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.

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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.”

Sold-out Chardonnay Symposium Scores Another Hit with Winemakers, Guests, Chefs

Participants in Saturday’s third-annual Chardonnay Symposium at Byron Vineyard & Winery enjoyed chardonnay from 56 California winemakers during a summer day that showcased both the gentle warmth and gusty winds for which the Santa Maria Valley is famous.

The symposium’s morning panel session and afternoon grand tasting both sold out, said Chris Slaughter, executive director of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association, event sponsor. “We are thrilled to be able to share our Santa Maria Valley hospitality with so many people from throughout the state of California.”

Some of the Central Coasts most popular restaurants and caterers, among them Full of Life Flatbread, the Ballard Inn, Central City Market and Trattoria Uliveto, offered guests some of the freshest fare around, as well as cooking and wine pairing demonstrations.

Eight chardonnay producers from throughout California participated in the symposium’s morning panel: Bob Cabral of Williams Selyem; Joshua Klapper of La Fenetre Wines, (subbing for Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi of Bonaccorsi Wine Company, who had a family emergency); returning 2011 panelist Dieter Cronje, Presqu’ile Wines; James Hall, Patz & Hall; Eric Johnson, Talley Vineyards; Heidi von deer Mehden, Arrowood Vineyards & Winery; Bill Wathan, Foxen Winery; and Graham Weerts of Stonestreet Wines.

Led by moderator Steve Heimoff, each speaker offered a variation of the panel’s theme, “Chardonnay & Terroir.” Heimoff is an editor at “Wine Enthusiast” and wine blogger.

Klapper noted that Byron’s Nielsen Vineyard, one of the Santa Maria Valley’s oldest, produces grapes that are “very much Santa Maria Valley” in that they showcase the balance of acidity and sugar for which the region’s chardonnays and pinot noirs are known.

The cool area leads to vines’ early bud break and a long growing season, one described by panelist Bill Wathen of Foxen Winery as lasting an average of 125 days from bloom to harvest.

While winters are “warm,” and the warmest time each day tends to be around 11 or 11:30 a.m., by noon the winds pick up and the window for the vines’ photosynthesis closes, Wathen said. “There’s a very short growth period during each day.”

At Stonestreet Winery’s Alexander Mountain Estate Vineyard, winemaker Graham Weerts has learned that “cooler climates make better chardonnays — and better wines” in general, he said.

The South African native described how the vineyard that produces Stonestreet’s Broken Road and Bear Point chardonnays ranges between 1,800 and 2,000 feet in elevation. “We grow chardonnay right about at the fog line” on the property, he said.

The Stonestreet 2010 Upper Barn Chardonnay radiates flavors of white peach. To be sure, Weerts noted, some of the best characteristics of chardonnay are “peach pits” and an essence of gravel on the palate.

As California’s most widely planted grape, chardonnay is “even more diverse” than it was 25 years ago when some of the state’s earliest vineyards were created, said panelist Bob Cabral, winemaker for Williams Selyem.

With so many chardonnay styles from which to choose, Cabral urged panel attendees to “find the one that you like, and just drink wine.”

At the panel’s end, Heimoff led panelists in saluting the Wente chardonnay clone, which was imported to California in 1912 by Ernest Wente via cuttings in France and cultivated at the famous Wente Winery in the Livermore Valley.

Local chefs who offered live cooking demonstrations were Budi Kazali of The Ballard Inn; Alfonso Curti of Trattoria Uliveto; and Ryan Gromfin, consulting chef for the Santa Maria Inn.

The weekend event, in its third year, featured a “BYOC (chardonnay) barbecue Friday night at Sierra Madre vineyard, Saturday’s Byron events, a sold-out winemaker dinner Saturday night with longtime area winemaker Kenneth Volk, a seafood-and-chardonnay dinner at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery and a Sunday brunch at Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery.

Copyright centralcoastwinepress.com

Los Olivos for Grownups: Alta Maria Vineyards

Alta Maria Vineyards tasting room in Los Olivos, CA

Alta Maria wines (along with Native 9 wines and Autonom wines) have been around for almost a decade, but now that they’ve opened a tasting room along the main drag in Los Olivos – the tasting room town of Santa Barbara wine county – I’m even more inclined to make a run through town.

