Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Diatom Kodo 2011

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photoRepetition is severely undervalued in North America. Its meaning has been denuded by an ever-forceful demand to discard. But, for me, the greatest rewards in life are subtle and arise from the slow accretion of experience. It is important to return in order to see again the same thing as new. So to conclude my series on California Chardonnay I have returned to the Sta. Rita Hills and to winemaker Greg Brewer, to ask once again for meaning.

The Bare, Unworked Form of a Thing: Or, Wine and Sushi

Wine almost never presents the bare, unworked form of a thing. Unlike food, where we can taste and consume the ingredient, wine grapes are not wine. Tasting a grape is not equivalent to tasting a carrot because the ultimate creation has as its baseline much more than wine grapes. Yeasts, in particular, make any simple analogy to food ingredients inapt. Tasting yeast will yield no insight into the wine it helps produce. Wine is also inherently technique – a pattern of human choices and technical manipulation of objects in the world – steel, wood, temperatures, etc. It is questionable, then, whether there is any true baseline for wine.

Yet, it is this bare, unworked form that is the fabled object of desire for Greg Brewer’s personal project at Diatom. Brewer seeks a minimalist expression of Chardonnay at Diatom that explores the most basic form of the fruit with which he works. He does not want additions to obscure the grapes’ most basic expression, stating on his website: “The challenge is to subtract all extraneous elements to arrive at the utmost level of simplicity, serenity and refinement.” He compares this approach to sushi, seeing similarities between his approach to wine-making and a focus on the purity of fish. I admit that, while I do not doubt Brewer’s sincerity, I do not understand his metaphor. Most great sushi chefs will emphatically assert it is rice, not fish, that is the heart of sushi. The fish does not stand alone, but is balanced by the manipulation of rice, vinegar, and enzymes that break down the toughness of raw fish fibres. However, perhaps what Brewer is saying is broader – that each choice one makes towards the completion of the final product is decisive and purposeful so that the final product demonstrates a deceptively simple whole experience that seems to cut to the essence of something, though what that thing is may not always be clear. The art is masterfully concealed in the very basic looking final expression. Sushi is seasoned in a way that makes it appear unseasoned, that makes it appear it is all about the fish.

Place as Metaphor

Whatever you may believe of Brewer’s philosophy, his Diatom wines say something about Chardonnay that few, if any, others are saying in California. These wines are made without malo-lactic or oak. They are fermented just to the point where the primary ferment completes. The wine is aged on its lees but only for so long as there is no risk of autolysis, which for Brewer would obscure his intent. The point is to show Chardonnay in an unseasoned form to understand what it is about Santa Rita Hills fruit that makes it unique. The result is unlike any other so-called “unoaked Chardonnay”. They also taste nothing like the wines from Brewer-Clifton.

Each bottling is from a single vineyard but labelled with Kanji characters rather than by naming the vineyard. Brewer’s intent is to peer into the meaning of the place via what I consider Japanese-style metaphor rather than more typical Judeo-Christian naming.

As example, Brewer says “Kodo” means “the soulful heartbeat or drum like pulse within us”. He believes the vineyard, which sits in a protected nook within Sta. Rita Hills, shares affinity with the “rhythmic and sonorous” character of the word Kodo. The resulting wine reminds him of a Japanese taiko drum. It’s a fascinating metaphor that, while not entirely clear, does impart a strong sense of Brewer’s view of the vineyard’s relationship to the overall appellation. When contrasted with some of the other Kanji Brewer uses, Kodo’s purpose becomes clearer: see, for example, Kazaoto (the turbulent nature of wind noise) or Hamon (the ripple which results from dropping a pebble into a still body of water). Brewer’s vision of the Sta. Rita Hills is mystical, poetic and infused with the spirit of nature. It is a very Asian vision and in total contrast to the usual marketing one hears about terroir and its meaning. Diatom is clearly a piece of Brewer’s soul.

Why We Return

Kodo is a primary wine. It is immediately pleasurable but also stark in its pleasure. This is not a soft, constructed pleasure that derives from meeting expectations. Rather, it is a pleasure from feeling at one with a place, and a sentiment, that is wholly not you. It’s an astonishing achievement for Chardonnay – to the point where I question whether the world has completely lost touch with the potential of this grape to actually mean something, rather than become something.

The nose has unique yeast notes, minerals, animality, saffron and a hint of pineapple. It is not an exuberant nose, but a subtly confusing and delightful one. The palate tastes of lemon confit, saffron, spices, pineapple and peach cobler, sharing some affinities to a great Condrieu. This is a long, big wine that is potent but also focused. It is not awkward.

I would venture to claim that there is virtually no Chardonnay outside of Chablis being made like this, and very few within Chablis that can match the singular purpose and execution of this wine. So few wineries truly believe in their fruit to such an extent and also provide such a complex, deep expression without the standard cellar tricks.

Kodo proved to me the truth of Chardonnay terroir. It is a question I have been asking myself for years. I did not expect the answer to arrive so starkly. It is a suitable conclusion to this spotlight, which has seen some remarkable wines, but none so capable of changing my preconceptions.

Diatom, which was founded only about 7 years ago, is an ideal example of what “The New” California has set out to achieve: individual, purposeful, meaningful expressions of wine that reflect rather than project. These are not marketing projects. They are not bandwagon wines. They are a sign of maturity, and I am excited to continue to see what this new era of California wine has to say.

Excellent to Excellent+ and Highly Recommended Value
$35 at JJ Buckley, Oakland

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