The SOMM Journal

June / July 2015

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Page 14 of 100

14 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } JUNE/JULY 2015 { bottom line } TASTING AND SELECTING CHARDONNAYS— that is, the West Coast–grown varietal bottlings that still dominate the American market—for our wine lists has recently become less of a chore and more of a pleasure. Chardonnays from California, in particular, are slowly but surely getting crisper, sleeker, less obvi - ously tutti-frutti, a little less oaky or "buttery" and a little less fatty and annoying. Speaking, of course, from a sommelier's perspective. The customers— our guests, as we call them—have always been right, and thank goodness, more and more of them are becoming a little more "right" about their taste in Chardonnay. But if it seems like this sea change in consumer taste has been a long time coming, you still have to ask: How much of this has been our own fault? Come on. How many of us in the on-premise industry still stuff our wine lists with popular brands of Chardonnay that perpetuate that fat, buttery varietal style out of fear that we'll offend many of our guests if we don't? You might call it giving-the- customers-what-they-want. I call it enabling. What if our leading chefs were enablers? Everyone cooking up the same sea bass in Barolo sauce, scallops with truffled mash or smoked salmon pizza because, well, that's what Daniel Boulud, Traci Des Jardins and Wolfgang Puck do? But that is not what has been happening in the culinary world over the past ten or 20 years. Top sommeliers, like top chefs, ideally endeavor to contribute as much as possible to guest experi - ences—unique, exciting, often unexpected experi- ences. I fail to see where settling for predictable brands, as opposed to the best possible wines for our chefs' dishes, fits into that picture. These days I do a lot of judging in wine competi - tions, where inevitably you are charged with evalu- ating as many as three or four dozen Chardonnays at a time. The intrinsic issue with competitions is that wines are lumped together in one category and judged as if they should all meet the same criteria. It's a situation that always reminds you of where the real problem lies, insofar as the stunting of consumer tastes: the compulsion to reward, and encourage perpetuation of, wines that fit arbitrary expectations of varietal character. I was recently invited to judge wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for example, where high-elevation terroirs make it very possible to grow unique styles of Chardonnay, with as much minerality as fruiti - ness, and heightened acidity and restraint. What I found maddening was that most of my fellow judges still accorded the top rankings to wines that fit the standard idea of "California Chardonnay": intense tropical fruitiness rather than minerality; big, fleshy body rather than crisper, sleeker structures; and aggressive oak, which always has the tendency to obscure terroir related distinctions. And you wonder why Chardonnay producers have been so slow to move towards more subtle, elegant styles, with a little more je ne sais quoi? The good thing about being a sommelier is that the wine list process itself infers diversity, not sameness. We can, or at least should, select Chardonnays on the basis of regional typicity rather than varietal monogamy. We know better than to expect a Chablis to taste like a Meursault, a Meursault to taste like a Mâcon, or a Puligny, Chassagne, et al. By the same token, it makes little sense to select Chardonnays from, say, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Barbara or Okanagan Valley that duplicate the taste of Chardonnays from the Sonoma Coast, Carneros or Walla Walla Valley. What would be the point? Ultimately, in our business, it comes down to selecting the best possible wines for our dishes and guest experiences. Doing that well takes focus, a little spunk and good use of your hard-won smarts. If you know what a unique, exciting, artisanal wine tastes like, then there really is no excuse for opting for the opposite. Today's Chardonnays Allow Sommeliers to Shine PHOTO: THINKSTOCK BUT THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR PERPETUATING SAMENESS . . . by Randy Caparoso

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