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Why Is Chardonnay Still America’s Best-selling Wine?

It’s the Mayonnaise of Wines: The Blockbuster Beverage You Won’t Admit You Love

Photo: Zoran Mircetic/Getty Images
Photo: Zoran Mircetic/Getty Images

Winemakers live at the mercy of fickle consumers.

In 2004, it only took one hit movie — Sideways — to kick off a Pinot Noir craze that continues to this day, and to arm consumers who wanted to act like wine connoisseurs with one key, market-disrupting opinion: They didn’t want to drink “any fucking Merlot.”

But what about Chardonnay? Fashionable in the 1980s, Chardonnay has been the butt of jokes for two and a half decades. It has developed a reputation for having strong and unsubtle flavors of oak and butter; a reputation for pairing poorly with food; a reputation for being the sort of thing your mom drinks.

Scott Pactor, the former proprietor of the Appellation wine shop in Manhattan, tells me he’s used to hearing it from retail customers: “I want an ABC white: Anything But Chardonnay.” All the way back in 1995, the New York Times reported on the “Anything But Chardonnay” movement.

Yet, about 25 years after Chardonnay became “unfashionable,” Americans still drink more of it than any other kind of wine. IRI, the Chicago-based market research firm, says Chardonnay accounted for about one-fifth of table wine sold through retail channels in the U.S. during the 52 weeks that ended October 7, making it twice as popular as the next-biggest white wine grape (Pinot Grigio).

I am fascinated by products like this, where there is a divergence between stated consumer preference (you say you think mayonnaise is gross) and revealed consumer preference (you eat mayonnaise all the time). So, what explains the split on Chardonnay? Why can’t we admit we like something we drink so much of?

To figure this out, I conducted my favorite kind of investigative journalism — the kind that involves wine tasting.

“People think they shouldn’t like a buttery Chardonnay,” says Sarah Montague, the chief marketing officer for JaM Cellars in Napa, California. “People have been conditioned to say they don’t like Chardonnay, and they try our wine and they say they really like this.”

JaM makes a Chardonnay called Butter, and according to the Silicon Valley Bank’s 2018 State of the Wine Industry report, Butter is the fastest-growing Chardonnay on the U.S. market. Montague told me the brand launched with 1,000 cases of its 2010 vintage; the current vintage, 2016, consists of 850,000 cases — that is, 10 million bottles, priced around $15 a bottle at retail.

In their marketing copy for Butter — and, of course, in the name “Butter” itself — JaM leans into the oak-and-butter flavor profile that has given Chardonnay its reputation (among some consumers) for being unsubtle, distasteful, or gauche.

“Wow,” JaM’s website declares. “Butter Chardonnay is rich, bold and luscious. Made in the tradition of quality Californian winemaking, the grapes we select are juicy, ripe and bursting with flavor. We cold ferment this easy-to-love Chardonnay to a lush creaminess and age it in our unique blend of oak. Butter brims with stone fruit and baked-lemon notes and has a lovely, long, vanilla finish. Simply put, it melts in your mouth!”

“There are still a lot of people who prefer that big, buttery, oaky style of Chardonnay,” says Rob McMillan, who leads the wine banking practice at Silicon Valley Bank’s Napa office and compiles its industry reports.

And yet, on a trip to Napa earlier this month, I heard very different messaging from other makers of Chardonnay. Their pitch was less “oak and butter, yay!” and more “#notallchardonnay.”

I should probably mention that I took the trip with my husband, who unabashedly loves a big, buttery, oaky Chardonnay. I am what you might call a Chardonnay moderate — big oak and butter are not my favorite, but I don’t hate them either (or maybe that is just what I am telling myself in the spirit of marital compromise).

At three successive wineries — Artesa, Goosecross and Materra — my husband and I noted with rising amusement that tasting room staff went through the same process when offering a pour of Chardonnay.

First, they would ask apprehensively whether we liked Chardonnay. Then, following a qualified yes from me or an enthusiastic yes from my husband, they would give a version of the same spiel: Our Chardonnay isn’t like those Chardonnays. It’s not going to punch you in the face with oak and butter. It’s restrained. I don’t usually like Chardonnay, but I like this Chardonnay.

They were right. These Chardonnays were tasty. Balanced. Acidic. Not like somebody stuffed four pounds of butter and an oak tree into a barrel with some grapes. These really are Chardonnays even a professed Chardonnay-hater can enjoy.

