hey WSJ - chardonnay grows in oregon too!

Friday, September 25, 2009

I have been known to comment – OK rant – about the lack of awareness regarding the diversity, quality, and value of the wines made in Washington. A frequent critique is that Washington lacks a signature grape – as if doing many things well were a fault!

But Oregon suffers from a mirror image problem. It has a signature grape – pinot noir – and recently the national press has noticed that pinot gris grows there also (it’s only been 40 years since David Lett planted the vine, but the press sometimes crawls rather than strolls). Oregon gets plenty of credit for those wines, but gets ignored when it comes to its other strengths – particularly riesling, gewürztraminer (yeah, I know, everybody ignores gewürztraminer – it’s the Zeppo Marx of grapes), pinot blanc, and chardonnay.

Chardonnay got off to a dubious start in Oregon back in the day because it was mostly Wente clone that was planted, producing a thick, dull, early-ripening style of wine that was too-often clobbered with oak to mask its inadequacies. But about 15 years ago David Adelsheim, Harry Peterson-Nedry, and a few other pioneers began planting Dijon clone chardonnay vines, and that has proven to be a triumphant success. As those vines are now reaching maturity, the chardonnays of Oregon, I would propose, can certainly rival the best produced anywhere in the country.

This has entirely escaped the notice of such critics as Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher of the Wall Street Journal, whose recent column, headlined “U.S. Chardonnay Has No Bargain Bin”, dismissed most [American] chardonnays as “simple, sweet, alcoholic and false.”

The headline would lead an average reader such as myself to believe that the search was on for good, value-priced chardonnays in the $10 to $20 range, but in fact the tastings focused on wines costing $40 to $70, with the stated goal of finding “a tasty $100 chardonnay in disguise.” Well, I’m hard put to even find an Oregon (or Washington) chardonnay in the $100 price range, and darn few cost more than about $25. But the WSJ columnists blew right past all of that, instead focusing, as per usual, mostly on California. They bought more than 50 wines, the column states, from stores in five states, most from California. The non-California wines didn’t rate a mention, so I have no clue if Washington and Oregon were even in the mix.

A handful of wineries were applauded (Pahlmeyer, Mi Sueño, Hirsch) but the over-riding sentiment (I’m quoting directly here) was that “Far too many were stupid, insulting wines, and we were amazed that so many storied wineries put their names on them. We would have been embarrassed.”

My question: Why were the outstanding chardonnays of Oregon not represented? Stunning bottles such as the Adelsheim 2007 Stoller Vineyards Chardonnay ($58) and Adelsheim 2007 Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay ($40)? And why not drop the price point down from the stratosphere and include such gems as Chehalem 2007 Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay ($36), Chehalem 2008 INOX Chardonnay ($19), The Eyrie Vineyards 2007 Chardonnay ($22), The Eyrie Vineyards 2007 Reserve Chardonnay ($33), Willamette Valley Vineyards 2007 Dijon Clone Chardonnay ($18)? All of these wines are 90+ point wines in my estimation.

I could go on, adding Washington to the list. Beautiful examples of chardonnay abound here also. But apparently some of the most influential wine reviewers in the country simply don’t notice.


Marlene Rossman said...

Paul, as a wine columnist (Chef magazine), former sommelier, wine instructor and collector, I have been pimping the virtues of WA State and Oregon wine for many years.

When I lived in NY (Manhattan, till 2002) it was almost as easy to get WA State and Oregon wine as it was to get Cali. NY's wine shops are still much more focused on Europe. Now that I live in California, it is almost impossible to get WA/OR wines in shops. I taught a class called: Taste What's Next: Wines of the Pacific Northwest and it sold out at 30 students with a wait list. People WANT to learn about WA/OR wines, but they are few and far between at retail. I had to order wine online and from wineries for the class.

You can continue shouting out the virtues of these wines, but until and unless they are found easily (read: distribution channels) they are off the radar for most folks--Dottie and John at the WSJ included.
Marlene Rossman, MBA, MA
President, Manhattan Wine Seminars, LLC
Consultant, Corporate Wine Studies
University of California, Irvine
direct line: (949) 679-4840
fax: (949) 679-4841

Southwest Beverage Group Inc. said...

The problem lies at the distribution level when it comes to bringing wines into California. Distributors are up to their ears in new wines from all over the world and when it comes to bringing in a new wine there has yo be some very compelling reasons to take on the winery.

wawinereport said...

I read the WSJ column and thought "Are these people out of their minds?" Chardonnay is not my grape but that said I am not looking for value Chard in the $40-$70 category in today's economy.

To quote the article, "$50 Chardonnay certainly isn't cheap, but if it's a tasty $100 Chardonnay in disguise, it's a good value, and value is what's important." I have to question the 'good value' of a $70 chard that is tasting like a $100 chard in today's market. I'm fine with saying it's a good or great wine, but a good value at that price point? It seems that the authors should conclude by lamenting "You just can't find a decent Chardonnay for under $100 these day but if are willing to spend more..." I think the value to price point search in this article is way off in today's economy.

The interesting question is, had the authors not decided to focus on Chardonnays in the $40-$70 price range, would they have discovered some '$100 Chardonnays' from Oregon and Washington (or other states) at lower price points? Were these wines simply 'priced out' by being less expensive? Or, God forbid, would the authors have found some $20 Chardonnays that tasted like $50 Chardonnays from these states?

I think, even at the $20 price point, the WSJ would find that this is more than many people are looking to spend for this varietal at present. The WSJ article seems tone deaf about the state of the economy and how this impacts the average wine buyer. I am fine with saying a Chardonnay is a great wine at $70 (or that the wines are across the board disappointing at this price point), but don't tell me it's a great value.

PaulG said...

Agreed, as I wrote also – the article was misleading at best, totally off base at worst. As for the limited availability of WA and OR wines, that excuse is wearing pretty thin. There are many opportunities to taste these wines, at trade tastings, Wine Commission road shows, etc. Simply combing the nearby shelves for whatever is up there hardly does justice to covering the subject. For such a widely read and influential column as the WSJ, I think a higher standard is called for, especially when sweeping statements ("stupid, insulting wines") are put forth that characterize an entire country!

Dennis Schaefer said...

The top chard in the WSJ tasting was the Pahlmeyer 2007 Napa Valley ($67), which is so tight it's nowhere near ready to drink. Hey, if you're going to go in that direction, why not pick up the "second label," Jayson 2007 Napa County($33) for half the price---and it's drinking well right now.

By the way, love what the OR pioneers have done in moving to Dijon clone chard: those are some tasty bottlings.

Dennis Schaefer
wine columnist, Santa Barbara News-Press

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