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Charles Smith Casts His Vote for Chardonnay... What's Yours?

Charles Smith has become quite the iconic figure in the world of wine over the past decade. A former rock band manager, Smith's reputation in the wine industry took flight with the inaugural release of K Vintners 1999 K Syrah Walla Walla Valley in 2001. Smith moved back to the United States from Europe in 1999, having been encouraged to make Syrah in the Walla Walla Valley by Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards. Since releasing the inaugural 1999 K Syrah Walla Walla Valley, Smith's Syrah has become one of the most heralded in Washington State, and his reach has expanded to include both the K Vintners line of wines, as well as a more moderately priced line of wines that he bottles under his own name - Charles Smith: The Modernist Project. Both lineups consistently receive critical acclaim, and some of the more limited production bottlings can be incredibly difficult to come by.

Given Smith's reputation for producing top-flight terroir influenced Syrah at K Vintners, I was surprised to see a recent article in the Wine Spectator that announced that Smith had purchased the former Whitman Cellars (the winery was foreclosed on by its bank in early 2011), and planned to use the winery to focus entirely on Chardonnay. This shocked me for two reasons. The first was that given Smith's reputation for producing top flight reds, I was surprised to see such a striking change in the direction. Yet, like most motivated people, Smith is never satisfied with past success, and seems to always be searching for a new challenge. In the Wine Spectator article, Smith states that this Chardonnay venture not only presents a challenge to him, but also a challenge for his assistant winemakers, and it is through these types of challenges that he hopes to keep quality high across all his wine lineups.

The second reason that  Smith's decision to focus on Chardonnay was somewhat surprising is the current state of Chardonnay in today's market. As I mentioned when I announced TruthInJuice.com's inaugural tasting panel, I've encountered a fair number of people who appear to have turned away from Chardonnay entirely, and refuse to drink Chardonnay, no matter where it is from, or who it was produced by. I can understand that given the proliferation of overly oaked, and carelessly produced Chardonnays, many consumers feel justified in staying away from them. Yet at the same time, I am pained when I watch consumers pass up the chance to taste reference point Chardonnays from producers like Grgich Hills, Kistler, Bernard Moreau (of Burgundy). I am also struck by a certain curiousity when I watch people sip happily on White Burgundy or Chablis. Is the lack of distaste for Chardonnay in these cases driven by the style in which it is produced? Or is it driven by the fact that there is no psychological prejudice towards the wine because of the absence of the "Chardonnay" moniker on the label?

Clearly, Smith feels there is an opportunity to revive Chardonnay in the minds of consumers, telling Wine Spectator that "there are some really good Chardonnays [in Washington State]. We have the soils. We have the cool climate. Let’s see what can happen if we create a winery that just focuses on Chardonnay." 

I for one, am tremendously excited to see what Smith will be able to achieve with Chardonnay. His track record for producing terroir inspired Syrah precedes him, and he has a dedicated team in place to aid in the fulfillment of his vision. I am equally curious to see what the market response to his Chardonnays will be. He has achieved some success with the grape with the Charles Smith Wines Eve Chardonnay, but that is but one wine in an already well respected portfolio that is incredibly well marketed. Smith is a marketing genius, and if anyone can revive or rehabilitate Chardonnay in the mind of the American consumer, it may as well be him.

In closing, I would like to remind everyone that our first panel tasting, focusing on where Chardonnay stands in the mind of today's consumer, will take place on Thursday, August 9th, at 8:00 PM, in the Burlington, VT area. The tasting is at a private residence, so we're not listing the address here, but if you are interested in joining, please submit our General Question form, with the subject line "Request to Join Chardonnay Tasting Panel." We will respond with the location of the tasting when confirming your reservation. Please include your name and preferred method of contact in the body of your message. Depending on the number of participants, we will taste between 6 - 12 wines, and there will be a small fee ($10-$20) to cover the cost of the wines.

Author's Note: The panel tasting was a great success. Thanks to all who joined. The results of the tasting have been posted in the article, "It Still Has a Place in Our Hearts..."

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