I've been on a California Chardonnay tear recently. Maybe you read my last missive about the subject, permeated with a hearty dose of enthusiasm for Chardonnay that spends plenty of time getting cozy inside an oak barrel? My feelings about oak and Chardonnay were only strengthened by a recent press trip to Napa and Sonoma, put together by Jarvis Communications. Our first stop was at Frank Family Vineyards in Napa. I knew I was going to like the place when we were introduced to Winemaker Todd Graff. Just a regular guy in a puffy vest and jeans. Who happened to have some strong opinions about Chardonnay and oak.
You see, Todd gets asked all the time if he makes a Chardonnay without oak. His response? "We do unoaked Chardonnay; it just happens to have bubbles in it." (He's alluding to their sparkling wine, a Blanc de Blancs.) As far as still wine made with California's most famous white wine grape, Todd did not mince words: "Chardonnay needs oak." Like a chiseled football player, it's a grape that has "good enough shoulders" to handle that oak.
The whole time we were touring, talking, and tasting at Frank Family Vineyards with Todd, we were accompanied by Owner Rich Frank. If you've watched TV or movies at any point in your life, you probably should pass along some thanks to Rich. Among his many positions in Hollywood, he was President of Paramount Television Group and then went on to be President of Disney Studios. To single out a small amount of what was accomplished under his tenure, let me just highlight two examples: "Family Ties" and "Golden Girls." Alex P. Keaton and Blanche Devereaux?!?
And, belying his accomplishments and stature, Rich, like Todd, has a equally laid-back appearance. I never thought I would meet a Napa Valley winery owner and think, "Damn, I wish I had a pair of Pumas like his." Rich's candid, engaging personality was also on display. On his efforts to wind down from the world of (and a career in) film and television: "I've been a miserable failure at retiring." And, when it comes to feedback on the wines of Frank Family Vineyards, Rich teased, "If you like the wine tell me, if you don't like the wine tell him [Todd]."
While I'm beating the drum for oak to be ever-present in California Chardonnay, I still have love for unoaked Chardonnay. Especially when it's from Chablis. But my personal Chardonnay pendulum is swinging back towards examples that proudly (and skillfully) embrace the barrel.
You can enjoy more Wine Without Worry on my blog at jamesonfink.com.