Well, I gave it a shot. I decided to get outside my comfort zone and try, with heart full of hope and mind emptied of assumptions to taste, understand, appreciate and maybe even enjoy California chardonnay.

I’ve spent most of my wine-drinking life critical of what that category implies: bombast, adulteration, disguise, disgust. Most wine people (myself often included) use the phrase “California chardonnay” as shorthand for the ignoramus’ choice, and for the corporate wine maker’s immoral hoodwink. My intention here was to disrupt that group think.

When customers and readers (there have been many) have told me they’re looking for chardonnay, I ask (although I already know the answer) whether they’re looking for Californian or French. When they say they like large-profile, oak-aged, butter-and-brioche-style CC, I still act as if I don’t really believe them, and disrespectfully try steering them to viable alternatives: perhaps a Rhone Marsanne/Roussanne blend, a muscat-tinged Argentine Torrontes anything, I silently suggest, but the dreaded CC.

But that’s just me, you’re just you, and taste is taste. I tend to like wines that prize urgency, tension and electricity – the elements of jazz, funk and postpunk, if you’re a music lover. CC strikes me as more akin to classical or soul music, or late-’70s rock: a spherical, resounding, holistic set of qualities that is soaring when the stars align, but just Muzak-y when they don’t. (Cue the Steely Dan.)

Regardless, we’ve come to know chardonnay as a rich, vanilla-scented, tropical and full-bodied beverage, but when left to its own devices (and spared the effects of oak barrels, or, more commonly, the cheaper oak chips), the grape usually produces a very lean, neutral and even angry sort of wine.

This is not true in burgundy, especially chablis, which many wine professionals consider the only truly suitable terroir for the varietal. But chardonnay’s relative neutrality renders it a likely subject for all sorts of cellar-centered labors. Some Californian wine makers discovered some winning techniques, honed a saleable product, and the rest is history.

So after years of denying California’s collective ability to make a chardonnay I’d want to drink, I spent the past grueling week tasting a wide selection from various regions. I emerged not so much transformed (though I’m pretty drunk; the alcohol levels are daunting here) as respectful.

We disagree, still, CC and I. We’re never going to be fast friends, but I now recognize CC’s merits – every once in a while, I like Steely Dan. If we were children, we’d be engaging in “parallel play.” The next time someone tells me they like CC and want something like it, my inner scowl won’t activate. We’ll have common ground and something to talk about.

Unfortunately, this category, more than most others, is one where you get what you pay for. Napa Valley really does have better land for growing this grape, and the real estate there is pricey. Cheaper CCs are often vinified with oak chips and other borderline-artificial stimulants, and they taste like it. Hey, OK, sometimes I’m in the mood for a Snickers bar. But I’m more often in the mood for a good hunk of dark chocolate instead, and when that time comes, I head for burgundy (for similar prices).

Chime Chardonnay 2009, Napa, $16 (Mariner): A lean core rescues this from the BigButter stockpile. If you like pears with a tangy punch from their skin, you’ll love this. The classic vanilla and hazelnut elements are here, as is a big-hearted, grounded and soothing sort of warmth.

Au Bon Climat 2009, Santa Barbara, $23 (Central): Definitely the most burgundian CC I tasted. Whether you consider that a plus, I don’t know. But here are the subtly earthy nose, the soft hazelnut note, the limestone sparkle, the mineral lilt and the absence of vanilla. It prizes being interesting above impact, balance above boom. It doesn’t fully “come together” in the way that a good burgundy does, but it’s food flexible (crab salad, veal, cold chicken, grilled cornbread), relatively low-alcohol at 13.5 percent, and satisfying (which is different from being awesome or enormous).

Truchard Chardonnay 2009, Napa, $26 (Mariner): This is what got me to say, “Now I get it.” This is beautiful wine, not despite being from California (the esteemed Carneros, no less), but because of it. Rich, sun-kissed and exciting. That was what I’d been missing: the excitement, the sense that a whole can be more than its parts. I found it here. Pears mingle with star anise, almonds dance with a gifted Indian cook’s precise hand with myriad spices. Tremendous.

Samantha Star Chardonnay 2008, $13 (SoPo): In this corner, the guilty pleasure. The pillow-soft, vine-bendingly ripe butter-fed tease your mother warned you against. The plush CC unafraid to strut. Caramelized and lusty, this is what you want when you want this sort of thing. And even the most arrogant, above-it-all pencil-necks among us want this once in a while.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]