American Chardonnay: “simple, sweet, alcoholic and false”

Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher used their Friday WSJ column to blast a hole in the side of the barrel that is American Chardonnay, calling it, “simple, sweet, alcoholic and false.” Moreover, much of the pricey stuff isn’t getting discounted, as many other expensive wines are. They write:

So, did we find great bargains? No. We did not find cutthroat competition on price among higher-end American Chardonnay. It’s as if most wine stores these days are like developers who built homes on spec and now refuse to lower prices even in the face of weak demand. More important, most of the wines themselves weren’t good values at any price. They were too often disappointing, with too much oak, too little fruit and little care. Too many tasted like stagnant water, like pickling spices, or like vanilla flavorings added to water. They were not pleasant to drink on their own and would not pair well with any food…

We wondered, honestly, who they think their market is and we finally realized that many high-end American Chardonnays have become the Cadillac of the wine world. Their core audience is older, moneyed and comfortable with the names they’ve come to know. As a result, too many Chardonnay producers have decided that, as long as the bottle is just as heavy and the label is just as nice, they can take advantage of those customers by shirking on quality. But even General Motors decided, in the long run, that Cadillac needed more attention—not to mention younger buyers. We don’t believe that the current business model for most producers of higher-end American Chardonnay will work in the long run. We hope not.

Yeeow! Check out the whole article for more, including the ones they actually liked. “U.S. Chardonnay Has No Bargain Bin

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21 Responses to “American Chardonnay: “simple, sweet, alcoholic and false””

  1. Thanks for this link. I have started a winery internship at a Healdsburg, CA chardonnay producer. I didn’t see Ramey in the article or video.
    But, interesting non-the-less. Discounting is a very tricky issue. (my own opinion, not Ramey’s. I’m just an intern/restaurant wine buyer). Once you slash too much it is difficult, if not impossible to go back. In my position, I want the discount, but I like to pass it on. A brave new (wine) world

  2. just like how old world producer “make terroir wine” hehe

    that being said I had a Viognier that was trying to be a Chardonnay, from Cali. No real Balance not bad but….

    I just think wine needs to be more balanced, in a state of zen instead of a state of “IN your face”

  3. What a strange premise, looking for bargains at $50 or more! It’s almost guaranteeing failure since it only seems logical an incredibly expensive wine will be over-made in a vain attempt to justify its price.

    I wonder if they tried any Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. It’s not that there aren’t ultra-butter and oak styled wines in Santa Barbara. But at least it’s a cool climate. I don’t understand how in Napa Chardonnay is grown next to Cabernet when one likes heat, the other cold. Napa Cab definitely gets ripe, which means the Chard will be extremely overripe and unbalanced on average.

    I have a feeling if they looked at lower price points, yet still bought from small-production wineries, they would have found superior wines. Not always the case, but modest prices often mean less arrogance on the part of a winemaker. So more classical and modest proportions to the wine.

  4. Hi Greg –

    Yes, it may seem like a funny premise to go looking for values at the high end. But that is where the values are now. Consider our discussions of it here and here in high-end restaurants. Also, had a piece on this last week writing, “But the high end is where the real bargains are.”

    So the premise was actually pretty solid, counterintuitive as it may seem.


  5. I’ve always loved Pahlmeyer Chardonnay (the highest rated wine in the WSJ tasting) and received a boat load of grief for that at the winery because it is the opposite of what I sually like. Pahlymeyer is undeniably oaky (barrel fermented in 90% new French oak per their website) and alcoholic (14.9 per their website) and yet somehow it works.

    And I guess that is my only point….it seems odd that Dorothy and John needed to chracterize the wines they didn’t like as too oaky and alcoholic….when the wine they did like has plenty of both of those.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. Adam –

    Thanks for pointing that out.

    Btw, from your position on the ground, as it were, where do you think we stand now in the backlash to oak in American Chard? Does it vary by price point?

  7. I think there is always going to be a portion of folks out there that love oak….and love oak in Chardonnay. Obviously, I am, at least when it comes to Pahlmeyer, one of those people.

