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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 3)

Their wines sell at modest prices -- $24 to $32 -- because as much as 35,000 cases of the basic Chardonnay are made in some years. This isn't exalted collector's wine, but Bursick will argue that it is made just as well as any Burgundy imitator. "People for some reason like to compare their wines with Burgundy, and I don't understand why," he says. "A lot of California consumers would not like white Burgundies if they had them. They're tight, often acidic, sharply focused wines, and they don't have that generous nature of California wines."

Bursick was born and raised in Santa Rosa and went to school in Santa Barbara and Davis. He came of age making wine with his friends in the California sun, not drinking Batard-Montrachet on the Riviera. "I have a California palate," he says, "and I'm happy to be Californian. Burgundy happened to be there first, but if California had come first, they'd probably be trying to make California wines in Burgundy."

Perhaps so, but not everyone would be happy about it. "I taste Ferrari-Carano's Chardonnay, and I certainly think it's an accomplishment to make wine in such large quantities that has no evident flaws," says Peter Michael's Meyer. "But it just doesn't challenge me. That's why there's a value in the wines we make at Peter Michael. People go and seek them out because it challenges them." He sticks his nose in a glass and grins. "I mean, smell those aromas! Taste that complexity," he says.

Who's right? Sometimes the question runs like a fault line through a winery, even a family. "Personally, I don't like white Burgundies," says Joe Rochioli, a Sonoma county grapegrower whose son, Tom, produces California wines with Burgundian methodology. "I like something that's fruity, soft." "We're not in Burgundy," Tom Rochioli admits. "But bringing out the best in the grape, that's what I consider Burgundian. The challenge in making wine is to try and make sure that nobody can pick elements out of it. That's why you go to the second glass, for that complexity. And there's something about Burgundies that just keeps me interested."

"Yeah, but they can be rough, compared to our wines," Joe responds. "And when they are, 'Pssscht! Right down the sink!'" Rochioli is created for a different audience than Ferrari-Carano. The Colhouns at Landmark and the winemakers at Matanzas Creek are trying to make ample, easy-to-appreciate wines that appeal to the repeat customer. On the other hand, one particular Englishman with another piece of land in Sonoma County has stylistic expectations that run quite different. There's something magical about land that can produce them all.

But if Peter Michael's Belle Côte or Point Rouge ever came out tasting like an over-oaked California Chardonnay, no explanation would mollify Sir Peter. He's looking for Burgundy in the Sonoma hillsides, nothing less. Meyer, his eyes wide at the thought of such heresy, says, "Oh, he would have a fit."

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