Chardonnay Rediscovered

If you're like us, some of your earliest wine memories center on "California Chardonnay."  I used to have 3-4 "go-to" chardonnays that I felt comfortable ordering from a restaurant wine list while on a date - Mondavi, Jordan, Ferrari-Carano.  All qualified as easy to find, generally over-priced wines that I knew would be good enough to get me through the meal and, hopefully, onto dessert. And then somewhere along the way, I lost my taste for California chardonnay.  Maybe it had to do with the glut of over-oaked, overly-buttery wine that came on the market in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  Or maybe it was just that my taste buds developed to the point where I realized that the same flavors that I relied on like a security blanket were, in fact, really not very food friendly.  So I moved on from California chardonnay - first to sauvignon blancs, then to gruner veltliners and rieslings, and most recently to white Rhone varietals like viognier, marsanne, and rousanne.  In fact, the pendulum swung so far away from chardonnay that Kerith and I became fond of the ABC rule.  No, not Always Be Closing (although that's a good rule too), but Anything But Chardonnay.  I would even go out of my way to avoid the so-called "un-oaked chardonnays" being sold by both domestic and foreign producers.  And, yes, there is a whole wide world of amazing chardonnays crafted in Burgundy.  But, I feel under-educated about those wines, and while I've enjoyed them when guided by knowledgeable sommeliers, they're just not wines that I feel comfortable buying on my own. (Not to mention the outrageous price tag for a Montrachet).

But just when I thought that I was firmly set in my ways, something changed.

Kerith and I spent 3 ½ gloriously kid-free days in and around the Sonoma Valley last week.  Before we left, we asked a very trusted source for a referral on a can't-miss pinot noir producer in Sonoma.  Without hesitation, he responded, "Hanzell" and then worked to get us a private tour and tasting.

Hanzell was created in 1948 when Ambassador James Zellerbach purchased a 200-acre parcel about one mile north of the Sonoma plaza in the Mayacamas Mountains.  In 1953, 6 acres were planted to pinot noir (and are now the oldest pinot noir vineyard in the U.S.) and in 1957 the first vintage was barreled.  Today, the property includes 42 acres planted to vines, with three quarters chardonnay and one quarter pinot noir.  All of the wine they produce is from fruit they grow on the estate.  An interesting side note about Hanzell is that Zellerbach, along with his winemaker Ralph Webb, were at the cutting edge of technological development in winemaking at the time.  You can read more about their achievements and the winery's impressive history by clicking here.

As we drove through the gates and up the windy mountain road, we sensed that we were in for a special treat.  We were super excited when we learned that our tour was going to be conducted by Hanzell's winemaker, Michael McNeill.  What followed the cursory introductions was pretty much nirvana for wine geeks like us.  We hopped into the vineyard's luxury SUV and proceeded to take a rambling tour through the vineyards.  At some point, we got out of the truck and walked into the vineyard and got into a long discussion about bud-break, trellising, row spacing, and frost.  All the while, the sun was getting higher in the sky, burning off the morning haze and giving us an amazing view across the valley and south toward San Francisco (see picture below).  We then headed over to see the winemaking equipment and the cave.  It was all heavenly. 

But, through it all, I had a nagging concern, "Why is this guy spending SOOO much time talking about the chardonnay?  We've already told him 10 times that we make pinot, we're into pinot, and we came here because of the pinot".  Not wanting to be my usual brusque self, I decided to go with the flow.  We ended our tour with a quick look at Hanzell's museum-like original winemaking facilities and then were led up a narrow staircase to a special tasting room they'd built in the attic of the 1950's-era winemaking barn.

As we sat in the cozy room with a huge window looking out over the original 1953 vineyard and down the mountain into northern Sonoma, Michael pulled two decanters of wine from a cupboard.  He explained to us that Hanzell's wines are made to age and that when opening recent vintages, it's important to decant them - even the chardonnay.  "OK," I thought, "enough with the chardonnay.  Who cares?  Decanted or straight from the bottle, it is still chardonnay, and I'm here for the pinot!"

Well, you can probably guess how this story ends.  Michael poured us each glasses of both the chardonnay and the pinot from the decanters.  Following protocol and etiquette, I went with the chardonnay first.  To say that I pretty much blacked out after that is probably a stretch, but only a little one.  I actually don't remember much about the pinot that followed (although I remember it being very good).  But the chardonnay?  The chardonnay was like an epiphany packed inside a revelation and wrapped in divine intervention. 

The wine notes describe the vintage as follows:

An elegant fragrance of chamomile, lemon and grapefruit pith, with darker tones of honey  and bees wax followed by hazelnut and even savory elements of thyme and walnut. An even, mineral-dry, taut character to the wine when it first hits the tongue extends with a rounded fullness as it begins to develop in bottle.

I'm not going to pretend that I could taste grapefruit pith in the wine (I'm not entirely sure what grapefruit pith is, to be candid).  But, to say that this wine was merely good or great really doesn't do it justice. 

This was truly an "aha! moment".  This was not only what was possible with California chardonnay, but it was what California chardonnay should be.  Finally I understood why so much of the previous two hours had been dedicated to this grape. 

As our tasting wound down and our conversation moved from wine making to family and kids, I could feel the heartache coming on at the thought of leaving this magical moment.  I sipped as slowly as I could (we were politely provided with spitting canisters, but there was no way in hell I was spitting any of this stuff out), and I came up with as many questions as I could think of to keep the conversation moving just a little bit longer.  But, ultimately, the visit came to a close.

I'm expecting our shipment of the Hanzell chardonnay later today.  I didn't even order any of the pinot.  Again, the pinot was awesome.  But, their wonderful chardonnay redefined the entire varietal for me. 

I'm not sure how much of that magic will be lost when we next enjoy a bottle while being distracted by requests for more water, a new video, or some other inanities from our kids. 

But, I suspect that the experience, much like the wine, will be well built for aging.


Some pictures from our visit:  The view across the Hanzell vineyards towards the San Francisco Bay and Kerith with winemaker Michael McNeill.