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Where’s the (American) Chardonnay?

Where’s the (American) Chardonnay?

Can we talk about this please? Where are the modern luxury American Chardonnays?  They seem to have disappeared from the offerings of many wine bars and restaurants.

Yes, they exist.   Luxury American Chardonnay is not an oxymoron.  

Recently there has been a lot written about the Judgement of Paris, in 1976.  Everyone knows the story:  Both American white and red wines proved the equal of their fine French competitors.   

Instead of flipping past American wine offerings on a restaurant wine list, the outcome gave all of us “permission” to drink American wine.  We could scrutinize the “domestic" part of the wine list without the disapproving looks of the wait-person or the visible frowns of our friends that were assuming that we were either not-so-smart about wine or just, well, cheap!

Now, please step into my time machine.  It is now 2022.  Forty-six years later.

The good news is that we don’t have to make the choice between French or American. The bad news:  Wine bars and restaurants appear to have dropped most high end American Chardonnays. 

Do most somms belong to the not-so-secret club:  “Anything but Chardonnay?”

Has the smart people decided that American Chardonnay is a generic wine, like what Bud is to beer?  Whoever heard of a luxury “Bud”?  

Everyone knows how many folks order a generic chardonnay:  “I’ll have a white wine please.”

If a wine bar or restaurant has their wine list just underneath their food menu on a single page, you might have the choice of one Chardonnay, probably American and available at most grocery stores.  And it will be something from the middle shelf, made by one of the mega industrial wineries.

If they have a multi-page wine list with luxury Chardonnay wines, then you’ll probably be looking at a selection of French wines.  With an occasional stray wine from Italy or some other country like South Africa or Australia.   

(Really, Chardonnay from Italy?)  

Want an interesting American Chardonnay?  Several wine magazines and newsletters regularly feature Chardonnays.  However, the American luxury offerings can be hard to find.

How about a good American Chardonnay?  Not luxury, just good. You can get good at the grocery store.  Check out the top shelf.  There they replay the 70s and 80s favorites, probably a butter bomb or one that spent too much time in oak.  It’s like the Harley Davidson selection of wines, targeted to those of us 55+ and still remembering (fondly) free wine tastings in the Napa Valley.  Not likely you’ll find anything interesting or a modern style.

In many ways, the flavors of those supermarket wines have been “clipped” . . . the winemakers have used molaolactic fermentation to soften the wines, oak that overwhelms the fruit, and added water or acids to balance the wine.  Somebody, a faceless and nameless wine stylist, decided appeal of their products would be higher if they created average products.  

And if you’re looking for anything reflecting terroir, forget it.

So how about a luxury modern American Chardonnay?  Where do you find it?  That’s a tough one.   Maybe a tasting room of a winery.  Or maybe you joined a club that features high-end Chardonnays.  

Better independent wine stores will probably attempt to offer a selection beyond the typical “standards”.  But those stores can be hard to find.  And their distributors may attempt to push them to stock tried and true import names. 

And quite frankly, interesting wines are hard to source.   Take a look at a wine magazine — the better ones disclose production levels for the wines they highlight.   You’ll frequently see low numbers, in the hundreds.

The makers of modern American Chardonnays are like us.  They specialize in small productions.   Where the fruit is hand-selected and the wine style adjusted to match the quality of the fruit. And artisanal methods are followed.   Wine is developed into its full potential:  highlights are highlighted and negatives are smoothed.   

Your best bet might be to scan the internet for lesser known brands and labels, including the makers themselves.  It is critical that you do the research:

  1. Is the maker independent?
  2. Is the source of the grapes disclosed as a specific vineyard or vineyard block?
  3. Does the winemaker give specifics about his processes and the characteristics of the final product?
  4. Are the grapes from sustainably certified farming processes?
  5. Is the winery facility that made the wine certified sustainable?

Unlike large corporate winemakers, independent winemakers are a chatty bunch and love to talk about their products and methods.  Search the internet to see what the winemaker has disclosed.

And, of course, listen to your friends — Chardonnay drinkers like to talk about their finds.

You’ll be glad you did.  The work you do will take you from drinkable wines to ones that are truly delicious. 


Paul Morrison is very biased in his opinions.  He is the managing director of JL Wood, a Napa based maker of luxury Chardonnay wines, and prefers his own wines.