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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 1)

At the same time, vineyard techniques such as pruning, vine spacing and late or early harvesting also affect the intensity and alcohol level of the grapes. That means that the vineyard workers are actually helping craft the wine, too. So I'm surprised to learn that Peter Michael's other three Chardonnays, which are even more exalted (and expensive) than Belle Côte and La Carrière, are not made from grapes grown on estate-owned land here or anywhere else, but from grapes that are purchased by the winery.

Cuvèe Indigene ($85) and Mon Plaisir ($60) are wines that come from individual lots of the Upper Barn of Alexander Mountain, a vineyard that used to be called the Gauer Ranch. Peter Michael's rarest and priciest Chardonnay, Point Rouge, is a blend of several tiny lots from the same vineyard. It costs $150 a bottle, only about 150 cases of it are made each year, and collectors covet each bottle.

And here's the kicker: the Alexander Mountain vineyard is owned by Jess Jackson, best known for his stewardship of Kendall-Jackson, which made 3.7 million cases of wine last year. Fruit from the same vineyard that is used to produce the ethereal Point Rouge is released under the Jackson-owned Stonestreet label as decidedly oaky, quintessentially American Chardonnay. It happens to be delicious, but Jackson would be the first to tell you it tastes nothing like Montrachet.

Burgundy lovers love to preach the omnipotence of terroir, but how would one explain two superb wines originating in the same place that are so markedly different?

I knew just the person to ask. Mark Aubert crafted Peter Michael Chardonnays for the better part of a decade, until 2000. He made the wines with Burgundy as his benchmark because that was the vision of Sir Peter Michael, the British businessman who founded the estate in 1987. In addition, Aubert had trained under Turley, who invokes Burgundy almost immediately in any discussion she has about wine. "The most exciting bottles of wine I've had in my life are Burgundies," she has said, and that's quite a wine-tasting life she's talking about.

Now Aubert -- who makes Colgin Cellars' Cabernet Sauvignon as his day job -- is off on a Chardonnay project of his own. Again his benchmark will be white Burgundy. "I admire white Burgundy because of the way it ages," he says over lunch in Calistoga, a town about seven miles south of Peter Michael. "I drank a '76 Montrachet from Domaine Leroy recently that brought me to my knees."

Although Burgundy is Aubert's benchmark, his wine-making vision is closer to home. He'll use techniques that don't attempt to overpower the grapes and call that Burgundian, but he's well aware that his grapes are Californian -- and so, inevitably, is the wine they produce.

"We talk about the Burgundian model, but it's really mostly technique," he says. "It rarely, if ever, shows in the flavor profile. There are great Sonoma Chardonnays out there that think they're Burgundian, and I have to say I don't get any Burgundy out of them at all. I love them because of what they are, not what they're trying to be, though the winemakers would hate me if they heard me say that. They're trying so hard to be Burgundian."

Sometimes, a great California Chardonnay can come in part from Burgundian methodology, and in part from something very different. In August 1993, about five years after contracting to make Chardonnay for Sir Peter Michael, the peripatetic Turley signed on as the consulting winemaker for Landmark Vineyards, which had been making and releasing wines far too haphazardly and was now under new management. Turley's unbending standards were a good fit for a drifting winery that was seeking a sense of purpose. Immediately, as is customary in a Turley project, the wines began to improve.

Like Peter Michael, which had been invented out of whole cloth, Landmark existed as something of a blank slate. There was no successful stylistic antecedent to continue on, no existing equity on which to build. There were previous vintages of the wines, but the less consumers confused the old and the new Landmark, the better.

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