I got some flak for writing the words Bullshit Chardonnay in my recent book ‘Best White Wine on Earth – The Riesling Story’ (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Some people, including those of high intelligence with a well-developed sense of irony, didn’t appreciate the fact that I was not dismissing all dry white wines and sparkling wines made from the Charodnnay grape, but was talking about Chardonnays that are too oaky, and/or too alcoholic, and/or too sweet and/or have no real Chardonnay character. Sadly, there’s an ocean of that kind of bullshit wine out there on liquor store shelves and on wine lists.
On the other hand, I love elegant and subtle Chardonnay. One of my favorite dry white wines in the entire world is the Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, and the Terroirs Blanc de Blanc Champagne from Agrapart is one of my favorite sparkling wines in the entire world. Today in New York Wine City (NYWC) was a day of dramatic Chardonnay contrasts, and I feel compared to share with you the most important of them. I know that there are a bunch of other people out there in NYWC and beyond who feel the same way as me, but mostly they’re whispering these things amongst themselves, because this is an opinion widely considered to be politically incorrect. One of them who knew he couldn’t be overheard put it bluntly, “Kistler sucks!” What I’m talking about is High-End Bullshit Chardonnay, that is expensive wines made from this grape with famous brand names on the label that suck. Unfortunately, there are a bunch of producers of this category and Kistler in Sonoma County/California is one.
Kistler describe themselves as “a small, family-established and privately owned and operated winery dedicated to the vinification of world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.” To underline this, on the front page of the website the only text is a quote from Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate, “If the Kistler Winery could be magically transported to the middle of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, it would quickly gain a reputation as glorious as any producer of Brugundy grand crus.” Unfortunately, every time I tasted the Kistler Chardonnays during the last years including today in NYWC, I found them gruesomely oaky, lacking in charm and balance. The best way I can communicate to you how I feel about these wines is to ask you how you would feel if someone took one of Matisse’s richly colored paintings and nailed some boards across it as is done with the windows of abandoned homes?
The problem with the Kistler Chardonnays is not only that claim to be world class, but the prices that go with it. www.wine-searcher.com gives the average retail price of the ‘Les Noisetiers’ Chardonnay from Kistler as $69. The 2013 vintage of this wine was the cheapest of the Kistler Chardonnays I tasted today, and the 2013 Vine Hill Chardonnay was the most expensive at $104 according to wine-searcher. Clearly, there are a bunch of people out there who feel different about these wines to me, or they wouldn’t sell so well, but to my mind they are caricatures of what the Kistler Chardonnays used to be back in the 1980s and early 1990s. No thank you!
Finally, we come to the wine pictured above, the 2013 Sonoma County Chardonnay from Lioco. This is a rather new California winery, just a shade under ten years old. I first encountered their wines about a year ago, and since then I’ve tasted and drunk them many times. However, today was the first time I experienced this, their cheapest Chardonnay. It is a vividly fresh wine with just a touch of creaminess and bright lemon and pear aromas that leap right out at you; a joyful Chardonnay that is screaming to be poured with dinner tonight! Wine-searcher gives the average price as $21, but it was no problem for me to find a source for this wine at $17.99. There is an alternative and it isn’t expensive!
“They call us New California,” Matt Licklider of Lioco said to me today, “but the irony is that we’re Old California. We’re making wines that are like those from before the Wine Spectator and Robert Park explosion hit the state.” There’s something to mull over, maybe also for the folks at Kistler.