Even today, with the entire Santa Clara Valley, just south of California’s Bay Area, (an area you may know by its far more recognizable name: Silicon Valley) sprouting new wineries like dandelions, Gilroy – the main stop off Routes 101-29 between San Jose and Hollister – is a lot better known for garlic than wine. To be fair, even if the whole immediate area around the town was once again cheek-to-jowl grapes, it would probably still not offset the glories of its title of The Garlic Capital of America, nor change the slightly bizarre appeal of the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, the one place in all the US where finding garlic ice cream, garlic candy, and anything you can think of that will accommodate the flavors of garlic (along with many that can’t) is a slam dunk.
But the Santa Clara Valley has always had grapes in it; some even planted by the first French and Italian settlers who came there in the early 1800s. By 1850, Santa Clara County had more grape vines in the dirt than any other area in the Cali. By 1883 the county had close to 15,000 acres of vines and 100+ producers. Then, disaster, if mostly in a wine sense: phylloxera took a heavy toll and the overly eager expansion took away the area’s momentum. By 1902 over two thirds of the vineyards disappeared, mostly ripped out in favor of more quickly-saleable cash crops like fruit trees. By 1910 over half the wineries were gone.
But there are always those who march to that Different Drummer and one such was a young woman named Marilyn “Sarah” Otteman, who bought land in Gilroy in 1977 and set to work with one goal: make wines that would rival Napa’s best. In 1978, she opened Sarah’s Vineyard Winery and, by 1982, produced a Chardonnay that was such a splash that Ronald Reagan, himself, requested it be served at The White House for his 75th birthday bash, in 1986. It was in some pretty fast company at that gala, the white alongside the 1979 Jordan Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and 1979 Schramsberg Cremant Demi Sec. Sarah’s Chardonnay was later served at the 1993 Masters of Food & Wine, for many years the most prestigious food/wine event in the country. In short, Sarah’s Chardonnay was a bona fide American wine Big Effin’ Deal.Sarah’s Vineyard Winery is now owned by a former Silicon Valley techie and design engineer named Tim Slater, who bought it from the retiring Otteman in 2001. Slater, by his own admission, had no desire to diddle with the iconic Chardonnay and has changed its crafting mostly in terms of technical improvements.
Without going into the sort of detail about the several schools of thought on the making of Chardonnay – which would cause me to fall asleep while typing and emboss twelve to fifteen letters on my keyboard into my forehead – there are three major styles of Chard. There is the original, Burgundy, where Terroir Is All, complexity is jaw-dropping, minerals abound on your palate, fruit is restrained, and lavish oak is considered gauche. There is the California style of roughly the mid-70s to the new millennium that laid on the new French oak barrels with the extravagance that frequently covered up fruit and came out like buttered ‘n’ smoked cream soda. And, later on, there came my own ‘hood, the Pacific Northwest, where (mostly by happy accident and the lack of $$$ to afford those new French barrels, which were and are Not Cheap) the wines came out as a sort of uneven bastard child of the other two. (it’s evened out spectacularly, now!) Occasionally, one of our tiny wineries would save their pennies and hold bake sales and MAYBE be able to buy a new Taransaud, Sylvain, or Saury cask and then use it over and over and over…
And it is in that “over and over and over…” that the WA/OR style evolved. Neutral oak, a long-standing idea in Europe, became an American Thang and offered the benefit of keeping the silkiness of the natural oils of the barrels while mostly muting the more water-soluble vanillins in the oak and avoiding the cream soda extravaganza. PNW Chards were leaner, more transparent, and fresher for not being covered up with new oak. Burgundy, meanwhile, was roundly criticized by millions of US wine fans for the very thing that made them great: that terroir character that sometimes expressed itself as somewhat stinky aromas. “Wet hay, barnyard, and cat piss” is a description that I cadged directly from a 1998 review of a mid-priced Burgundy and it was meant as a positive review. Few, if any, of those shaky aromas make it onto the palate, as with the Rioja I once opened that smelled like home permanent relaxer but tasted like God’s Own Red.
From the git-go, Sarah’s Vineyard Estate Chardonnay deftly straddled a territory that drew from the complexity of Burgundy, the bursting fruit of California, and, though it wasn’t common yet, the Northwest-y reined-in barrel character. I found a few of those reviews from the 80s, after a TON of online searching. All of them pointed out how un-California this wine was and continued to be. Slater has removed none of that. The bottles I received were instantly vivid, complex as a quantum computer, carried elusive hints of subtle oak (a mere 25% new French oak), a toasty, bready undertone that’s as inviting as it sounds, and a crispness and bright acidity that recalls a Washington or Oregon Chard and makes it a better food pairing than the general run of California Chards, even today. The flavors mingle tree fruits, tangerine, fresh cream, almonds, honeysuckle, jasmine, and intimations of pineapple, coconut, and gooseberries. It’s texture is flawless, as smooth and polished as a river stone, and the finish is equal to any Chard from anywhere that I have ever found. My wife poured herself some to have with dinner and I didn’t see her do it. She took a sip and I froze. We were having plain ol’ white trash tuna casserole and I chose – wisely, I thought – a Washington Amber ale. “This wine is great with this casserole,” she smiled.
“It’s…it’s tuna casserole!” I stammered, “You don’t have wine with smoked, canned tuna and mushroom soup!“
“Oh, yeah, Mr. Wine Expert?” she said, “Try it.“
I did. She was right. I was wrong. Sarah’s Vineyard Estate Chardonnay 2018 goes with tuna casserole like dithering goes with the Washington legislature.
At $36, this is not what all but your Gateses and Buffets and maybe your B-list movie stars would call “cheap” but in terms of bang-for-buck and QPR (google it), this is a howling bargain in top-tier American white and I am grasping to understand how it fell off the national radar so completely. The brand is, according to their website, distributed for retail sale only in California, New York, New Jersey, and – for reasons passing all understanding – North Carolina, so that certainly has something to do with the lack of awareness. I can’t even buy it here. They do, however, ship the heck out of stuff and if you don’t live in one of the few remaining states which don’t allow direct shipping of adult beverages (what I call “The Dark Territories”), you can get ’em right at your door. If you do, well, move immediately…or ask a friend in civilization to order it for you and use the wine as a good excuse to visit, which you should have done already and what the heck is wrong with you, anyway?
Sarah’s Vineyard Estate Chardonnay 2018 is a flat-damned marvelous bottle of white wine that avoids all the tired Chardonnay clichés and delivers California sunshine by the bucket load. 97 Points
And not even a trace of garlic.