A celebration of America's most popular wine, the Chardonnay Symposium, which is held Friday, July 19 through Sunday, July 21 in Santa Maria, makes it so that attendees -- about 500 are expected -- can not only drink what feels like a barrel of Chardonnay but also actually learn something new about the popular varietal.
The weekend event begins with a tribute dinner to Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen, one of the most astute Chardonnay winemakers and vintners out there, at the historic 1857-built Bien Nacido adobe in the midst of the Bien Nacido Vineyards. Reason enough to go. Turn the page for five more reasons to check out one of Southern California's most exceptional wine events.
5. Expanded wine knowledge:
"Bring in the Clones!" No it's not a summer sci-fi blockbuster. The Chardonnay Symposium's Saturday morning panel should be lively, amusing and perhaps a bit contentious, as winemakers politely discuss the use of clonal selections when growing Chardonnay grapes and break down the complex issue, guided by moderator and wine writer Steve Heimoff. No winemaker is without a philosophy, culled from both experience and personal preference. Wine geeks can't get enough of these discussions; others will appreciate the multiple wine pours that accompany the information-filled session. Participants include Karl D. Wente -- fifth-generation winemaker from the U.S.'s oldest continuously owned and operated family winery Wente Vineyards in Livermore Valley -- Fintan du Fresne, winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards in the Edna Valley, and Clarissa Nagy of Riverbench Vineyard & Winery (the winery's new tasting room recently opened in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone).
4. Wine country scenery:
Saturday's outdoor grand tasting at Byron Winery is in the heart of Santa Maria's picture-perfect, rural wine country. Set on the windswept Santa Maria Bench, Byron overlooks acres of rows of green vines that play off against the now brown hillsides. When the weather is fine, it's about as perfect place to hang out, drink wine, and take in the region's unique topography and climate where the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean (approximately 20 miles away), morning fog and warm days foster an ideal environment for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
3. Wine country cuisine:
The afternoon grand tasting is a walk-around picnic of small plates from local restaurants. Selections pair amiably with Chardonnay: last year's highlights were the chardonnay braised rabbit flatbread from Los Alamos' Full of Life Flatbread and a refreshing chardonnay sorbet from Doc Burnstein's Ice Cream Lab. This year look for red-oak fired BBQ from the Far Western Tavern, now in a new location in Old Orcutt. Post tasting, the Far Western Tavern is a welcome stop in for wood-fired steaks and pinquitos--those pink beans that are the trademark accompaniment to Santa Maria barbecue. Two other foodist pit stops are worth the detour to nearby Los Alamos: Full of Life Flatbread (expect a wait) and Bell St. Farm--fresh and flavorful, house-made everything.
2. Winemakers by the case:
Because the symposium's assorted events are relatively small, there are many opportunities to converse and connect casually with the region's cadre of mostly genial winemakers. The Friday night tribute to Jim Clendenen, will involve other local luminaries such as Bob Lindquist of Qupe and sommelier Rajat Parr (RN74), who is also a partner in Sandhi Wines. With so many winemakers in attendance (and they tend to bring vintage magnums of library wines to taste), there's a good chance for fun surprises. "It's our opportunity to show off our great food and wine culture," says organizer Chris Slaughter, executive director of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association, of the event.
1. The wine:
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The Chardonnay grape is a rich canvas that winemakers manipulate, although, more so than other varietals, Chardonnay truly reflects terroir. There will be 50 producers at the symposium showcasing the grape's inherent versatility, whether aged in stainless steel or new French oak or using native yeast or commercial strands for fermentation or any of the other variables inherent in winemaking. Because producers will be presenting wines from across the state, comparisons can be made, and Chardonnay's varying texture and complexity will be a sip away.
Tickets can be purchased online. Several other Chardonnay Symposium inspired events are also scheduled at area wineries.
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