Wine of the Week: Another Oaky Buttery Chardonnay

Categories: Wine Time

oaky chardonnay.jpg
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.
The marketing campaign by Educated Guess wines is one of the most successful in recent history.
Yesterday, after arriving at the Newark, NJ airport from Milan, Italy (where I admired a statue of Leonardo da Vinci across from the famous Scala opera house), I headed straight to the bar in the United Airlines terminal and asked my Jamaican barkeep for a long tall glass of beer. When a well-dressed older lady sat down next to me, I was reminded of how the power of aggressive wine marketing in our country has shaped our palates.

"Do you have a Chard by the glass?" she asked.

(If you have been following along here at Wine Time, you know how much I loath monosyllabic grape variety abbreviations.)

"We do," answered a barman (my barkeep's colleague).

"How much is it?"

"$15 a glass."

"What else do you have?"

"Cab, Merlot, Pinot, and Sauv Blanc." (Egad! sahv-blahk, the worst of them all!)

And while it's thrilling to know that we've come a long way from the days of Hearty Burgundy and California Chablis, it's sad to think that late-20th-century wine marketing in our country has conditioned us to think of and order wine in mono- and bisyllabic grunts when we cozy up to the bar. Just as you know that a Big Mac is going to taste the same in every American town, you know that you can plant your tush in nearly any U.S. airport bar and order a glass of "Chard" that will taste fruity, creamy, and oaky, with nearly no acidity -- no matter who the winemaker is.

I was reminded of a wine that we recently opened in our home, Educated Guess 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay from the Roots Run Deep Winery in Yountville, California. With its brilliantly eye-catching label and its ingenious approach to quality-to-price ratio, this under-$20 wine (also available in Cab and Pinot) represents one of the most successful marketing campaigns in recent wine history.

The "label was designed," write the authors of the winery's website, "to tell the story of how you can make an educated guess in winemaking, not to give you nightmares about your high school chemistry class. It shows you actual winemaking formulas that are either induced or naturally occur during a specific winemaking process."

Educated Guess is the brainchild of California wine industry veteran Mark Albrecht, who realized some years ago that he could maintain extremely low costs in production if he acted as a négociant instead of paying overhead for a brick-and-mortar winery. In other words, he buys fruit from top growers, contracts one of the industry's top winemakers on an hourly (as opposed to yearly) basis, and makes the wine in a rented facility, thus not having to support the myriad costs associated with a conventional winery. Ingenious marketing and well cultivated network of contacts throughout the country have made this extremely affordable wine one of the best-selling labels in the U.S. today. (Mark took home the top prize "Champion Buckle" at the 2009 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition for his 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.)

And while Mark would surely claim otherwise, he has managed to sell Americans yet another oaky buttery Chardonnay through his incredibly deft hand in marketing -- at a remarkably affordable price (I'll give him that).

The authors of his website write that this wine is "no 'stick of butter and a 2 x 4" Chardonnay'." And they boast: "We were able to retain the delicious tropical fruit flavors, while also giving the customer what they have come to love in Chardonnay -- creamy notes, toast, spice and vanilla."

Since when does Chardonnay express itself in "tropical fruit flavors" unless it's been doctored using cultured yeasts? And wow, the flavors we have come to love in Chardonnay? Creamy, toast, spice, and vanilla?

And how does the wine come to achieve this flavor profile? According to the site, malolactic fermentation in barrel (that's what removes the acidity and makes the wine taste buttery by converting malic acid into lactic acid) and 12 months aging in "Burgundy French Oak Barrel."

If that ain't buttery, oaky Chardonnay, then grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry, and Leonardo's Mona Lisa was a man!

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10 comments
Anna Savino
Anna Savino

So the buttery chardonnay debate will always be fun to talk about...but... this reminded me of living in italy and wanting to go to a "bar" for a glass of wine at aperitivo hour. Mind you that I live in the Wine Country of Piemonte Italy and when I ask what they have they just tell me the variety and not the maker. How am I supposed to learn what I like if they look at me oddly..like why would I want to know the winery? Does this happen to you when you are in Italy? Maybe they just take wine for granted...I don't know ... but I thought I would vent about this problem that I run into 9 times out of 10! What a funny post by the way! thanks!

Susan
Susan

Who cares if it does taste buttery?  The point is, did you like it?  Stop trying to over think things so much.  At the end of the day, wine is really just about personal preference.

Megan
Megan

$15 a glass?  For a house "Chardonnay"?!  That's freakin' highway robbery!

Bells Andwhistles
Bells Andwhistles

Skip California and go up to Washington, you'll find some crisp, fruity Chardonnays from the Yakima and Columbia Valleys.

Defluernoir
Defluernoir

Completely agree!! I had an inexpensive chardonnay the other day because I was desperate and all the corner market carried was: 5 chardonnays, one overly acidic sauvignon blanc, and a syrupy riesling.

Got home,. chilled it well, and it was still undrinkable, tasting like Tropicana tanning lotion, all coconut and pineapple. I realized why I stopped drinking this stuff. About the only good chardonnay memories comes from drinking Pouilly Fuisee, when dad was buying.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

Confession: I hate oaked Chardonnay. There are one or two that occasionally strike my fancy, but I look for unoaked wherever I go. (There's a great one from Knapp Winery--in the FLX, natch!) My husband loves the stick o'butter/2x4 variety, and it's the only place where our wine palates diverge.

Ricearoni
Ricearoni

Yes, they generally take wine for granted, and usually serve the locally produced product made from the indigenous grapes; wine is produced in every region of Italy. So if you want to get fancy and order a Gaja when you're in Naples, you just might get a funny look.Deservedly.

Kleinstadt
Kleinstadt

yes, minimalist one, and living is just about respiration....

jparzen
jparzen

Tropicana tanning lotion! Ha! :)

Pouilly Fuissé can be great... And there are more and more Californian producers who are going for a less doctored style... 

jparzen
jparzen

De gustibus non est disputandum! ;) I'm with you!

One of the reasons that Californian winemakers like Chardonnay so much is that it's so flexible: a talented winemaker can make it taste however she/he wants. 

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