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Chardonnay, if you please 

America's favorite wine gets its due

- CELEBRATE CHARDONNAY! :  The barrels are rolling out in celebration of America’s favorite wine. -  - PHOTOS COURTESY SLO VINTNERS ASSOCIATION
  • CELEBRATE CHARDONNAY! : The barrels are rolling out in celebration of America’s favorite wine.

It appears that no red or white wine variety can beat out Chardonnay for its title as America’s favorite wine, and it has lasted as top dog for an incredible number of years. Nevertheless, you’ll appreciate this classic white wine even more after attending the Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria Valley. The educational event takes place at Byron Winery, where wine connoisseurs will get downright serious about the winegrape. This is the anti-ABC tasting, a term its antagonists use to deride the wine, meaning “anything but Chardonnay.” In Santa Maria Valley, this noble variety is celebrated, as these winemakers rank among those who produce the best. During this educational event, you’ll find it in every version and style, from many different growing regions in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Longtime readers of Cuisine know that I’m not among those of you who prefer the big boy Chardonnays loaded with French oak, spice, butter, and crème brulee aromas and flavors. I prefer the crisp, fruitier Chards labeled stainless steel, no oak, or tree free. But know this: I would never say that you are wrong for liking oaky Chardonnays; it’s all about knowing your preferences. Nor should anyone else be condescending. Once you’ve decided you prefer the crème brulee flavors or the crisp flavors of fruit and citrus, as I do the latter, you’re apt to follow my recommendations or realize my favorites differ from yours. Add that fact as one of the many pleasures of learning to appreciate fine wine.

At the Chardonnay Symposium you’ll learn all about this white wine: You’ll taste it to see how it differs when it’s grown in Napa, Sonoma, the Central Coast, or Oregon; you’ll taste Chards that vary stylistically according to the region or the winemaking regimen; and you’ll learn how to show it off by pairing it with foods that complement it. Whether you can afford the finest specimen or you’re seeking out the best value-priced Chardonnays, you’re sure to discover there’s something for every taste and budget at the symposium. The food will be excellent with this lineup of outstanding chefs: Budi Kazali of the Ballard Inn, Rick Manson of the Far Western Tavern, and many more.

Among the symposium’s educational events, you’ll meet Wine Enthusiast magazine’s senior West Coast wine editor and blogger, Steve Heimoff. A longtime friend, Heimoff and I first met when I was hired as tasting coordinator at Wine Spectator magazine in 1989. Heimoff was a freelancer at Wine Spectator until he moved to Wine Enthusiast, where he quickly became one of the country’s most highly respected wine critics. He was involved with the symposium last year, and Wine Enthusiast became a sponsor this year. On June 30, Heimoff will lead a panel of distinguished winemakers in a discussion titled “Chardonnay and terroir, what’s it all about?”

     While the experts discuss the specifics of what terroir means in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley appellation as opposed to San Luis Obispo’s Arroyo Grande Valley appellation, you’ll be tasting their very special wines to better understand through the sensory experience. The winemakers included this year are Bob Cabral of Williams Selyem, Jenne Lee Bonnacorsi of Bonnacorsi Wine Co., Dieter Cronje of Presqu’ile, James Hall of Patz & Hall, Eric Johnson of Talley Vineyards, Heidi von der Mehden of Arrowood Vineyards, Bill Wathen of Foxen Winery, and Graham Weerts of Stonestreet Winery.

      “The Chardonnay Symposium, like other locally grown events such as World of Pinot Noir, started pretty much with a local, in this case Santa Barbara, focus. But as it matures, it is becoming a world tasting, bringing together the Chardonnays of all the far-flung regions of our planet,” Heimoff explained. “I’ve been a supporter from the beginning, and am excited to once again moderate the panel. It will be exciting and star-studded.”

The Chardonnay Symposium takes place June 29 through July 1; get details about its many events at

We’ll have a barrel of fun!

“Let me ask you one question … do you feel lucky?” asked the question on Facebook, to which I added in a lousy imitation of Dirty Harry: “Well, do ya, punk?” Amazingly, some last minute tickets came up for one of the most popular wine tastings to take place in downtown SLO: Barrels in the Plaza, set for June 21 to 24. Act fast, and you can score some VIP early entry tickets, which get you in ahead of the crowd at 4:30 p.m., only $50 each. Otherwise, you’re gonna have to put your name on the wait list for the $30 tickets, and even if you manage to get one, you won’t get in until 5:30 p.m.

We locals have enjoyed 22 years of fun at this wine and food festival, and it still gets better every year. Although there are only a few Thursday night tickets, most events are sold out by now, it’s still easier to get into the open house events on Saturday and Sunday, when you’ll be privy to special wine tastings, delicious treats to pair with the wines, and entertainment. While the best parties take place on Saturday, you’ll find your passport still gets you great deals, such as free wine tastings and discounts on your wine purchases on Sunday.

Go to for the details and ticket purchases. Passports cost $55 each, and only $30 for designated drivers who get food, non-adult beverages, and entertainment. Get a better deal by buying a four-pack of passports for only $210. Do keep your event bracelet on overnight to access events on Sunday; last year, we cut ours off Saturday night and got a lot of grief while trying to get into some wineries on Sunday even though we had our event wineglasses. No matter, I still wouldn’t miss this outstanding wine festival—I’ll see you there!

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at


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