I have a fairly major mea culpa to confess, here…
I’ve made no secret, in these pages, that I got sick of Chardonnay about fifteen years ago and stopped drinking it. Not altogether, mind you; I don’t think a wine fan can avoid Chardonnay and I certainly can’t because I’m sent dozens of samples and taste maybe 150 at trade shows and wineries in the course of an average year. But I don’t go out and buy the stuff. Which is NOT a statement on this brilliant varietal as much as on my distinct lack of wisdom in drinking a large-ish lake of it, back when I was acting and living in North Carolina.
Now, I’m very proud of being a Carolinian and the Old North State has become a fairly dynamic wine region – there are over 200 wineries in the state, here in 2019 – but, back then, it was to American wine what Siberia is to Moscow: way Out There. Back in the 70s through early 90s, a NC wine lover who didn’t turn up his/her nose at white wines was going to be drinking Chardonnay, only Chardonnay, Chardonnay all the time, 24/7, 365, period, Amen, and ALL of it from California, because that’s what was available. That was ALL that was available, so…as a wine lover who often prefers whites, I drank it…and drank it and drank it.
And got mortally sick of it.
Then, having blessedly moved to Washington, where they actually make more wine that any other state that’s not Donald Trump’s nemesis, and going into the wine trade full time, I started tasting Chards from everywhere…and eventually came to understand that I prefer unoaked Chardonnays – which have NOT been made much at all in Cali – and that I liked the leaner, less syrupy steel-aged/fermented, lightly oaked style of Italy and Washington and Oregon better than the buttery, vanilla cream, oaky-smoky, 30-weight bombs from Napa.
There’s the mea culpa: I slammed the door on California Chard, which is something I usually will not allow myself to do with ANY grape, ANY style of wine, from ANYwhere. It’s my biggest personal taboo, in fact, as someone who gives a damn about his own credibility with himself and, quite possibly, with the general public. I ignored a whole region, at least for this one grape, and I hereby apologize.
That said, quickly to The Point: Last week, I received a box of two wines from The Hess Collection, a very successful, tradition-rich, diverse group of wineries – in fact, an actual “collection” – that includes Bodega Amalaya and Bodegas Colomé in Argentina, and McPhail Winery in Sonoma. The corporation is the creation of Swiss businessman, Donald Hess, who came to California in the 1970s and fell flat-damn in love with the (back then) little used Mt. Veeder area of Napa Valley. It’s strange to remember this but, back then, the prevailing wisdom was that you wanted all that stagnant, trapped heat on the floor of the Napa Valley to ripen grapes faster and farther and get that elevated sugar content and lower acidity and higher alcohol and wines that you could practically slice with a cleaver. Indeed, those are the very wines that made Napa the Western Hemisphere’s Cabernet nexus and helped run land and wine prices in Napa straight through the fuggen roof. Those hillsides surrounding Napa Valley were forest and places where rich folks built huge houses and little else, back then. Today, Bill Gates would think twice before buying a hillside vineyard property in Napa.
Donald Hess was convinced that, as in Europe, those hillsides could produce more complete, less bombastic, better balanced, and more complex wines, albeit not on as hedonistic a scale as the flatlanders’ juice. And it worked…and has continued to work beautifully for the past 40+ years. And Hess realized his ambition to make Mt. Veeder happen and has since branched out to other regions, as his wine curiosity broadened and deepened.
Now for the part of this that the folks who now run The Hess Collection, as it has come to be called, may not appreciate at all. In 2017, Donald Hess formally retired and handed the keys to the Hess locomotive to his daughter, Sabrina Hess Persson, and son-in-law Tim. They now preside, with the same benevolent attitude of stewardship over their land and products as Donald held, but facing a changed wine world. When Hess started, California had a maybe 100 wineries in it, and a far smaller number which were not larger, industrial wine producers like Carlo Rossi and Mondavi and Beringer and Gallo. Today, California contains 3,000+ companies that make wine, almost 50% of all the total wineries in the US. Hess, as with many, many OG Cali wineries, is no longer seated at the current Cool Kids’ Table. They are long, long past the Flavor of The Month. They exist in a continuum of producers like Steele and Caymus and St. Francis and Ferrari-Carano and Parducci and Whitehall Lane and Domaine Carneros and Byron and Staglin and Newton and Carol Shelton and Girard and Silverado – all still dynamic and accomplished wineries but not the current Buzz.
That very thing is why I’m going to these lengths to say all of this: because, to put it simply, if you are the sort of person who routinely writes off wineries because they’re not trendy and not the ones your friends lust after or because you think you’ve tried those wines, ten or fifteen years ago, and know the whole story…you may not actually BE an idiot but you are doing an idiotic thing. Believe this or not, companies that manage to stay in business and prosper for decades GET BETTER. I tasted and sold Hess wines, starting in the mid-1990s and ever since, and while they were always good and even occasionally spectacular, these are a number of steps beyond any of that.
