Seeing California Chardonnay in a New Light: #Chardonnay Day Greenhouse Tasting, Attendees Top Picks. Up Next – Aug 18 Pinot Day

May 26th was international #Chardonnay day, organized by wine social media entity  Rick Bakas. I am a believer in the varietal focused Live tastings, so to support of this, I held a private tasting of selected, 12 distinct producers, showcasing a variety of regions.

The Impact of Social Media Twitter Tastings

Rick did an excellent job covering the results in his article recap. Some highlights:

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  • Reach was over 4 million people.
  • 29 MILLION impressions
  • 12,000 related tweets

So…as a chardonnay producer, why didn’t you take part?

Combating Chardonnay Backlash

As this event drew near, I was observing some murmurs of backlash. One wine writer/blogger whom I respect and consider more knowledgeable than myself, reacted on Twitter by saying “celebrating Chardonnay day was like celebrating McDonalds.” Wow, jaw dropping, how did we get here? Even if you took the opinion that California produces no good chardonnay (somehow out of the thousands of Vintners)….you are writing off this varietal and all of the amazing French, widely varying styles? The Grand Cru white Burgundies? Steely, minerally Chablis? Really?

If there is one thing I stand for as a wine writer, its pursuit of assisting others in their wine education by exposure, and ending some of the inane myths. Calfornia chardonnay has come a long way, as highlighted by Chronicle wine writer Jon Bonne’ in Chardonnay regains respect – now to maintain it.

It’s slightly ironic – a wine writer & evaluator who often expresses support for lesser known varietals, rushing to the aid of Chardonnay? The ‘Rhonehound’ himself battling against the ABC (anything but chardonnay) crowd? The United States Number One white varietal hardly needs my help, right? Don’t get me wrong, I can’t stand vineyards in Europe have ripped out traditional unique varieties to plant this chardonnay.  I scratch my head at very hot regions growing chardonnay, when the vineyard would do so much better with whites intended for warm climates.

But, this reaction, and some of the feet dragging I was also getting from industry friends in supporting the tasting, made me all the more determined to provide some perpective. Much of the ‘ABC’ backlash, in my experience, comes from exposure to only the big California, oaky butter bombs, like the  popular Rombeur chardonnay. This style has earned the term ‘cougar juice’ – its a  valid style, and if you like it, great. But what a shame to write off one of the most diverse white wines there is, just because of one style.

Chardonnay is like a blank canvas, and responds, expresses well the many options available to a winemaker from fermentation vessels (new oak, neutral oak, concrete, stainless), aging vessels (same), primary and secondary fermentation options, climate, ripeness, clone selection and so many other variables. If you like a steely sauvignon blanc, or a modest Rhone white blend, odds are there are styles of Chardonnay you will like.

If you are one of those “real wine drinkers don’t drink white” or “I don’t drink white” …your journey of exploration and awareness has far to go. Once you truly open up the world to white wine and its hundreds of varieties and styles, globally, and its more subtle nuances, your world is forever changed. Never stop trying, tasting, or exploring.

The Producers I Gathered

At first, not knowing how many  I would get for this tasting, I extended offers to friends and producers I liked. As word got out and the day got closer, last minute requests flooded in, and  I had to say no to some, not because I didn’t like the wines, but I had space constraints, keeping the audience to around 80 people, wanted focus, and most importantly, diversity, by region and style. I had originally planned only six producers.

This is the great lineup I ended up:

You can view a more detailed 2 page spreadsheet that attendees received that have more notes on each wine, here on Google Docs.

Event Feedback – A Huge Success

I have been writing and discussing regularly that wine tasting events need to evolve to new formats.  Based on feedback both from attendees and producers, and we may have hit on one here. Since the event was private and went to mostly friends, most of the crowd was very knowledgeable, with a heavy mix of industry.

Feedback was gushing next day. A  PR wine veteran shared they had been reluctant to come and came away with a completely fresh perspective on California chardonnay. Many echoed similar. Producers expressed they were very happy with the very high level of enthusiasm and sincere interest. The greenhouse was abuzz with energy and excitement. It was one of the most lively tastings I had observed in some time. Most of the  photos are courtesy of Damon Mattson Photography – you can see the whole Facebook album here.

We couldn’t have fit any more people inside. I had expected people to come in waves, but for the most part they clustered around the same time. Space got a bit tight, and noise a bit loud, but neither became unmanageable. To accommodate more people – additional space outside the greenhouse, and/or two different times would be needed. I am examining a number of tweaks for the next event.

The Top Picks By Attendees

With 12 producers and 17 wines, not everyone tasted through them all. (Self included.) There were several surprises for me, and some wines I really liked I  had not had before. My personal favorite of the ones I tried was the Donelan 09 Nancie. Twenty four hours of skin contact gave great aromatics and texture, the wine maker Tyler exercises restraint with oak, and produced and elegant, unique expression of Chardonnay. I was pleasantly surprised with the new 2008 Gloria Ferrer. Their still wines are made for food pairings, and thus their Chardonnay is often more robust, but this year had greater balance than previous vintages, and I thought was an excellent value. The Rivino stainless, no malo chard was also a standout. Unoaked chard can sometimes be a bit too bright and austere, but this had excellent round fruit and weight.

I hope to do a review of all the wines, as I only got to about half, and had little time to really focus. Each producer donated a bottle to that effect.

Below is a chart of the attendee picks. I almost hate to publish top picks, as by design, these were all quite different, and feedback from attendees was that it was hard to pick.

For this ‘contest’ attendees picked their top 3. Not everyone voted, (only

about 35% did) and as mentioned, not everyone tasted through all 17 wines poured. I will streamline consumer feedback for the next event with improved handouts, and perhaps may use simple  scores of 1-10.

