal for you on getting your butt to the 2014 Chardonnay Symposium, I’m not sure it’s worth reading the rest of this recap.

But just in case, I should tell you that you also missed touching speeches by Bob Lindquist of Qupe, The Hitching Post’s Chef Frank Ostini, and young hot-shot winemaker Gavin Chanin. Oh, yeah, and all this, including amazing food prepared by Rick Manson. If you’re a visual type, here’s a sample:

 Jim Clendenen tribute menu

Jim Clendenen tribute menu, 2013 Chardonnay Symposium

Food by Rick Manson

Food by Rick Manson, using just about everyone’s fave ingredient

Au Bon Climat 2010 Chardonnay

Wine of the hour, from the man of the hour

Please, stop drooling – you’re embarrassing yourself!

If you skipped out on the 2013 Chardonnay Symposium, you also missed well over one hundred years of collective California wine wisdom talking about the world’s most popular wine grape – its history, its importance, its quirks, its rapture-enducing qualities, its science, and its future:

Chardonnay Symposium 2013 panel lineup

The 2013 Chardonnay Symposium panel lineup (not too shabby, right?)

Finally, you would’ve missed the opportunity to taste Chardonnay in many of its most glorious forms at the event’s Grand Tasting at Byron Vineyard and Winery – oldest commercial vineyards in Santa Barbara County btw and off the charts winery not open to the public…another thing you missed. At first, I’d thought that tasting would have been the kind of thing to which only diehard Chardonnay lovers need apply; but after a few minutes of munching on great food supplied by the likes of the Santa Maria Inn and sampling some amazing wines (both old and new) along with them, I changed that tune entirely. There are actually two main reasons (apart from the food and wine, I mean) that wine lovers should be at that tasting:

1) As many multiple-year attendees told me during the walk-around tasting, this is one of the few opportunities you have to sample wines that are on par with some of the best in the world – the kind of Chardonnays that give some much more talked-about areas a run for their money – only it costs you less and you don’t have to deal with wine snobbery.

2) You can geek out over wines that aren’t “affected” – wines that are true to themselves, to their places of origin, and to the people that made them. That all sounds pretty Hallmark-greeting-card, but this is the kind of event that is pouring wines that can get even jaded wine pros excited, and get them to fall in love with Chardonnay all over again, and realize why the grape is so deservedly popular in the first place.

For you visual types, I provide what I hope are the deal-sealers:

ABC no longer stands for "Anything But Chardonnay"

ABC no longer stands for “Anything But Chardonnay”

Santa Maria Inn tartare

Hungry yet?

Bien Nacido shows its stuff

Bien Nacido shows its stuff

The Grand Tasting at Byron

The Grand Tasting at Byron

Vineyard view 2013

A hard place not to love

Aged Qupe Chardonnay

Geeks – get thee to the Chardonnay Symposium!

So… see you next year, right?

Even Keel (Presqu’ile Sets Down Roots in SMV)

“The idea is to do the anti- of whatever it is tasting rooms are about right now. We want a place where people can hang out.”

Dieter Cronje in the new Presqu'ile barrel cave

Dieter Cronje in the new Presqu’ile barrel cave

That’s what I first heard when I met the affable but focused Matt Murphy, proprietor of Presqu’ile (pronounced “press-KEEL,” strong Southern drawl required) about a year ago. At the time, we (along with Presqu’ile’s young, wiry and dreadlocked winemaker, former South African native Dieter Cronje) were all wearing hardhats.

I’d entered Presqu’ile en medias res, navigating the detritus of plastic tarp, concrete, power tools and wood that are the hallmarks of large construction sites. Their new winery and tasting room was being constructed on a hillside that offered as pretty a view as one could ever hope of the picturesque expanse that is the Santa Maria Valley, and I had to use a healthy dose of imagination to picture what Murphy had in mind for the building’s end state. A tasting lounge modeled after the Murphy’s modern-but-inviting glass-and-stone home here; a blending room and small wine library there;  a bocce court over there; a barrel cave leading to an with access to a terrace and those sweeping views down there. All accoutrements meant to extend the Murphy’s Southern Hospitality into the Santa Maria wine biz. It wasn’t all clear to me then, but there was no doubting their enthusiasm about the future of the spot. Beyond the bustle of the massive construction project, vineyards had been planted by the Murphy’s (mostly to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) on seventy-two acres that were once leased to a gladiolas farmer.

And then there was the new winery, which Cronje was most excited about: entirely gravity-fed (“everything can be done without moving grapes up or down… it’s a bit slower, but who’s in a rush, we’re making wine, right?”), with state-of-the-art equipment that could monitor most of a wine’s vitals while in the tank, and software that could adjust cooling remotely if needed.

