Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Sandhi Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2011

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How does one decide what is ‘right’ in wine? Are some choices better than others? Why?

In discussing ideology theorist Slavoj Zizek has said, following the writings of Jacques Lacan, “there is no point of reference that guarantees meaning”. Our desires do not come from some external source, but rather from ourselves, from our capacity to fashion our own dreams. For Zizek, desire is regularly co-opted by ideology, truncating freedom. Freedom exists not in seeking to mould reality to our dreams, but rather in changing the way we dream.

The old style of California butter-bomb Chardonnay had an ideological component. Easy, voluptuous, manufactured sexuality – an image of California and of American culture. Made entirely in the cellar rather than the land – shaping reality to fit a certain image – buttery California Chardonnay was enjoyment stripped of its controversial elements. It required nothing from its drinkers except their own projections. There was no true encounter, no working through, no coming to terms. It was more than anything mediated by a specific, historically situated cultural ideology. It seems to fit perfectly with 1980’s and 1990’s American capitalism. And it was a huge money maker.

But then, by the mid to late 2000’s, inspired by a small few who declined to engage in this ideology, a few California winemakers started to change the way they dreamed.

Reinterpreting Individuality

Since first learning of the revolution in California wine several years ago, Sandhi has been on the lips of nearly everyone I asked about leaders in the movement. Winemaker Sashi Moorman strongly believes that most in Santa Barbara County generally and the Sta. Rita Hills specifically have misunderstood how to use the region’s climate. In particular, the very long growing season has become more bane than boon, leading to an excess of sugars.

Moorman’s perspective seems in direct contrast to the philosophy of Greg Brewer at Brewer-Clifton, who has no problems with the high ripeness possible in the region. But upon closer examination, what seems a contrast is actually two separate expressions of the same basic philosophical belief: that some choices lead to better site expression than others. Brewer seems content with the dramatic contrasts capable with simultaneous high ripeness and high acidity. Moorman, on the other hand, believes higher alcohol obscures site and overemphasizes the choices of the winemaker. Accordingly, he picks 3-4 weeks earlier than most (often pulling back his harvests into September rather than October). His goal is elegance – a vague and yet communicative term. It is certainly a goal I can appreciate.

The ripeness question centres around what Jon Bonné in his book The New California Wine calls “Farming Against the Sun”. Bonné’s basic point is that California adopted its viticultural practices from Europe, but the California climate is unsuited to those practices. The reason is a surfeit of sun (or degree days), but at the same time much more significant diurnal temperature shifts than Europe in many of the best quality regions. There are numerous other differences, which you can read about in Bonné’s book, the message being that California is its own distinct place that requires modification of European techniques to properly suit its climate.

Back to winemaker/grower choices. It strikes me that both Brewer and Moorman share a distaste for the old ideology of California wine – so deeply embedded in that old-style buttery Chardonnay. Why? They seem to have a different vision not just for wine, but for American culture. Not everything is self-made, without reliance on the great resources around us. Rather, in many ways, history and place have more to contribute to the act of creation than does the will of an individual, even as that will is essential to shape and interact with the raw material. Thus winemakers like Brewer and Moorman offer a more subtle interpretation of the American individual.

The Wine: When Freedom Meets Desire

Sandhi is a collaboration between Mr. Moorman and the well known San Francisco sommelier Rajat Parr (along with investor Charles Banks). Their goal has been to redefine elegance in Santa Barbara County, and they work with grapes from the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez. As noted by Ms. Chukan Brown in her in-depth exploration of Santa Barbara County on her blog, the region sees little rain, much wind, significant diurnal temperature shifts, fog (which increases disease pressure), and considerable soil variation. Combined, the County hosts some of the most interesting terroir in California. I know that I’ve always felt the wines here are particularly fresh and diverse in style.

This wine, Sandhi’s entry-level Chardonnay, is a blend of grapes from each of those regions from vines that average 25 years of age. Vinification consists of fermentation in 500 litre French oak puncheons using indigenous yeast. There is minimal lees stirring. Sulphur additions are tiny.

Pouring a lighter yellow, this Chardonnay has quite a classical, delineated nose. There is a tightrope mineral quality cutting through this wine, which offers the complete spectrum of Chardonnay flavour without veering into the tropical: lemon, lime, orchard fruits, caramel, stone, salinity. While the wine is clean and driven, the fruit is unmistakably Californian; a wine with the structure of a Chablis that tastes nothing like Chablis. The wine delivers on Moorman’s claim that Sandhi seeks balance and elegance above all.

For my own tastes, this is a poised wine that is centrally focused. Everything draws into and expands from the centre of the wine, which is simultaneously cut and concentrated, both expressive and linear. A wine focused on being whole rather than living in its disparities like the Brewer-Clifton Gnesa.

This wine proves Mr. Brewer’s theory, at least in part, that meaning comes from contrast. I think Sandhi is a wonderful companion to its total opposite in the Brewer-Clifton. Both manage to refocus desire and suggest that we can find our freedom more in tandem with our context than in dominance of it.

$33 at K&L Wine, San Francisco


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