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?

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 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.


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 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 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)


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!


(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.”

The Chardonnay Symposium, July 19-21, Named One of Top 10 Wine Events in California by LA Weekly

Chardonnay, the world’s beloved white grape, is once again being celebrated at The Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria Valley, July 19-21.  Join us for an entire weekend of Chardonnay-inspired events.


Friday, July 19, 6-10 pm

Jim Clendenen

Santa Maria Valley winemaking pioneer, Jim Clendenen, will be honored by colleagues and guests at the historic Bien Nacido Vineyard Adobe. Over one hundred years old, the Adobe will serve as the dramatic backdrop for this special tribute. Sommelier Rajat Parr, longtime friend and partner Bob Lindquist of Qupe, The Hitching Post’s Chef Frank Ostini, the much-buzzed about winemaker, Gavin Chanin, and others will be on hand to regale the crowd with stories of Clendenen’s influence on the wine industry. A fabulous four course dinner will be prepared by Chef Rick Manson, with each course paired with wines specially selected by the speakers.


Full Day Educational Experience

with Winemaker Panel Session and Grand Chardonnay Tasting

Saturday, July 20, 10:30-4

2012.tcs.panel The Chardonnay Symposium’s premiere, full-day event begins at 10:30 am with a morning educational session featuring a distinguished panel of celebrity and winemaker experts, headed by Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff, at the Santa Maria Radisson Hotel. The relaxed environment will provide an ideal time to sip wine and further discuss the nuances of Chardonnay with some of the wine industry’s most respected personalities. Full day tickets include the morning panel discussion, box lunch, bus transportation to and from Byron Vineyard & Winery and early admission to the Grand Chardonnay Tasting from 12:30 – 4 pm.


Saturday, July 20, 1-4 pm

IMG_4243-EditThe Grand Chardonnay Tasting takes place from 1 – 4 pm at Byron Vineyard & Winery’s beautiful private facility nestled in the heart of the Santa Maria Valley. This expanded tasting will afford guests the opportunity to sample Chardonnays from over 50 wineries and pair them with gourmet foods provided by local restaurants and caterers.  Meet local chef’s on hand to demonstrate Chardonnay food pairing secrets!

Katie Jackson Talks With Steve Heimoff

We just had to share Katie Jackson’s interview with Steve Heimoff in preparation for The Chardonnay Symposium. Thanks Katie for sharing your fun and insightful chat!

Jul 20
A Chardonnay Symposium Interview with Steve Heimoff

Hi everyone! I hope your week has been wonderful so far!

Today I’m writing about the Chardonnay Symposium. It is only days away now, and I wanted to urge everyone who may be in the Santa Barbara County area to attend this Saturday! I love this event. I have loved the idea of an event totally centered around Chardonnay ever since I first heard about last year’s Symposium, and after attending, I knew that this was the ultimate way to learn about and truly experience Chardonnay. So, if you’ve considered attending, but haven’t yet made up your mind, please do! I know it will be an truly amazing experience.

I spoke to Steve Heimoff, the wine reviewer for the Wine Enthusiast and one of the Chardonnay Symposium’s two panel moderators, a couple of weeks ago. I asked him questions about a lot of different things, but mostly about the Chardonnay Symposium, his involvement, and why he has been a passionate supporter of it from the start.

So, what first attracted you to the Chardonnay Symposium?

What attracted me was a couple of things. First of all, I love Chardonnay, I’ve never been an ABC person, and I try to defend Chardonnay all the time. Especially on my blog when people bash it, and I tell them that they’re crazy, and if they can’t appreciate a good Chardonnay they should probably be drinking beer. And also, I have a lot of respect for Nick Miller, and it was Nicholas, I believe, who first invited me last year, but I couldn’t go because it conflicted with our annual summer editorial meeting in New York at Wine Enthusiast magazine. When Nicholas re-invited me this year we were able to make the date work. And third of all, I love this kind of thing, you know? It’s fun.

Have you done other events like this before that just focus on just one varietal?

Yeah, I’ve done Pinot Noir stuff and Alsatian varietal stuff. It’s fairly par for the course.

So, you are going to be one of the two moderators for the discussion panels?

That’s right.

Are you going to come up with a bunch of questions before the event and then ask them or are you going to just go along with the conversation?

No, I think we’re going to have some pre-planning. I’ve already reached to the people on my panel and heard from a couple of them. I don’t want this to be too rehearsed because then it becomes boring and stale. And you want as much spontaneity as you can have because then it keeps the energy up. But I think in general that the people that invited me to do it had read something that I’d written in my blog about Chardonnay, and it was a fairly long quote about how Chardonnay can go bad – I mean it can be too sweet and it can be over-oaked and it can be too flabby and so on and so forth – and they said “Well why don’t we talk about that?”. And then they posed the question of, “Can an unoaked Chardonnay be as great as an oaked Chardonnay?” So I think we’ll just put those questions out to the panelists. Of the six on the panel, several have made unoaked wines. So I think I’ll put it out to them and hopefully the panelists will have strong enough views that we’ll have good, forceful dialogues going.

Were there any other issues or questions that you were hoping to bring up at the panel?

Nothing specific. I mean, generally, the way that I like to work is to think on the spot, so as I say, I don’t want to go in there with a rehearsed bunch of questions. You know, when I first started being a reporter years ago I would go into an interview and have, like, thirty or forty questions, and I realized after a while that that’s not the best approach because the best thing is to have a conversation, and to let the conversation meander wherever it wants to go. And when you have prepared questions, if you just stick to your script, they you may miss your opportunity to let the conversation go off script and go in unexpected, exciting ways. So I don’t know where this conversation is going to go. It could go into questions of the market, and what consumers want, and if there is a marketing value in advertising that a wine is unoaked, or a marketing value in advertising that it is oaked, and how do you determine pricing if its less expensive to make an unoaked wine if you don’t have to purchase barrels, and it’s less expensive to make an unoaked wine? So there are many issues that I think are interesting, but I would prefer to let reality dictate the conversation. And if reality flags, and the conversation flags, then I will obviously stimulate the conversation.

