The Chardonnay Symposium: Wine, Santa Maria BBQ + Chardonnay Clones (Yes, Clones)

Chardonnay Symposium's Grand Tasting Byron Vineyard
Chardonnay Symposium's Grand Tasting Byron Vineyard
Bob Dickey

America's favorite wine is getting the star treatment. This weekend, July 22-23, the second Chardonnay Symposium in the scenic Santa Maria Valley puts the spotlight on all aspects of the wine varietal: where it comes from (clones!), what it goes well with (Santa Maria barbecue, of course) and who makes it (50 wineries are pouring at Saturday's Grand tasting).

While other grapes have had their own events for years -- such as Pinot Noir's Pinot Days and the World of Pinot Noir -- Chardonnay hasn't been showcased exclusively. Two days of events and tastings aim to give Chardonnay the respect it deserves. And it all begins with a clonal tour in the vineyard that explains how natural mutations impact a grape's quality and consequently a wine's flavor. Clonal, as in clones, as in the variations within the grape varietal.

Taste-and-tell panel at 2010 Chardonnay Symposium
Taste-and-tell panel at 2010 Chardonnay Symposium
Bob Dickey

As bookish as it sounds, Friday afternoon's clonal tour at the Sierra Madre Vineyard is not just for wine geeks. Winemaker Steve Rasmussen and owner Doug Circle will lead visitors on a tour of the 40-year old vineyard and explain the distinctions between its eight Chardonnay clones that are matched to specific areas, called blocks. OK, that does sound academic but Friday's kickoff tour is followed by a panel discussion featuring barrel samples and wine tastes and then a barbecue.

Saturday morning begins with two panel discussions that investigate winemakers' varied philosophies. At the Bien Nacido Vineyard, open to the public on this rare occasion, writer/blogger Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast leads a taste-and-tell session discussing oaked vs. unoaked Chardonnay--the decision by winemakers to age wine in oak barrels. There are lots of nuances that impact a wine's flavor profile--new, aged, French or American oak barrels for instance--and styles to review. Among the six winemakers opining will be Greg Brewer (he crafts an unoaked Chardonnay via Diatom Wines) and rising star Dieter Cronje of Presqu'ile Winery; all will be pouring select wines to aid the dialogue.

To some, Chardonnay has a reputation of being generic without much distinct character or flavor. "Chardonnay grew so fast and as more grapes were needed to supply the demand, it was planted in regions that don't produce very flavorful grapes," explains winemaker Denise Shurtleff, of Cambria Estate Winery and Vineyard. Once Chardonnay is planted in the proper cool climate, the resulting wines can be very expressive with much depth. Shurtleff will be discussing Chardonnay's future and winemaking techniques, along with five other winemakers, at Saturday's second panel, aptly themed, "Taking back Chardonnay."

Full day attendees have the option of lunch (with wine) at the Au Bon Climat/Qupe winery that typically opens only for vintner's celebrations. The event culminates in a grand tasting at Byron Winery, where producers from Sonoma, Washington and Oregon will join local producers such as Dierberg Estate Vineyard, Rusack Vineyards, The Ojai Vineyard and dozens more. Chris Slaughter, exec director of the SMV Wine Country Association, gives props to the backdrop: exclusive locations and charming wine country settings for these info-rich sessions. She adds, "People will come away with a greater understanding and appreciation for Chardonnay."

Tickets to the Chardonnay Symposium are available online.

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