There’s nothing inherent in the Chardonnay grape that makes Chardonnay wine taste oaky and buttery. It only tastes that way when winemakers choose to make it taste like that — and historically, that’s the choice they have made in California.

Age Chardonnay for a long time in new oak barrels and it will taste oaky. Put it through malolactic fermentation — a process where some of the malic acid in grape juice is converted into softer-tasting lactic acid — and it will taste buttery. Leave the grapes on the vine to ripen for a long time and it will tend to be high in alcohol, another trait that will make the wine taste “big” and compete with the flavors of the food you eat with it.

“Chardonnay as a varietal is a very blank slate,” says Jasmine Hirsch, who runs Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma County, California, where her family grows and produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. She notes that unlike wines made from a grape like Gruner Veltliner, whose distinctive aromas will always punch through, differently made Chardonnays can taste very different.

And this is why French Chardonnay — which does not tend to be made with the same oak-and-butter bias — has such a different taste reputation than California Chardonnay.

Lara Crystal, the co-founder of the liquor delivery app Minibar, says her app’s suggestion algorithm shows drinkers of Sauvignon Blanc — a lighter, “crisper,” higher acidity type of white wine — are likely to enjoy French Chardonnay. That includes Crystal herself.

“I thought for a long time I didn’t like Chardonnay but then I learned I didn’t like American Chardonnay,” she said. “I liked French Chardonnay.”

From a marketing standpoint, it helps that French Chardonnay typically doesn’t say “Chardonnay” in large type on the bottle. Instead, it’s identified by the region where it’s grown. Pactor, who now works for a wine importer, says a self-professed Chardonnay hater will often happily buy a bottle of white Burgundy without realizing he’s just bought Chardonnay.

Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

Still, as I was repeatedly told on that trip to Napa, not all low-oak, low-butter Chardonnay comes from France. Quite a few winemakers are making it in California. And they would like you to know about it.

To that end, in 2011, Hirsch and her fellow winemaker Raj Parr founded an industry association called In Pursuit of Balance, a trade group for California winemakers who sought to promote lower-alcohol, more subtle, more food-friendly, more French styles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

In California, Chardonnay has too often become “a blank slate for the ego of the winemaker,” says Hirsch — that is, because the grape is so flexible in its flavor, winemakers have gotten too eager to amp up flavors like oak and butter during the production process.

More broadly, she says California winemakers have too often made “super-ripe, high-alcohol, crazy-extracted, often over-oaked” wines as a path to high ratings from wine critics who favor bold styles, despite the shifting tastes of drinkers and sommeliers — with the latter group particularly focused on wines being subtle enough to pair with food instead of overpowering it.

This movement provoked the sort of bitter insults you might expect from a fight over politics — influential wine critic Robert Parker derided the group as an “anti-flavor wine elite” and said “no serious person pays any attention to Raj Parr and his zealots, as it is so obvious they are only trying to sell their own wines.”

The backlash to the backlash does make some sense — who wants to be told by implication their favorite kind of wine is unbalanced? Certainly not my husband.

In Pursuit of Balance folded up shop in 2016 — Hirsch says they felt they’d made their point — and given the talking points I heard in Napa earlier this month, the message of subtler Chardonnay appears to live on. And the continued strong sales numbers for Chardonnay over all are a positive sign that both styles — big and bold, subtle and restrained — can prosper side-by-side.

Photo: Tim Rue/Corbis via Getty Images

That is, if wine consumers know what they are buying at all.

“When we first launched we sorted alphabetically,” said Crystal, the Minibar founder, “and almost 50 percent of what consumers bought started with A, B, C or a number, because that’s how little consumers know about what they’re picking.”

Crystal also notes wines tend to sell better if they have an animal on the label.

This is a point in favor of Butter’s in-your-face marketing approach: With consumers often picking wines almost at random, if you want the public to get a message about your wine’s specific flavor, you probably ought to put it right there in the name.

I’m not sure exactly how that insight can be replicated on the pro-subtlety side of the Chardonnay debate — naming your wine “Subtle and Restrained” is not exactly a subtle and restrained approach. But maybe there is a way to fit the “we’re not like those other Chardonnays” pitch on the side of a wine bottle.

Why Is Chardonnay Still America’s Best-selling Wine?