The chart is simple: it shows the number of votes each wine received as an attendees’ #1, 2 or 3 vote. As you can see, the votes are very spread out, with all wines receiving some votes.

‘Total Score’ is the unweighted total number of votes. The ‘Winner’ was determined by the ‘Weighted Score;’ 3 points for a #1, 2 Points for #2, 1 point for #1. I also highlighted in gray, the top 3 in each ranking.

The Winners

1. kopriva :  No matter how you slice the data kopriva was the favorite of the day. (I have always been a big fan). This wine is a direct opposite of a California cougar juice. The kopriva team were also brilliant to pair it with Hog Island oysters, who’s briny minerality make it shine. Indeed, in bragging about to kopriva to a friend once, she thought it was decent, but a bit plain for her. We then paired it with some oysters, and she fell in love too.

kopriva garnished 22 percent of the #1 picks, as well as the highest #2. Weighted or unweighted, they had the top overall score – bravo!

2. Donelan 09 Nancie chardonnay:  Their inaugural release, inched out a  #2 choice. The 2nd highest weighted score.

3. Hirsch 09 :  The Hirsch 2009 had the 3rd highest weighted score.

From here the numbers quickly clump, again reflect a wide like factor of all the wines. Pine Ridge, Chamisal, Rivino, and Gloria Ferrer also did well.

What’s Next – Pinot Day, August 18th – Taking Applicants

I am a co-host for Ed Thralls of Wine Tonite for the 2nd Annual #PinotSmackdown. Pinot’s from various regions will be compared and people will vote for their favorite region during this live tasting.

As I did with Chardonnay, I will be seeking a certain profile of Pinot. There has been moderate wine press recently by Jon Bonne’, Jancis Robinson and others, discussing Pinot Noir starting to return to its more elegant form. Over the years Pinot has crept up in color and alcohol, over ripened and over extracted, chasing the new World Palate, and trying to lure less knowledgeable drinkers weened on Cabernet, who think there is something wrong with red wine that is light in color.

I am looking for Pinot that is more reflective of the vintage, terroir, and is balanced, with good acidity. If you are a Pinot producer that fits this, and would like to pour, or have someone represent you and pour, please contact me. If I am not familiar with your wine, I may request a sample prior to accepting. Right now we are focused on OR and CA, but I would love Pinot from any region and importer that fits the targeted intent.

I also intend to lead and organize a Rhone varietal tasting this fall, on behalf of the Rhone Rangers.

Next Event – Venue Tweaks

During the event, I thought there were a few glitches and areas of improvement:

Parking: Thanks to last minute unexpected rain, one side of the road was bad for parking, and despite warnings in the email update, AAA pulled out 4 cars! Winter tastings and parking will be a challenge in the winter I will need to address, as both sides of the road become unparkable in wet season.

Temperature: Luckily we had a normal Russian River summer evening and the weather cooled down. That is normally the case, but a summer heat spike out of the norm, could impact our Pinot day tasting.

Twitter Coverage: All in all things came out well, but there is always room for improvement.  I had a lot to do to pull this off and get my place ready, and I ran out of time on a few things I had planned. Technical glitches prevented me from projecting the Twitterfeed. AT&T works poorly on the farm, so I had extended wifi coverage to reach the Greenhouse, but many people were not aware. One producer shared disappointment, they only saw their brand mentioned once. I was so busy, and I think people were so engaged, social media coverage became secondary to face to face interaction. Personally, I only had time to Tweet twice! There is also the challenge that people know the hashtag, secondary hashtag, and your Twitter handle. I will improve signage and communication next time, but people don’t often read details. More check-in help would also be useful.

Wine Sales: I’d like to explore permits so wineries could take orders. Again, the cost must be low. Wineries don’t want to pay table fees, and consumers don’t want to pay high entry fees; so keeping costs low is a part of this. Even just selling a small amount of wine, helps offset the ROI for the winery for the event. (Time, travel, wine.)

Crowd Breakdown: I’d like to perhaps divide the tasting into two times and groups, and perhaps start with a Trade (Retail, restaurant, distribution) and Media Tasting, and then an everyone else. Part of the problem is that despite all the events I host; I haven’t done a good job creating a trade list – something I will need to work on.

Thoughts and Feedback

I’d love any comments, ideas and suggestions. Also if you were one of the 80 attendees or 12 producers pouring, share your thoughts and comments.


Related Articles:

May 26th is International #Chardonnay Day. Here’s how to follow, participate, celebrate

#Chardonnay Day Recap

Wine Tasting Events Must Evolve

2nd Annual Pinot Noir Smackdown – August 18th, 2011

Pinot Noir eyes a new era of restraint

No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 Total Weghted Score
Kopriva 09 Stainless 7 5 3 15 34
Donelan 09 Nancie 4 3 3 10 21
Hirsch 09 Hirsch (Sonoma Coast) 3 4 1 8 18
Pine Ridge 08 Napa 4 2 1 7 17
Chamisal 2010 Central coast 2 2 2 6 12
Jordan 09 RRV 3 2 5 11
Rivino 09 Stainless, Mendocino 2 6 8 10
Gloria Ferrer 08 Carneros 1 2 2 5 9
Windsor Sonoma RRV 2 1 3 8
k. furtado 09 Bien Nacido 1 4 5 7
Rivino 08 Stainless, Mendocino 2 1 3 7
Inspiration 09 RRV 1 1 1 3 6
Hirsch 06 Hirsch (Sonoma Coast) 2 2 6
Chamisal 2008 Estate 2 1 3 5
Old World 08 Sonoma Coast 1 1 2 3
Jordan 08 RRV 2 2 2
Inspiration 08 RRV 2 2 2
Sonoma Coast Vineyards 09 1 1 1
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