Not too long ago, I offered to bring wine to a dinner party and asked my host if he had any requests. "ABC," he replied: "Anything But Chardonnay." Ouch.
I know it's been a decade or so, but to me, it seems like only yesterday that big, buttery, oaky American Chardonnay was the belle of every ball. Now, like a prom queen deserted by her fickle court, she's the butt of snide jokes and snarky put-downs.
Have you heard the one about the Mother Superior? She calls all the nuns together and says to them: "I must tell you all something. We have a case of gonorrhea in the convent." "Thank God," says an elderly nun at the back of the room, "I'm so tired of Chardonnay."
Well. It's true that the wine world has, regrettably, never been better stocked with dime-a-dozen, knock-off Chardonnays that sit around taking up shelf space and ruining the reputation of a perfectly good grape. You know what I'm talking about - those sweet, urinous yellow wines that just sit there in a glass like a proverbial dumb blond - no sparkle, no zest, no life. Think poor, doomed Marilyn Monroe in her last years, all those luscious curves turned to overripe flab.
But in the hands of an inspired winemaker, Chardonnay can be something vastly better. How about a wine like Grace Kelly, all classic blond beauty, with perfect bone structure and a little cool reserve? Or Owen Wilson, a lean California golden boy with a bit of acid lurking behind the smile? It's true, you'll have to look harder and spend more to find Chardonnays like these - but as the ad says, they're worth it.
Movie star metaphors are sort of inescapable when it comes to California Chardonnays. In fact, the story of its discovery as a young American wine, its triumph over Europe's established superstars and its subsequent transformation into an icon of American viticulture has all the makings of a Hollywood romance.
No surprise then, that the rise of American Chardonnay is the subject of not one, but two forthcoming Hollywood features. Both purport to tell the story of the famous - or infamous, depending on your nationality - "Judgment of Paris," when at a blind tasting in Paris in 1976, a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay beat out some of the most exalted French wines in the world - to the shock and dismay of the French judges, whose chortling over wines they had mistakenly assumed to be French proved particularly embarrassing. ("Ah, back to France!" a French judge is reported to have crowed, as he sipped a Napa vintage.)
Bottle Shock, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Sundance Festival, stars Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, the British wine shop owner who organized this wine smack-down. The Judgment of Paris, due out later this year, tells virtually the same story and is rumored to star Hugh Grant and/or Jude Law. Spurrier himself consulted on the second film and has filed complaints against the first, which I'm sure has nothing to do with the fact that he doesn't seem too thrilled at seeing himself played by Professor Snape.
Innocence and youth famously can't be recaptured, but with a little forethought, you can still taste what California Chardonnay must have been like back in the day, when it arrived as a gorgeous ingénue and stole the show. And you don't have to bankrupt yourself in the process, either.
I recently sampled several wines - not all, strictly speaking, from California - to get a sense of how different Chardonnay can be, depending on how it's made.
First, I wanted to wallow in happy memories of the lush, rich, buttery Chardonnays I fell in love with long ago. Rombauer Vineyards 2006 Carneros ($30) had me at the first sip - it's a beautiful, full-bodied, creamy wine with long notes of butterscotch and vanilla. Cybill Shepard in a glass.
Botega Catena Zapata's 2006 Catena Alta ($28), from Argentina's Mendoza region, also took me back. This is a wine made in the cool foothills of the Andes, and it' has a wonderful rich, honeyed feeling in the mouth, with a little zingy freshness underneath. Think of the creaminess of a ripe mango or perfect pear and then imagine the stony freshness of a mountain stream. Or just think of Angelina Jolie - sultry and steely and center stage.
If you like your Chardonnay brighter and lighter - which is often a good choice if you're looking for a wine that will pair well with food - then Laetitia's 2006 Estate ($19), from California's Arroyo Grande Valley, is a tart, lemony wine, with a nutty finish. Meg Ryan, anyone?
The best bargain of the bunch was Trevor Jones' 2006 Virgin Chardonnay ($17), a wine that combines something of the best of both styles. Trevor Jones is an award-winning Australian winemaker with a 20-year philosophy of creating Chardonnays from "free-run juice." His Virgin Chardonnay is intensely floral and perfumed up front, but there's some muscle under all the delicious nectar, and it has a finish that just doesn't stop.
Of all the others, this is the one that reminded me just how wonderful a good Chardonnay can be - warm as a summer sunset, juicy as a ripe peach. As I took the remains of the bottle up to bed with me, I thought happily that there's just one word for a wine like this: dreamboat.