Chardonnay has enjoyed a somewhat paradoxical existence in California’s wine world; while it’s the most popular varietal in the nation, we haven’t celebrated it as much as we have its red counterparts. And as much as sales records prove Americans sip chardonnay more than anything else, it remains an awfully mysterious grape, as it can morph from a crispy and green to a heavy and creamy.
As a result, on Saturday, July 31, the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association will host the first-ever Chardonnay Symposium, a daylong event to give “California’s Golden Girl” the ado it deserves. Given the grape’s celebrity, the association’s executive director, Kady Fleckenstein, calls the decision to hold the symposium a “no-brainer,” considering that—while California holds five big events every year for Santa Maria’s other hotshot grape, pinot noir—the event will be the state’s first time honoring chardonnay. Perhaps that’s why it has so thoroughly piqued the interest of winemakers, professionals, and admirers nationwide.
“I could not believe the outburst of support,” said Fleckenstein, “Because we’ve seen so many differences in the winemaking styles [of chardonnay] over the last decade, [vintners] are excited to share with consumers, and the other winemakers and growers are excited to learn about how others are doing it.”
Fleckenstein adds that they have impressed the public with how much the $100 full-day ticket offers. The event begins at 9 a.m., when guests are picked up at the Santa Maria Fairpark and taken to one of the two morning sessions of their choice—either at Bien Nacido’s adobe or Cambria Winery—where a panel of wine celebrities will discuss the intricacies of and answer questions about the beloved grape. “We are really blown away by the people we got for the panel discussions,” remarked Fleckenstein. “We have some of the big names in chardonnay … from Napa through the Santa Ynez Valley.”
After 90 minutes or so of educational fare, the day will grow increasingly delectable as guests are lead into the cellars of Byron Winery to enjoy sandwiches, pizza, and salad catered by Far Western Tavern, Testa’s Bistro, and Bello Forno. The luncheon will also bring guests face-to-face with the panels of wine experts, who will pour the very chardonnays they spent the morning musing about.
After the luncheon, full-day guests will unite with the 250 other attendees for the Grand Tasting in Tres Hermanas Winery’s garden, where 40 wineries from Washington to Ventura will show their stuff. Guests will have yet another opportunity to nosh, as the likes of Chef Rick’s and Jessica Foster dish up superb pairings (the latter will be serving a chocolate and chardonnary pairing that Fleckenstein is especially excited about). Most importantly, the afternoon will allow everyone to take their chardonnay habits to the next level as they intricately analyze the vivacious varietal, while learning more about what they like and how to fine-tune their sipping skills.
“We are very excited to be hosting the Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria,” enthused Nicholas Miller, vice president of the association and director of marketing at Bien Nacido Vineyards, who’s proud to have the grape that “doesn’t really have a place to call home” represent the Santa Maria Valley. Likewise, he added, “I think attendees will be very excited to sample how it manifests itself throughout [the West Coast].”
Winemakers Rick Longoria (Longoria), Gary Burk (Costa de Oro), and Neil Bernardi (Migration) were quick to testify that chardonnay deserves its own day.
While Longoria considers Santa Barbara County chardonnay “world class,” Bernardi commented on the grape’s ability to express both its vineyard and its winemaker’s technique. On the other hand, Burk focused on the end product, admiring the varietal’s unique tropical character.
As the first Chardonnay Symposium promises success, the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association has high hopes for the event’s potential expansion. “We’re looking into possibly doing regional tastings next year,” said Fleckenstein, so attendees will be able to compare chardonnays across AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), or even among different states if they can achieve their goal of garnering more wineries nationwide. She also suggests we may see the symposium become a two-day-long event that will “include people from all over the world.”
For now, though, the grape and it’s unflagging following will undoubtedly enjoy a day in the name of chardonnay.
For tickets and more information on the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association’s Chardonnay Symposium, see thechardonnaysymposium.com or call (866) 480-5194.