    As far as the backlash in oak in Chard goes, I think one thing that wineries are learning is the difference between stainless steel chardonnay, and older oak fermented chard….and which fruit works better with which. In other words, there are a number of ways to make unoaked Chardonnay and not all of them work equally well on all fruit.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines/Novy Family Winery

  8. Well, they’re certainly not digging in the right spot there if they are hoping to unearth Chard bargains 😉

  9. As I have recently stated on this blog, I love Muscadet, particularly Muscadet aged on its lees. As a lover of Loire Valley whites, I might not sound like a candidate to defend CA Chard, but there are producers doing things that merit attention. The key for me, lies in their similarities to the Muscadet I prefer: extended lees aging.

    Therein, I think, lies a factor that is missing in this article; it contains not one mention of lees. Oak, fruit and alcohol have to come together, but in my experience the interaction of all three is often determined by the time spent on lees, the origin of those lees, and their management.

    The Pahlmeyer web site notes that the 2007 sat on lees for 9-10 months and was stirred weekly.

    This would be a far more useful article, especially given it’s prominent place, if they had focused more on the positive and really communicated why some producers in CA are able to integrate oak, fruit and alcohol, and some are not.

    I participated in the harvest in the Russian River in 2006 with Fred Scherrer, who I represent in IL. If interested, I have a rather detailed series of photos and explanations of what went into picking and crushing one vineyard designate Chard in that vintage here:

    I would also add that the WSJ article makes no mention of the reality of Botrytis in the Russian River Valley in 2006, saying only that they often prefered the 2007s. I have a blog entry and video, again with Fred and again focused on one vineyard in 2006, posted here:

  10. Adam Lee beat me to it. The Pahlmeyer wines, all the Pahlmeyer wines, are deep, rich, high in oak and high in alcohol. They are also mostly delicious.

    The problem with the WSJ article is that it takes a swipe at CA Chards without so much as recognizing that all the wines it liked were ripe and fruity and aged in oak.

    It is not ripeness that is the problem here. It is the full-on accusation that all CA wines are out of shape, when, in fact, there are dozens and dozens of ripe yet balanced wines. Ramey, Chasseur, HdV, Cuvaison, Talley, Bjornstad, Pfendler, Hudson. Londer and a list as long as your arm.

    The questions for wine lovers now are these? If the WSJ does not know the difference between good and bad wine and simply passes off less attractive wine as stylistically flawed when the wines they like are of a similar construction, how can anyone take that article seriously? Secondly, is it not the case that a tasting of wines from almost anywhere in the world is going to produce wines that are liked and wines that are not. There is not a monolithic standard in CA or anywhere else.

    Finally, the point raised by Greg about Napa Valley Chardonnay is way off base because it somehow assumes, as the WSJ pair do, that there is some monolithic place/style of wine. In point of fact, the southern end of the Napa Valley and Carneros, which is where great bulk of Chardonnay stands, and not upvalley where Cabernet rules the roost, is quite cool and does not produce the kinds of wines that have been described as “Napa” in his comments. Add Trefethen to my list of well-structured Chardonnays, and their vineyards are in the Napa Valley at the cool end.

    Bottom line: these kinds of generalizations have not served the WSJ family well and do not serve any of us well.

  11. I enjoy the WSJ Tastings column, but I think it’s important to understand the columnists’ methodology. They (or, realistically, their assistants) go to local liquor stores, buy all of the wines of a particular kind that they can get their hands on, and taste them in blind flights over several nights. The idea is to give consumers some idea of what they can expect if they go to the US Chardonnay aisle of their own local liquor store looking to buy a nice bottle for $50 or more. It’s less about providing a comprehensive analysis of every Chardonnay made in the US, and more about evaluating what’s available to the average wine buyer. Adam’s point about their favorites also being “big” and “oaky” is well-taken, though. I do wish they’d given a clearer sense of what made these wines the exception to their overall dissatisfaction.