Alta Maria Vineyards tasting room in Los Olivos, CA

In a typical weekend rush of tourists from Orange & LA counties plus Santa Barbara wine tour companies, the Alta Maria Vineyards tasting room is a lovely and cool respite from any wine-tasting-bachelortte-or-birthday-partying on the street. It’s sophisticated and down-to-earth. It’s western and classy. It’s minimalist and Pottery Barn.

Alta Maria Vineyards Chardonnay & Pinot Noir in Los Olivos, CA

The wine on the tasting list also demonstrates such duality. In addition to the Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Alta Maria is known for, they have a unique Sauvignon Blanc and solid Cabernet Sauvignon on the list, just created for the tasting room. The Chardonnay is half oak-fermented and half stainless steel to give us a lemon cream tart with lots of acidity. And the Alta Maria Pinot Noir is a perfect blend of fruit, wood and earth, a basic Pinot Noir that’s a steal at $28 a bottle.

Autnom Syrah & Native 9 Pinot Noir in Los Olivos, CA

But the list has more. Viticulturist James Ontiveros is pouring his baby here: Native 9 Pinot Noir. And this is the only place you can taste the 2009 Pinot Noir. This wine is from a vineyard on his multi-generational family’s property in Santa Maria valley, where he grows 8 different clones and blends different concoctions each year to create a fuller, exotic Pinot Noir.

And the winemaker of the duo, Paul Wilkins, got his love for Rhone varietals working for John Alban of Alban Vineyards. His Autonom SM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) is almost sold out because if its nose of bacon fat and pie crust (this sounds like heaven in a glass) and perfect balance, and his Autonom Syrah is a blend of cold-climate fruit and warm-climate fruit that manages to be vegetal, fruity and spicy.

Grown-up heaven.

Chardonnay Symposium 2011

Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria California

Chardonnay is the world’s white wine darling. And at Santa Maria Valley’s recent Chardonnay Symposium, we learned she is also one of the most debated. Whether you love an oaky + buttery one, a stainless steel + flinty one, or prefer to never drink the stuff, it’s definitely a wine that makes for a heated discussion.

Burgundian white is usually considered the pinnacle of a well-made Chardonnay. Although the California style has typically meant more: more fruit, more oak, and more butter. Jay McInerney compared this old California classic style to another California classic, Pamela Anderson. In his view, this type of Chardonnay is more about silicone enhancements to try and please the sweet American palate than about a true representation of the grape. He later wrote about a new style of Chardonnay coming out of California, one being passionately followed by winemakers Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton.

Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton pouring Chardonnay

This new style, described as zingy, nervous and fresh, attempts to let the varietal stand out on its own, without a lot of manipulation in the winery, over-malolactic-ization or years of cradling in the bosom of new French oak. This is the style, according to Brewer, that lets Chardonnay shine – although he does wave a white flag for Chardonnay (c’est trés charmant).

Deovlet Chardonnay

And the Chardonnay was shining, along with the sun, on newcomer Ryan Deovlet of Deovlet Wines, who poured his first release of 2009 Solomon Hills Chardonnay.

Flying Goat Blanc de Blanc sparkling - Goat Bubbles

Another Santa Barbara county favorite is Flying Goat Blanc de Blanc, the only sparkling wine made entirely locally and known in these parts as Goat Bubbles, a great palate refresher for all that Chard!

Foxen Chardonnay

Also, don’t miss Foxen’s Steel Cut Chardonnay, which is soon to be released, for that unoaked new California Chardonnay experience.

Some more notable Chardonnays at the Symposium:

I like my Chardonnay oaked, unoaked, from California and from Burgundy, but what I like best is how Chardonnay is not-so-quietly evolving, while also staying tried and true.

Well done darling.

Chardonnay Symposium

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.

Presqu’ile: Almost an Island

Check out this video from Presqu’ile Winery. They have a very interesting story and are already developing a name for themselves. On July 31st, they poured their Chardonnay at The Chardonnay Symposium and received excellent reviews. Click here for a recap of the symposium as well as information about Presqu’ile’s Chardonnay.