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The Burgundian Model

When it comes to California Chardonnays, the vineyard can make all the difference
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

(continued from page 2)

As at Peter Michael, Turley looked to Burgundy, and single-vineyard wines made as an expression of the terroir. "Helen was a wonderful benchmark to set the tone for how we wanted to make the wine," says Mary Colhoun, who owns and runs Landmark with her husband, Mike. "She's very Burgundian in the approach that everything is single-vineyard and terroir, terroir, terroir. We liked that approach, except that we decided to blend."

Even a neophyte can see the contradiction. Admiring terroir-based wines but deciding to blend is like saying that you loved a certain recipe for beef Bourguignon except that you decided to replace the beef with monkfish. One can only hope that Turley was sitting down when the Colhouns told her of their plans to intermingle her site-specific cuvèes. "She participated in our selection of the blends and would give her opinion," Mary Colhoun says. But within three years, Turley was gone.

Today, Landmark purchases grapes from as many as 25 vineyards, then begins its blending process. Yet, its wines are malolactically fermented and aged in 100 percent French oak from top coopers, just as in Burgundy. No aspiring Burgundian could possibly condone such a process, yet superb wines are usually the result. "Whatever combination of sources it takes to make the wine the best it can be, that's fine," says Colhoun. "We're not wedded to any methodology."

Creamier than Peter Michael Chardonnays will ever be, the Landmark Overlook and Damaris Reserve releases are uniformly balanced, lush, ripe and giving. And that's exactly what the Colhouns were aiming for. "[We wanted] something that's silky-smooth on the palate," Mike Colhoun says. "A lot of white wines have a tendency to bite back, and we don't want that harshness."

I played a little game with Eric Stern, Landmark's winemaker, asking him how Burgundian he considered his wines on a scale of one to ten. One meant pure Californian and ten pure Burgundian, and instinctively he settled in at about a seven because he's a cultured, worldly man and admires the finest white Burgundies as the most noble expression he has encountered of the Chardonnay grape. But it soon became clear that he'd made a value judgment, equating typical California Chardonnay with "bad wine" and white Burgundy with "good wine." Most California winemakers who aspire to top quality will say the same; it's the vinous equivalent of racial profiling.

The fact is, as Stern quickly admitted, a cheap, random village wine from Burgundy is just as likely to be undrinkable as overoaked, mass-produced California Chardonnay from a hot valley floor. And California turns out plenty of small-batch, very expensive and very good wines that are about as Burgundian as the Beach Boys.

One of them is Journey, the limited-release cuvèes from Matanzas Creek. A blend of grapes from two vineyards, it costs $95 a bottle, and only 250 cases of it are produced in the years that the wine is made. As with the Peter Michael Chardonnays at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, nothing about Journey is left to chance. "Tasting through all the Journeys when I just got here, there is definitely a flavor profile in common that they were striving for," says Matanzas Creek winemaker Even Bakke, who left Landmark to replace Parker last year. "The two vineyards they were getting the fruit from have a very distinct flavor profile. But where Bill and [co-winemaker Susan Reed's] philosophy and mine differ is, I'm trying to minimize my impact on the wine."

And just as Sir Peter Michael decided to create a California winery to replicate the white Burgundies he loves, there are wineries constructed with the goal of producing the finest possible California Chardonnays, Burgundy be damned. Ferrari-Carano sits in a salmon-colored faux Italian villa that was dropped into its Dry Creek landscape in 1997. Don and Rhonda Carano are well-known hoteliers in Reno, Nevada. Outsiders may know the family name from Glenn Carano, Don's son, who played quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, or from Don's work as a gaming lawyer and Nevada state legislator. (The Ferrari part of the winery name has a family connection, but it mostly just sounds good.)

The flamboyant Caranos are as Nevada as Sir Peter Michael is English countryside. You wouldn't expect their wines to be demure or restrained, and they aren't. "We have a house style," says Ferrari-Carano winemaker George Bursick. "We approach wine making knowing what clones to plant, what yeast strains to use in order to encourage certain blocks of plants to create certain flavors -- all of that. This isn't the kind of thing where we throw up our hands and say, 'Gee, I hope it turns out like last time.'"

Ferrari-Carano's Chardonnays are known for flavors of exotic, tropical fruits such as mango and papaya. The initial 1985 release offered those flavors and the buttery-mouth feel of many of the better California Chardonnays, and it became a model for the vintages that followed. "The '85 was hugely successful," Bursick says. "It established us as apart from the pack, and what we've done over the last 15 years is build on that style to make it even better."

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