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February’s 29 days of Chardonnay

a collaborative project


A Tale of Drunken Somm, KJ, OPC & Wente 

Authored by James Rahn

I would like to take this moment to personally thank Kendall Jackson Chardonnay – the first wine I remember liking some twenty years ago, which perhaps, by utilizing a bit of imagination and a whole shit load of romanticism, one could come up with a rationale that Kendall Jackson is the reason I am where I am today – waist high in wine crates in a messy cellar with two assistant sommeliers who cannot bin wines to save their lives and three glasses of wine within reach.

With this crude, personal timeline I will demonstrate why I owe it all to Kenny.

1992 – Hey man, you have any KJ?.
1995 – This Chateau Ste Michele is so good. Can’t believe those assholes drink
Kendall Jackson.
1997 – Did you know that they grew Chardonnay in France?
1998 – They should stop growing Chardonnay in California.
1999 – Wait wait wait. So you’re telling me Chablis is a PLACE?
2002 – Yeah, I know lady, “ABC” but this Montrachet is the shit.
2003 – I have to memorize all this shit? For a PIN?
2004 – I really do prefer the unctuous quality of Le Clos over the brutish
pedestrianism of Vaudesir.
2005 – Are they STILL trying to grow Chardonnay in California?
2006 – Fuck, I have to buy WHAT from California? How about Oregon instead?
2008 – You won’t believe this, I found delicious Chardonnay in California. Please
don’t tell anyone.
2009 – Hey Oregon, stop pulling up your Chardonnay – nobody likes Pinot Gris!
2010 – Well HEL-LO Cote Bonneville!
2011 – Yeah, I get it, summer of Riesling.
2012 – Hey, who’s still using the Wente Clone anyway?

Which is the reason for this missive in the first place – the poor Old Wente Clone.

A couple of years ago I found myself working at a new restaurant with a new wine list where it was clear I would have to venture into California for some wines – not something I was looking forward to. Before that I had run a list of a little more than 200 French wines and a small representation of Pacific Northwest wines – just because I love them. I had two domestic Chardonnays – Adelsheim Caitlin’s Reserve and the Cote Bonneville DuBrul Vineyard. I had nothing from California and in fact I had grown into a vocal proponent of “ABC”. Anything But California. Well, anything but Italy too, but that is another story.

So anyway, as you can imagine, I was not happy with having to look to California for some more “typical” Chardonnay. But thanks to a likeminded wine rep it did not take long to come across Lynmar Estate. I was astonished. Why did I like that wine so much? It tasted of rocks, had supreme focus, aromatics that did not come from a popcorn stand, and was plain delicious without causing fatigue. Come to learn that it was made partly with a clone of Chardonnay named Wente. She was named after the Wente Vineyards in Livermore, California, which have been in constant operation for 128 years – so you know, in this country is a long damn time.

Even still, I had not fully attributed any of the qualities of the wine to the clone. I had enough crap to consider – climate, aspect, elevation and fog lines, all of it. And so Wente fell from my thoughts. Until OPC 2011. Allow me to set the scene.

It was 8 o’clock the morning after I had just closed down Lumpy’s in Dundee.


I had just taken a school bus ride with four fellow sommeliers from Chicago and thirty wine shop owners from Nebraska. I am pretty sure I was still rather drunk when we pulled up to a lovely little winery (name escapes me) for the Oregon Whites Seminar. As soon as I finished choking on the complimentary croissant due to lack of saliva the panel began speaking about Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling and the great cool climate white wines that come from the Willamette Valley. Well, it went on for a long time and I was still drunk and I was tweeting like crazy:

“It’s 9am and I’ve not drunk a single drip of Pinot Noir – at OREGON PINOT CAMP!!! What gives?”

But whatever, I was fine. Until I noticed that Chardonnay was not being talked about. Nothing. They did not even mention Chardonnay as though we were supposed to write it off, which is why, of course, I had to bring it up to the panel.

“Panel, why do you hate Chardonnay?”

I was answered by someone I believe to be Jason Lett – remember, I closed Lumpy’s the night before. It was explained to me that Chardonnay never really had a future in the Willamette, partly because much of the older plantings were a little, unloved, nerdy, flat-chested grape known as Wente. Little Wente did not like to ripen in the Willamette like she did in California and so people started ripping her up and tossing her to the tough streets of McMinnville and in her absence those same people invited Pinot Gris to stay. A few even invited that French trolop Dijon into their vineyards.

I know that you are trying to understand why I long for Wente. Wines made from little Wente Clone possess a fantastic sense of place, have beautiful austerity and subtlety, and god-dammed acidity to them. In some places she possesses a sinewy, viscous texture. She has tiny little berries that take a little too long to ripen if the rains come even a couple of days early, but if she is given a chance to thrive it is clear that she has a great personality. Really, not just saying that. What’s more, there are accounts that little Wente, when allowed to keep roots for a couple of decades actually grows into herself and outshines any usurping French tart.

I digress, back to OPC. That day was heavy on my heart. I pictured little Wente dejected, sitting alone at Blue Moon in McMinnville, a shadow of her former self, a lost footnote in the success of the mighty Willamette. It took everything I had that day to taste through the lineup of Domaine Drouhin Oregon without breaking into tears on the shoulder of Laurent Montelieu I carried this weight to the pre-dinner tasting at Domaine Serene where I stumbled upon Donna Morris from Winderlea. Donna is fantastic and beautiful – really beautiful, but that’s not my point. My point to bringing up Donna is that I had never heard of Winderlea wines. They were a new winery on the old Goldschmidt site and had no distribution in Chicago, so we had never crossed paths. That evening she poured me her 2008 Chardonnay and it was enlightening. All the things I loved about Chardonnay were swirling around in my glass and after a conversation I knew why. 50% WENTE!!! My darling little Wente made up half of the most spectacular white of the entire show. Although props to the Ponzi Arneis – really kickass wine.

I was overjoyed so much that I stripped off my clothes and ran through the Serene Vineyards, arms flying and catching crisp Oregonian air until I was quickly tackled by Ken Evanstad and told not defile his beautiful Dijon Clones. He can really run for an old fat dude. (scary picture James!)

Which brings me back to my quest – to find the Champions of little Wente – winegrowers that have the ability to see inner her beauty. Ben Casteel at Bethel Heights is extremely proud of his plantings of Wente – the first in Oregon – so much so that I think they should rename the winery WenteLand. Patton Valley makes a 100% Wente – from Bethel Heights fruit. In California Tom Dehlinger has a whole block of his estate vineyard devoted to Wente! Bibiana at Lynmar Estate has RECENTLY planted Wente in their Quail Hill Vineyard, so perhaps we can say the YOUNG Wente clone! Even Caleb Foster at Buty Winery in Walla Walla says Wente Chardonnay he made over ten years ago is absolutely singing right now. Jason Lett of Eyrie has an inclination that his Draper Clone is a close relative of Wente, which makes me question if it was he at the Oregon White Seminar at all. I’ll bet it was Alex Sokol Blosser with an Eyrie vest on – he’s kind of a prankster.

So let’s give it up for dear little Wente. She holds the answer to people’s desire to make and drink Chardonnay with grace and subtle beauty, with integrity and intelligence. Wente will not hold grudges about our fling with Dijon – who would? But at the end of the day we have to be with a Chardonnay that we feel comfortable taking home to mom – unless your mom is a cougar, then well, you might want to think about shacking up with the Infamous Davis 108 Clone – another story altogether.

                           Follow James on twitter: @drunken_somm