Fast-forward a year later, and the result – now open to the public, including by-appointment tours complete with food-and-wine pairings – might be the most stunning piece of wine-related construction that Santa Barbara County has yet seen. Presqu’ile is now the kind of monument to wine culture that you’d expect to find in Napa Valley or Mendoza. Except it happens to be where no one would have expected it – in the hamlet of Santa Maria Valley, instead.

A view of Santa Maria Valley from Presqu'ile

A view of Santa Maria Valley from Presqu’ile

“It’s legit,” is how Cronje sums up that result. What he means is not just that it’s an impressive place to hang out, but that it’s a symbol of his employers’ staunch desire to plant family roots along with grapevine roots in the area. “It’s just such a serious commitment to the valley and to making great wine here,” he adds. “It’s astonishing to me the time and investment that the owners spent in the valley.”

Spoken like someone who wants to keep his job (he did mention that he wanted “to retire at Presqu’ile”), right? But legit is legit, after all. “Hey,” he offers in response, waving his hand inside the impressive and now-finished Presq’ile barrel cave, “they could’ve just built a big square building.” Good point.

I couldn’t help but ask about the second thing one naturally ponders about Presqu’ile’s new digs (the first, by the way,  is “holy wow!”): how much does something like this cost? According to Cronje, the figure is “somewhere between five dollars and none of my business!”  What were we just saying about job security?

Presqu'ile tasting bar

Presqu’ile tasting bar

None of the building, hospitality or ultra-modern equipment would matter a hill of gladiolas if Presqu’ile made bad wine, of course. But tasting through their recent releases leaves little doubt as to Cronje’s ongoing employment potential. The wines are, if anything, transparent; the kind of wines that practically scream of place, and neatly bundle up the results of hard work, nature and weather into elegant and pithy packages.

Presqu'ile Pinot

Presqu’ile Pinot

The 2012 Presqu’ile Sauvignon Blanc is full of lemongrass, verve, richness and character. It will make you friends, particularly if served on a hot day. Their 2011 Chardonnay, which apparently was a problem child of sorts in the winery, turned out a capable citizen, and is almost instantly recognizable as Santa Maria Valley: spicy, mineral-driven, paradoxically both silky and electric.

As good as their white wines are, It’s the Presqu’ile Pinot Noirs that are really going to get wine geeks excited. The 2011 carries the fingerprints of SMV – peppery spices, tea, savory, expressive and smoky fruit – with nothing getting in the way, a sort of glimpse into the elements that make SMV Pinots such revealing wines.

The 2010 Presqu’ile Vineyard Pinot Noir is the one for the steak lovers, and which probably most marries what Presqu’ile is doing in the vineyard with what they’re doing in constructing that tasting room. A product of sandy soils (“it’s basically a beach!” according to Cronje), there’s sage, underbrush, earthiness, spices, and deep, dark, structured fruit, powerful in tannic grip and acidic intensity. Buy a bottle, put it somewhere safe, and don’t even look at it for another eight years (your future steak will thank you).

“We’re looking at the long term,” Cronje ponders over a glass of that 2010. “That’s when you don’t get repeat customers – when the wine spoils in the cupboard!”

Dieter Cronje

Dieter Cronje

Some of my favorite Santa Barbara County chardonnays

We’re less than 30 hours away from the kick-off of the Fourth Annual Chardonnay Symposium, which opens Friday evening with a tribute dinner honoring the work and wine of Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat.

The symposium continues Saturday morning with a panel tasting that will target clones of chardonnay, and is followed by the grand tasting.

Yesterday I offered to share a few of my favorite chardonnays from grapes produced throughout Santa Barbara County, and specifically in the Santa Maria Valley, where chardonnay — and pinot noir — rule.

I’ve enjoyed many a chardonnay during my time in Santa Barbara County; I’m sure I cannot list them all.

Following are some producers with chardonnays that please my palate. They may not be your favorites, but remember: Your palate and my palate are different.

Tickling my fancy are the chardonnays from Alta Maria, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido Vineyards, Costa de Oro Winery, Dierberg Vineyard, Ken Brown Wines, Kessler-Haak Vineyard & Wines and Sierra Madre.

I have one or two other favorite chardonnay producers among the list of those pouring Saturday afternoon, but they hail from outside of our county.

See you Friday evening!

Chardonnay is Queen Bee this weekend in the Santa Maria Valley

I started to create an acronym using the word “chardonnay” — you know: “C” is for “chardonnay,” “h” is for “historic” grape, “a” is for “aroma” … but I ran out of descriptors starting with the “r” and the “d.”

No matter. It’s best to speak plain about chardonnay: It’s just good wine.

Chardonnay reigns in popularity across America, both with an older generation of wine drinkers who gravitate toward traditional, oak-infused chardonnay, and those who prefer stainless-steel aged — or a blend of the two styles.

At this weekend’s Fourth Annual Chardonnay Symposium, “America’s Sweetheart” grape is the star of the show.