How did you first get involved in wine writing and wine criticism?

Oh my god, how much time do you have? Umm, well, let’s put it this way. In the late ‘80’s when I was trying to have a quote unquote “real job” that involved my wearing a tie and carrying a briefcase that did not work out, because its not who I am, and I realized that I needed to do something that I loved that I was passionate about and that it would let me be myself, who I really was, instead of pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t. And the only two things I really loved were writing and wine, and so I put the two together and I said, “Well, I will be a wine writer” and I made it happen. And a lot of people who want to be wine writers call me up now and they ask me for advice, and really the thing is that when I came in, wine writing was not a really popular thing to do. You didn’t have teenagers saying, “When I grow up, I want to be a wine writer.” Today, thousands of people would love to be wine writers, and of course, as you know, we have all the wine bloggers. But in the late ’80’s when I decided to do it, there really was very little competition. So I was able to persuade Wine Spectator to hire me, and after four years, I transferred over to Wine Enthusiast, and that is where I am now.

I know that it is probably hard for you to pick out varietals which are your favorites, but would you say that Chardonnay is one of your favorite varietals?

When I open a white wine at home just for my enjoyment – and that’s usually in the late afternoon as a cocktail, which is usually my first, you know, relaxing wine of the day – it is always Chardonnay. I mean sometimes it is going to be a Champagne or a sparkling wine, but it’s really unlikely that I would open up anything besides a Chardonnay, and I mean a good Chardonnay. I just love Chardonnay, I always have. I think it is the greatest white variety in the world. And I know a lot of people would say Riesling, and that ultimately it’s just a matter of taste, but I love Chardonnay.

What do you do for fun when you are not reviewing wines or writing?

I don’t have time to do much besides reviewing wines and writing, unfortunately. I like to read. I like to cook. I like to be with my friends. And I used to have a lot of sports interests, but as I get older I can’t do sports anymore. So I just like to relax, putter around, maybe get a tattoo.

Oh yeah! I saw your new tattoo on your wine blog the other day! It looked beautiful. What is the design of?

Well, mostly its flowers, but we’ve just, in the last few weeks, been working on a tiger. Just the tiger’s head, this gorgeous, golden Bengal tiger, and he or she is just kind of poking its nose through this little tangle of orchids and grass, and its very beautiful.

Who was your tattooist?

My friend Philip did my tattoo. Philip is a wonderful tattooist. He owns a shop here in Oakland called Old Crow Tattoo. And actually Philip has been voted, for the last two years in a row, the best tattooist in the East Bay by The East Bay Express, which is our free news weekly. And that’s a pretty great honor. He’s really a wonderful tattooist. I’m trying to get everyone to get tattoos now. It has been such an extraordinary experience for me.

I think I’ve asked almost everything I wanted to ask you, except for one last question. What are you most excited about for this year’s Chardonnay Symposium?

Well, I love Santa Barbara County. I feel very close to Santa Barbara County, and people there treat me very well. So I’m excited about everything! It is a great part of my job to have the privilege to do stuff like this.


Join Wine Country Orcutt and Riverbench Vineyard & Winery tomorrow, May 26 2011, to sample world class Chardonnay and participate in the global #Chardonnay Day. The 24-hour virtual Twitter event is expected to attract thousands of Chardonnay enthusiasts to share tasting notes, information and wines with Chardonnay lovers around the world.

The Wine Country Orcutt @WCOrcutt Meetup will begin at 5:30 pm with Chardonnay tastings and a live interactive twitter stream in their new location at 130 North Broadway in Old Town Orcutt. Tweeters are encouraged to bring their laptop and share their own unique wine experiences and tasting notes.

Tomorrow from 10 am to 4 pm, Riverbench Vineyard & Winery @Riverbench will feature a special tasting of their distinctive Chardonnays for $5, alongside a full day of live Chardonnay tweeting at their Foxen Canyon tasting room. Riverbench will offer a number of tasting room specials, including 20% off all Chardonnay magnums.

Friends of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country are encouraged to include The Chardonnay Symposium @ChardSymposium in their tweeting conversations to spread the word about our premiere July 22-23 (2011) weekend event. The Chardonnay Symposium is the only event of its kind in the United States enlightening wine consumers, industry professionals and the media on America’s favorite wine. Go to for information and tickets.

Steve Loves California Chardonnay!

Written by Kady Fleckenstein –

Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast wrote a post on his blog today about The Chardonnay Symposium. We’re very grateful for the extra publicity and love hearing that Chardonnay is his favorite white California varietal.

Check it out:

My only comment is in response to his note about the lack of quality hotels in the area. Fortunately, accommodations in Santa Maria have greatly improved over the last year. First of all, there have been many multi-million dollar renovations (Radisson, the Historic Santa Maria Inn, Holiday Inn, Rodeway Inn). Second, there are two new hotels off Broadway. One of the most drastic renovations probably is the Rodeway Inn. From the outside it looks like a motel that might not be the ideal overnight stay for a wine connoisseur. However, take a look at the photos of the inside–it’s pretty amazing. I would like to stay there myself and I live here!

If you have a favorite chain of hotels (Radisson, Best Western, Holiday Inn, etc.) you can likely find it in Santa Maria. Check out our accomodations page on