The Hess Collection Estate Grown Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017, is very much in the lineage of those late 20th century fruit grenades but anointed with a brilliant dose of judgment that says, “We have some gorgeous fruit, here. Let’s not screw it up in the winery.”
Hess head winemaker, Dave Guffy, crafts the wines from this classic, fog-cooled Chardonnay site, the Su’skol Vineyard, located just north of the tidal estuary which forms the far northern end of San Francisco Bay. The moist air off the water and the evening and morning fogs rolling into that flat valley leading to Su’skol, cool and bathe the grapes, making the fruit ripen more slowly and gradually and maintaining the crisp but measured acidity that is the biggest single factor in avoiding that old California Fruit Bomb cliche and the accompanying fat, flabby, vanilla-cream, oaky/buttery viscosity that made so many wine weenies – like me, sadly – reject and dismiss California Chardonnay.
I was adamantly NOT wrong in doing that and neither was anyone else. California’s winemakers saw that oak-bomb, buttery/smoky Chards sold better, so they pointed their ship in that direction…and sailed right off the edge of the planet.
We’re Americans, for better or for worse, and the “worse” part is that we do NOT buy that old Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe axiom, “Less Is More“. We Yanks have always been convinced that MORE is More: “If this stuff is good with this much of That in it, think how much better it would be if it had a LOT more of That!” That’s our culture, in a nutshell.
In this – and I thought long and hard before using the following term – brilliant bottle of white wine, Guffey and his crew have managed to marry both the undeniable virtues of the Old School CA Chard – the pure and assertive fruit, the silken textures, and the cascade of pretty grace notes – with a lightness and complexity and bracing, food-friendly acidity that adds up to just about the ideal Chardonnay. It shows a stunning palate of honeydew melon, lemon zest, Calimyrna figs, caramel, alfalfa honey, mango, pomelo, a hint of coconut, alluvial calcium deposits, faint saline, and a fresh blast of that indescribable flavor you can only get from taking a honeysuckle blossom and sloooowly pulling out the calyx at the bottom to extract the long stamen, which drags out a single, impossibly sweet drop of nectar. I did this as a child and this wine took me back to that little pleasure with startling force.
(If you’ve never done this honeysuckle thing, I urge you to do it at least once, ASAP. It is – or should be – on everybody’s Bucket List, as it is undeniably one of life’s most sweet and innocent and delicious moments.)
My wife and I opened this bottle with no more expectations than we ever have in tasting a Chardonnay sample; maybe even less, if you take my anti-CA bias into consideration. From the first sip, we were both wide-eyed with surprise and plain, ol’ hedonistic pleasure. We finished the whole bottle, something which very rarely happens at my house. I kept thinking, in fact, “gotta stop drinking this or I won’t have anything to check on for what it’s like on the second day“. I have to admit that I have no fuggen idea what this wine is like after a night in your fridge and I suspect that you may not be able to find that out, either. And if there are more than two of you drinking it, it’s going to be gone in about fifteen minutes.
I don’t want to leave the impression that this Hess Estate Chard is the only California Chard being made with an eye toward this kind of balance and – dare I say it – elegance and refined judgment. It’s not. Those looking for some of these same attributes may want to check out the Edna Valley region near San Luis Obispo, where steep hillsides produce some of the same attributes as in this wine. But not all of these and not at all the richness and satiny texture and perfect lightness or that dead-on acidity. Names like Baileyana and Talley and Edna Valley Vineyards and Alban and Sextant make up that vastly underappreciated region. But in Napa, where the old model is still quite alive and persistent, you just have to try wines until you fall in love…but here’s the crux of the matter: This is, for my money, a near-perfect bottle of Chardonnay, everything in proportion and profoundly delicious. I have tasted a few, a very few, bottles of Chard that might stand up to a comparison to this stuff, and they were priced, generally, from a very reasonable $45 dollars or so to a ridiculous $185.
This wine is $22, according to the Hess website, and the Total Wine near me lists it at $16.99, when it’s in stock, which it’s not…yet. This 2017 will be available within a few weeks and will instantly become one of the top five best values on anybody’s store shelves.
My wife gave me a mission, two nights ago: find this wine and get a case. Now, there is a case that BEGS making: a 100% Chardonnay wine from a great Napa Valley estate, that delivers a classic varietal profile, terroir notes, magnificent fruit, and mad drinkability for under $25. If you’re the vanilla cream, butter and cream, oaky-smoky type, keep movin’, nothin’ to see here. God Bless you and stick with what ya like. But if your tastes in Chard have evolved away from that “Wine As Anesthetic” ideal, this may just be the wine you’ve been looking for. 97 Points