This will be my fourth symposium in four years, but while looking over the list of participating winemakers earlier today, I found there are still several I have yet to try.

What are some of your favorite California, Central Coast and Santa Barbara County chardonnay producers?

Visit www.centralcoastwinepress.com Thursday and I’ll talk about a few of my favorites.

There Is Nothing Wrong With Your Screen (or, “Why I’m Stoked About the Chardonnay Symposium”)

“There is nothing wrong with your screen. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next few days, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure…” (1)

If during the course of reading this, you start to wonder if everyone at the Santa Maria Valley Wine County has gone insane (2), don’t worry, it only means that you’re paying attention. My name is Joe Roberts, better known to the online wine world as 1WineDude, and I’ll be posting here at onthewinetrail.wordpress.com and taking over the SMV Wines twitter feed during the 2013 Chardonnay Symposium (3). I’ll be acting as your live-in-the-sky guide (4) during the Symposium events, and will also post a few articles right here on this blog detailing some of the producers involved, and wrapping up the general awesomeness of the event afterward.

I’m excited about the gig, and about getting back to the Santa Maria Valley, and I wanted to tell you why I’m so excited about it (5).

For starters, I am stoked about the Chardonnay Symposium because I’m generally stoked about Santa Maria Valley.

glasses

photo courtesy of Shawn Burgert

How stoked? Enough that I included the Santa Barbara area among my list of The Five Most A**-Kicking (6) Wine Regions in my Wined Down column on Playboy.com. SMV is an anomaly, a rare breed in the dog-eat-dog world of fine wine, a place where many things can be done, and almost all of them done well. What I wrote for Playboy.com in 2012 still rings true for me:

“The wine area made famous by Sideways does, in fact, make ‘f**king Merlot.’ And Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and just about any other fine wine grape variety you can imagine. The a**-kicking thing is that S.B. can do it all well. It’s a best-of-both-worlds kind of scenario that produces well-balanced grapes, which means that the winemakers have to do less in the winery, which ultimately means fewer opportunities to f** up what Mama Nature’s bounty has provided. It doesn’t have the cachet of Napa Valley, but that just means prices for the best stuff are still within fiscal reach of us 99 percenters.”

But it’s not the grape-growing ability that makes SMV stand out – that honor goes to the people who are making the wines there. There aren’t too many wine-growing regions in the world where people generally, genuinely, and so generously (7) support one another. They’re a talented bunch, who applaud and reward each other when they get it right, all of which should have SMV wine fans excited because it means that despite the fact that the wines are so good now, they probably have yet to achieve their highest highs (8).

The other reason I’m so excited to participate in the Symposium this year is that I think Chardonnay is awesome. Yes, I’m being serious! (9)

SMV

photo courtesy of Shawn Burgert

As a wine critic/personality/writer/geek, but simply and most especially as a wine lover, I’m clueless as to why Chardonnay gets blamed for almost everything that the wine world does wrong. Last time I checked, Romanee-Conti, Leflaive, and Leeuwin all made fine wine from Chardonnay that would blow your wine mind so dramatically that you’d need a ladder to get your hat down off the ceiling. And don’t even get me started on Champagne (10). Chardonnay didn’t invent the over-oaked, flabby, unbalanced fine wine, it just got slapped with the sign on its back when it wasn’t looking and was minding its own business.

You want to know why Chardonnay takes the fall for those overdone wines? Because it’s so awesome. Because people love it. Because people justifiably love its seeming contradictions of vibrancy and richness, of power and poise, of volume and subtlety. Chardonnay took the hit because those it the wine world who should have known better thought that they could get away with it.

The Chardonnay Symposium is your chance to see (11) the other side, your chance to sample some of the best Chardonnay that California has on offer. I’m so stoked because now it’s my chance, too. And I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

Footnotes:

(1) – I am, in fact, old enough to know this reference. But just barely.

(2) – They may have gone insane to let me take over much of their social media, but the effect is only temporary.

(3) – What do you mean, you “don’t have tickets to it yet?!??” Get on it, already!!!

(4) – Except that I won’t actually be in the sky… and at 5’5″ tall, I won’t even be anywhere close to being in the sky, actually.

(5) – Aside from the fact that I’m getting paid to do it. C’mon, when was the last time that you did something for free for an entity that wasn’t a charity or non-profit? Yeah, that’s what I thought…

(6) – Note: not measured scientifically.

(7) – Sorry, I ran out of “g” words here.

(8) – Other California wine regions should probably be peeing their pants over this… but AVAs don’t wear pants so let’s just forget I said that, okay?

(9) – Why are you questioning me? In front of everyone like that? You always do this when we go out together!

(10) – Unless you’re buying, in which case, by all means please feel free to get me started.

(11) – Okay, technically it’s “taste.”