    Charlie, I did some quick Google-searching of the wines you suggested (thanks for the list, by the way!) — I was interested to see that aside from the Ramey and the Hudson, your suggestions were mostly under the WSJ’s $50 price point. Maybe Greg is on to something with his idea that the quality may actually be higher in Chardonnays between $25-50 …

  12. If the WSJ team is flat out wrong about citing certain wines as examples, does this undermine their general critique? If they mischaracterize Pahlmeyer, are their broader conclusions wrong about better CA Chardonnay being too oaky and ripe regardless of where the grapes are grown? And can’t we assume that most over 50 buck Chards achieve more balance than not? While it is argued that the writers fail to appreciate the components of the wines they are tasting, are they nonetheless coming to the right conclusions that their faves are standouts?

    What makes the WSJ column so compelling is that Dottie and John are solid journalists who for the most part avoid wine speak. They make wine more approachable, less intimidating. And while they may miss from time to time, I would bet that their assessments are largely shared by the wine writing fraternity. Moreover, they never taste more than 50 releases of a given category. They don’t presume to have surveyed the field.

    The points raised by Charlie and Adam again point to the advantage of relying on multiple assessments of a given wine. The 12 reviews in Cellar Tracker of the 06 Pahlmeyer indicate that all find the wine buttery, etc., with only one member marking down the wine below 90 as over the top.

  13. Epicuria,

    You are right, of course. Just because the wines they liked were fairly high in oak and alcohol doesn’t mean that the wines they disliked weren’t also high in oak and alcohol, but didn’t pull it off as well. Unfortunately, by not knowing which wines performed poorly in the WSJ tasting we can’t really determine that to be the case.

    But did I tell you I really like the Pahlmeyer?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  14. The contradictions in the WSJ article simple scream at us. It is not unfair to criticize CA wine for all kinds of things, and going after Chardonnay for being overoaked, overripe, low in acidity is by now a path that has been trod by virtually everyone at some time. I don’t even care that the WSJ has not found that path until now when the game has been changing for the last several years–as pointed out by my long list of wines that simply do not conform to the WSJ theory.

    What I find bothersome is these seasoned, professional journalists have not even bothered to notice that the Pahlmeyer is high in alcohol–and is so stated on the label, high in ripeness, high in oak and is clearly over the top in all those traits–yet succeeds not because it is over the top but because it has great balance, beautifully expressed fruit and is simply delicious.

    And in so doing, they have then damned CA Chardonnay as a class when the wines they love (and not just the Pahlmeyer) have exactly the traits they are damning.

    They have come to the wrong conclusion. The contradiction is the problem. It destroys their premise, and it misleads their readers.

    And it cannot be excused just because they got the preferences right–as they generally do. The story is not Pahlmeyer. The story is the damnation of a class of wines based on a failure to understand, and thus the damage done by that failure.

  15. But, Charlie, is their premise–which was substantiated in their limited sampling–wrong, irrespective of whether they failed to see that at least one wine has the qualities (in some superior combination where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) that they dismiss? Perhaps Jason Pahlmeyer has a special alchemy that most vintners lack and therefore his strengths become flaws in others’hands.

    Dottie and John’s failing may simply be their inability, in this instance, to distinguish the “proper”combination of features in a few special wines from the pack. What they take to be a difference of kind may really be a difference in degree.

  16. Tom–

    Look at the other wines they liked. All over 14% alcohol, all filled out by well-placed oak. Their criticisms miss the point. It is not oak or ripeness that is the culprit, and it is not simplicity or sweetness either. It is that the unsuccessful wines happen to made in the same style as the successful wines–a California style if you will–and Dottie and John missed that point.

    It is truly misleading to criticize a style that is the style of the most successful wines in the tasting, especially when both successful and unsuccessful wines are made in that style.

    If that is the prevailing style, and most wines are made in that style, then, a priori, the unsuccessful wines are made in that style. My six year old granddaughter could figure that one out. The WSJ duo did not, and, in my view, do a needless disservice to CA Chardonnay in the process.

