It was so typical that I could have written the dialogue before even approaching the table.
“Your house Chardonnay is from California?” the patron asked.
Disgusted look from the patron; equally disgusted look from the patron’s wife.
“We don’t really like California Chardonnay. Don’t really care for California wine in general,” he responded.
“Why is that, sir?”
“It’s so oaky! So jammy! So simplistic.”
I returned to the table with a much more expensive bottle of Chardonnay from Oregon (which had much more oak than anything we carried from California) and they pretended to love it in order to save face.
If the year were 1988, the previous conversation would be a valid one. But wines from California (specifically Chardonnays) have changed their flavor profile so dramatically in the last two decades that it is impossible to use one narrow set of descriptors like “oaky” or “buttery” to box them in. The backlash from the over-oaked, over-ripe Cali wines of the 1980s began almost immediately and has been growing ever since.
One of the major changes that has helped the industry improve its image is the specificity of growing areas. In the ’80s, not only was everything that grew out of the ground thrown into a big oak cask, it was all thrown in together, labeled simply as “California wine.” The “appellation” system that has been the law of the land in France for hundreds of years wasn’t looked upon as being as important here in the states. The focus, instead, was making inexpensive wines with a strong fruit flavor up front on the palate.
Ah, but have times changed. The growth of the foodie movement has coincided with the phenomenon of the amateur oenophile. Suddenly, the everyday wine consumer is interested in more than just a jug of quaffable juice. Now they’re interested in organic wine. They want to know if their wine is filtered or unfiltered. And, most importantly, where it’s from. The California wine industry has done a complete 180 in the last decade, and almost all decent wine hailing from the Schwarzenegger state now specifies region, and sometimes subregion.
The flavor style has changed drastically, as well. While it is still possible to find the stereotypical super-oaked Chardonnay and Merlot that tastes like licking the inside of a boysenberry jam jar, there is a much more international feel to most quality California wines. Most good Chardonnays are made using French oak, for example, which imparts a subtler flavor. And the reds aren’t always massive tannin-bombs. Many are leaner and more complex, showing a flavor profile that one might expect from an old-school French red.
A spot-on example of a Chardonnay from California made in a style that many might consider Burgundian is the Rabbit Ridge Chardonnay 2008 ($9.99 at America’s Wine Shop, 398 Third Ave. betw. 28th and 29th streets, 800-865-0982). With a whiff of ashy oak on the nose, this Central Coast wine is nothing but mature citrus and minerality on the palate. Lots of ripe orange, grapefruit pith and granite flavors make this more crisp and refreshing than heavy and vanilla-laden. You’ll toss out your bottle of Sauvignon Blanc the next time you have scallops.
And the next time your snobby friend (who’s probably seen Sideways 10 times too many) declares that she hates Merlot, have her try the Cartlidge and Browne Merlot 2006 ($8.99 at Yorkshire Wine and Spirits, 1646 First Ave. at 85th St., 212-717-5100). Hailing from the North Coast, this wine has little to do with the over-extracted and plummy Merlots that California has yet to live down. While the scent is heady and full of baked cherry, the flavor of this wine is far more complex. Under-ripe berry fruit up front gives way to satiny tannins through the middle and a robust, peppery finish. This is a wine that keeps changing as the bottle stays open, so be sure to save a little to try later in the evening.
Granted, if you want a wine that’s fully oaked or dripping with jammy fruit and little else, you can definitely find it. It’s important to note, however, that California has much more to offer.
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