The Chardonnay Paradox

Why America’s Favorite Grape Struggles to Find Its Way in Washington


chardonnay vineyardChardonnay is a grape of many contradictions. On the one hand, it creates some of the world’s most sought after and expensive wines; on the other, it creates some of the cheapest and most abominable plonk.

Some consumers revel in the grape. In fact Chardonnay dominates the U.S wine market at 20% of all wines sold (Cabernet Sauvignon is a distant second at 12%). Others revile the wine. When I recently asked a friend what advice he would give consumers about Chardonnay, he responded drolly, “Look elsewhere.” He is not alone in that assessment.

Why do so many consumers love Chardonnay while others love to hate it?

Our story begins in 1912 when Californian Ernest Wente brought Chardonnay vine cuttings back from France, the grape’s motherland. There it is known as the great white grape of Burgundy and the backbone of Champagne. Despite this early start in the state, it was not until 1976 that the grape’s fate in the United States—and truly the world—forever changed.

That year, in a proverbial cork pop heard around the world, a 1973 Chardonnay from California’s Chateau Montelena bested its heralded French counterparts in a blind tasting that became known as the ‘Judgment of Paris.’ The result electrified U.S. winemakers and consumers as much as it must have horrified the French. How could a wine from a brand new winery in the United States defeat hundreds of years of French history?

The answer eventually became the stuff of books and movies, but U.S wineries were quick to respond. Barely ten years after the Judgment of Paris, California had more Chardonnay planted than all of France. Before long, Chardonnay was the wine of choice in the U.S. It has remained so ever since.

Walla Walla winemaker John Abbott, who has been making Chardonnay for more than 20 years, reflected on the grape’s early heyday in the U.S., saying, “Chardonnay was the darling variety, and it didn’t really matter if it was sweet or dry, woody or non-woody. It didn’t even really matter if it was white or red! People were just buying it.”

The story of Chardonnay’s rise in America would be a fairy tale if it ended there. But it does not.

As interest in Californian Chardonnay continued to grow, something began to change. At the high end of the price spectrum—in a distinctly American proclivity—the style became ever bigger, richer, and more heavily oaked, often obliterating any sense of the grape or the place it came from. Meanwhile at the low end, as the grape’s popularity increased, production soared and quality plummeted.

This created an odd dichotomy. On the one hand consumers had expensive, bombastic wines, stripped of any sense of style or grace. On the other they had cheap, bland, artless wines. Soon unoaked Chardonnays sprung up in opposition, complicating matters even further.

While California Chardonnay went through these convolutions, here in Washington, the grape has had a different problem. Though Chardonnay is the second most produced grape in the state behind Riesling, it often seems overlooked and underappreciated, especially when compared to the state’s reds. Why has Washington Chardonnay struggled where California has succeeded?

Part of the issue is that, while California Chardonnay has had an identity crisis, Washington Chardonnay is still establishing its identity. Despite an abundance of vines more than two decades old and a nearly fifty-year history with the grape, consumers don’t yet know what to expect from a bottle or why they should care.

Washington doesn’t have an identity yet,” winemaker Brennon Leighton of Woodinville’s Efeste says. “And something like Chardonnay, which really hasn’t been explored, definitely doesn’t have an identity. You can’t compare it to Burgundy and you can’t compare it to California, so it just gets lost.”

Focus is no doubt an issue in Washington as well. While larger wineries, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and Hogue produce large volumes of Chardonnay to help slake the nation’s thirst, many winemakers at the state’s smaller wineries don’t seem particularly interested in America’s favorite grape—or in white wines in general.
“A lot of people who are new to the business of winemaking in the state kind of have this attitude that they don’t want to make white wines,” says Mike Januik of Woodinville’s Januik Winery. “So many people just want to produce a red wine and sell it for gobs and gobs of money.”

Meanwhile many consumers have shown a reluctance to buy expensive whites from Washington, preferring instead to open their wallets for reds. This creates a circular loop. Winemakers don’t get as much money for the wines, so they aren’t willing to pay as much for the grapes; farmers don’t get as much money for the grapes, so they aren’t willing to give the vines as much attention.

Quality inevitably suffers, and consumers aren’t willing to pay high prices for the resulting wines. As a result, there are many good, reasonably inexpensive Washington Chardonnays but few truly great ones at any price.

Though Chardonnay has struggled to establish a unique identity for itself in Washington, the grape may yet succeed here if given the proper focus. The few wineries that do produce top quality bottles in Washington show that it can be done.

“I really think we can grow amazing Chardonnay,” Abeja’s John Abbott says. “In the right areas, you get a wonderful kind of fruitiness but also the mineral and structure that are the classic pieces of Chardonnay.” Abbott believes elevating Washington Chardonnay needs to start in the vineyard.

“We just have to protect those older vine sites, we’ve got to get away from overhead irrigation, and we need to farm them the same way we are farming our higher-end red varieties. And the vines will come around and make high quality wines.”

While this may sound rather sanguine given the cheap but somewhat cheerless current state of Washington Chardonnay, never underestimate the power of wine to capture people’s hearts and imagination. Forgeron Cellars’ winemaker Marie Eve Gilla, who trained in Burgundy, still recalls how that area’s white wines captivated her when she studied there.

“I still remember tasting some of those wines. I was obsessed,” Gilla says. “I have never had that kind of experience in Washington, but I know that there is the potential.”

As the Judgment of Paris proved, it doesn’t necessarily take much. One iconic bottle of Washington Chardonnay could inspire generations of winemakers and wine drinkers, and the fate of the grape could again be forever changed.

Sean P. Sullivan is editor of Washington Wine Report—an independent blog focused exclusively on the wines of Washington State. He has written for Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, Washington State Wine Touring Guide, and Wine & Jazz. Sullivan resides in Seattle, Washington.

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