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California Wine: A Lot to Say about Chardonnay

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While the AVA of Sta. Rita Hills might only be a decade recognized, it seems like a center of the winemaking world when longtime giants Ken Brown and Richard Sanford are sitting next to each other on a panel about chardonnay from the area. Brown, Zaca Mesa's first winemaker in 1977, and founder of Byron Wines (which he sold to Mondavi), is talking about one of the AVA's newest vineyards, Rita's Peak. Sanford, planter of the ur-area vineyard Sanford Benedict in 1971 and now owner of Alma Rosa, is dropping tidbits like "it was called pinot chardonnay at that time" and extolling the virtues of his Rancho El Jabali. (Not surprisingly their wines, to my palate, are the two best of a very high quality tasting.)

This is a symposium at the Sta. Rita Hills Wine and Fire celebration held the August 16-18 weekend. Of course the festival is part bacchanal, but the grand tasting is tempered by the fact that it takes place in the courtyard of La Purisima Mission, so there are even monks about, sort of looking the part of moral Civil War re-enactors or something. But it's also an incredible geek-out of detailed run-throughs of soil types -- diatomaceous and autochthonous get properly pronounced and casually dropped -- and percentages of new oak and malolactic fermentation. Wine, pretty much grapes, yeast, barrels, and time, suddenly seems impossibly complex, a magic elixir created only by a hyphenate that must run agriculturist-geologist-chemist-biologist-geographer-meteorologist-alchemist.

The grape turned into gold, in this case, is chardonnay, and Sanford puts things into historical context, as is his wont, by saying, "Twenty years ago if we did this tasting it would be about oak. Since then people backed off the oak...maybe because the barrels are $900 each now." Definitely the wines set out for tasting were nothing like, oh, a 1997 California butter bomb. Steve Clifton from Brewer-Clifton, for example, suggested his Sweeney Canyon "takes on a really really good margarita smell -- lime skin and lime zest and faintly of agave. My partner [Greg Brewer] will kill me for this comparison." Later people will all comment on the salinity typical of Sta. Rita Hills chards, thanks to the once ocean-bottom floor soils of the region, and Clifton jokes, "It also leads to that margarita thing."

It did seem that winemaking styles trumped location somewhat, as it was harder to define similarities based on whether the wine came from the Santa Rosa corridor a bit to the south (Brewer-Clifton Winery and Sweeney Canyon Vineyard, Ken Brown Wines and Rita's Crown, Alma Rosa Winery and Rancho El Jabali) or the Highway 246 corridor to the north (Hilliard Bruce Winery and Vineyard, Foley Winery and Rancho Santa Rosa, Moretti Wines and the 3-D Vineyard). Christine Bruce wondered, "Maybe there's more a west-east difference than a Santa Rosa versus the 246 difference." And Richard Sanford summed that up by suggesting "vineyard designates better define what the wine is like as opposed to an AVA."

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