  17. Charlie,

    [who’s this Tom guy…{8^D ]

    I really think you are too hard on D & J. Based on their sample of 50 wines they drew some conclusions about the state of $50 +/- Chardonnay. It seems to me that such a sample allows one to make general statements, particularly if a relatively small percentage were found pleasing, the rest not so. They found no bargains, but instead wines of inferior quality, particularly at this price point. I thought their analogy to Cadillac was apt, whether it was right or wrong. They had no “theory” that I could find in the article. Instead they identified a few vintners that seem to get the balance right,sourcing their grapes from superior vineyards, while the majority didn’t in their opinion. Pahlmeyer may have noticeable oak as does, say, the Hirsch, but it blends well with the other components of a great wine, and so deserves the “hint” reference.

    They were doing their job of alerting their readers to engage in caveat emptor. Other columns have stressed that regardless of the brand, the consumer can expect to find a decent wine among the current releases in a specific category. This is their particular M.O. They don’t presume to rate wines like Connoisseurs Guide and the other wine publications.


  18. Dear Mr. Epi–

    You can’t hide from me.

    There is a fair amount of truth in what you say and in what they say. I have read their column for years and like it. Sure there are plenty of CA Chards that are not very good–even expensive ones. I have made a good living for lots of years separating them out for my readers.

    The more correct conclusion would have been, “The dominant CA style of Chard needs to be balanced in fruit, acidity and oak/other characteristics to avoid becoming heavy, woody and simple, and there are plenty of wines that accomplish that feat. There are also plenty that do not”.

  19. Charlie

    I’m a big fan of D&J, and have been for years. I think what you’re missing is that to an avid amateur – the audience that they’re aiming at – structural notes may be elided or missed in when describing a wine that works. Those elided details will show up as faults in badly done wine, where they’ll be mentioned as to why the wine doesn’t work.

    It’s the inverse of why those badly made wines are aping those styles. Wannabes ape the details (big fruit, lots of oak, extra ripeness…) but miss the integration. As we’ve all demonstrated, just because you have lots of fruit and alcohol, or lots of oak and alcohol, doesn’t mean that you have a wine that works. It also doesn’t mean that you have a wine that fails.

    Your desired precision is too technical and also far too wordy. D&J have a really great job, but they have limited column space to make their points and can’t be so equivocal. If I wanted equivocal, Lake Wobegon evaluations, I can call up that Napa Chamber of Commerce myself.

  20. I also would like to defend D&J. The point of their column was simply this: If you go to your local wine shop to pick out a $50 California Chardonnay, what are the odds it’s going to be a good one? In that price range, it should be close to 100 percent; what they found is the quality is variable enough to require consumer caution. As a consumer who buys somewhere around 150 bottles a year, I appreciate this approach.

    I’d also like to speak to the point of the supposed contradiction of criticizing the wines for being alcoholic and oaky yet liking a wine or two that were oaked and high alcohol. In my view, they’re referring to the taste and nose of the wine other than its actual physical characteristics. I think everyone who reads this blog has encountered high-alcohol wines that were fruity and delicious, others that just whacked you on the nose with the alcohol – it’s very similar to the criticisms of a lot of Australian Shiraz. There are some very good ones that are also high alcohol, but way too many are dominated by it. The same kind of discussion could be had about the influence of oak on taste and nose.

    As columnists with a wide audience, they’re certainly fair game for discussion. However, I didn’t drink wine at all when I began reading their column, and I’m very grateful to them for de-mystifying wine for me as well as writing about non-standard grapes, trends in varietals and all kinds of topics that have opened up the world of wine to me over a period of years. Heck, I even discovered Dr. Vino through their column! Leave them alone already!

  21. I enjoy reading John & Dorothy’s column. I often disagree with their findings (I joke that I don’t look to the Wine Spectator for stock tips, and I don’t look to the WSJ for wine tips), but as MCB wrote, they provide a useful service, they don’t talk down, and they don’t claim to be comprehensive. I don’t think they’re slandering the category; they’re simply pointing out that dropping $50-plus on a Napa Chardonnay doesn’t guarantee quality. You can say the same thing about the Côte d’Or.


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