The ABCs of A.B.C.

Chardonnay is the biggest-selling white wine variety in America by far. It also is the only grape variety with its own highly vocal anti-fan club, whose oft-muttered mantra is "A.B.C."—short for "anything but chardonnay." It's not chardonnay per se that's under siege but American chardonnay—more specifically California chardonnay. My experience of better California chards has been limited, so last week's tasting at the Northwest Enological Society seemed an unmissable educational opportunity: a chance to hear California chardonnay legend Jed Steele talk about his recent releases, taste a number of older vintages from his private wine library, and broaden my experience. So there they sat before me, four 1999 single-vineyard chardonnays from all over California: Carneros, Medocino, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, plus a '99 blend including three further sites. And that wasn't all; Steele also brought a "vertical flight": five different vintages ('94 to '99) from a single site, Redwood Valley's Lolonis Vineyard. And? Well, Alexander Woollcott once described an actress "spanning the gamut of emotions from A to B"; to my palate, these wines ranged further: maybe B to C-flat. Steele's chards aren't badly made; they're just dull—thin, acidic, monotonic . . . what's the opposite of "mouth-filling"? California chardonnays, in short; and why people not only want to drink them but pay $30 a bottle and up for the privilege is a mystery to me. Chardonnay is so solidly established as a prince among grapes that not caring for it marks one as a hopeless vulgarian. And I probably would have just wrinkled my nose and kept my mouth shut but for one thing. Sitting before me among the 10—count 'em, 10—chards on my tasting pad was a sample of a 2001 aligot鬠made by Steele with grapes from Washington's Newhouse Vineyard. Steele had brought it along as an aperitif, something for members to sip before the main event. For my money, it had every chard on the table—in bouquet, mouth-feel, finish, and complexity—beat all to hell. Why does the guy who used to pump out 800,000 cases of chardonnay at Kendall-Jackson, one of the founding fathers of the California chard boom, bother to run up a few hundred cases of an obscure grape variety from an obscure vineyard 800 miles from his base? Is it possible that even Steele is tired of chardonnay? GET THIS The days of "nice little cheap Italian table wine" are long gone, but the Italians still do some things better than anyone in Chile, Australia, or Napa can do yet, at a price that won't bust the bank. Try the 1999 "Rafael" valpolicella from Tommasi (around $14): red-checked tablecloths, concertina music, and romance in a bottle. Romeo and Juliet came from the same neighborhood.

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