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A (SURPRISINGLY) DELICIOUS CHARDONNAY

Updated: Apr 27

Not long after Californian winemakers mastered Chardonnay, they seemed to have lost their way.

MEIOMI has rediscovered it.



MEIOMI Chardonnay... mass-produced, yet delicious.


When they first met, Chardonnay and California seemed absolutely made for each other. Beneath the Golden State's reliably warm sunshine, the transplanted queen of Burgundy achieved hedonistic ripeness that was deliciously mitigated by the zingy acidity fostered in the cool coastal fog... almost like a voluptuous blonde surfer girl separated from full nudity only by a scant and overworked bikini, a dynamic tension that reliably satisfied with immediate sensual satisfaction along with suggestions of charms unseen.


Maybe it was too easy... just like filmmakers and architects and chefs who reflexively eschew that which seems obvious and sooo yesterday, maybe the incoming generation of young Californian winemakers felt the need to make their marks on Golden State œnology by forsaking Chardonnay's tried-and-true, oak-and-butter formula and instead explored new and uncharted territory. Generally speaking it didn't work, and more often than not it left us consumers with unfamiliar-tasting wine that didn't seem to know what it wanted to be. Some Californian Chardonnays were syrupy, over-top, more-is-more wines, while others were un-oaked and so crisply thin and dry as to confound varietal recognition.


And then about twenty years ago, like an obscure Kentucky Derby entry streaking from the rear to catch the odds-on favorite in the final furlongs, along came Sauvignon Blanc in full gallop-- a white wine so sharply and distinctly aromatic that it couldn't possibly lose its identity even if it tried. (See THE ROYAL SISTERHOOD for a comparative analysis of premium white wine varieties.) And, of course, along also came Pinot Grigio... a simple, dry sipper whose enormous popularity many of us wine mavens were at a loss to explain, except for the fact that it wasn't Chardonnay. (This is about the time when we in the wine industry started hearing about the "ABC Club"-- "Anything But Chardonnay!")


By the turn of the millennium, Chardonnay was no longer the undisputed queen of white wines on America's dining tables and patios. And in the intervening two decades, its Californian versions made little or no progress toward reclaiming its previous primacy with a unified message. But now we have MEIOMI ("may-OH-me") Chardonnay, here to replicate and reclaim California Chardonnay's glorious past. Bravo, I say!


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MEIOMI WINES was established by the fifth generation of the Wagner family, the folks responsible for the legendary CAYMUS Cabernet Sauvignon. (I used to pop Caymus Cab corks by the nightly case or more as the wine steward in a fancy Boston steakhouse.) Meiomi's initial focus was Pinot Noir, that notorious brat of a grape with a long history of melting hearts with its greatest successes, only to then cruelly crush them with its subsequent and all-too-frequent failures. (See THE ROYAL BROTHERS.) Beginning in 2006, MEIOMI steadily developed what would eventually become a 700,000 case per year Pinot Noir program... a huge volume for any wine, a market juggernaut for one selling for $17-20, and, most amazingly, a theretofore utterly unthinkable volume for consistently delicious Pinot Noir, the variety that had regularly vexed even the most talented Californian winemakers for well over half a century.


As its popularity grew, MEIOMI inevitably became the Pinot Noir that critics loved to hate, the wine that sommeliers resentfully poured with fake smiles and gritted teeth. After all, the romantic notion of hard-to-get, "small quantity, hand-crafted, estate-bottled, organic" wine always plays well, while rumors circulated about how MEOMI Pinot Noir was somehow "reverse-engineered" to make it more appealing to less-knowledgeable palates. (What a concept-- intentionally making wine that tastes good. I dunno... maybe more wineries should consider such heresy.) I never, ever bought into this sort of snobbery-- to me, everything a wine IS can be found right in the glass before me... and if it tastes good, I don't give a flying crap whether the wine was made in a rustic barn, or a sprawling factory... whether the grapes were crushed mechanically, or stomped barefoot... or whether they were grown in a Napa billionaire's greenhouse, or in the end zone of MetLife Stadium.


MEIOMI's smashing success understandably led to its sale (for $315 million!) to the gigantic wine industry conglomerate CONSTELLATION BRANDS. There was a time when the acquisition of a quality-oriented winery by a large corporation often spelled its doom. CONSTELLATION, however, was literally born in the wine business, and they darn well knew how to manage and grow wine brands. Their acquisition of MEOMI dovetailed perfectly with their recent practice of shedding high-volume, bargain-priced wines in favor of a more upscale portfolio. And after purchasing MEIOMI, CONSTELLATION quite naturally sought to expand the brand known for affordable, high-quality wine that was consistently excellent from year to year. So along came MEOMI Rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Blend (reportedly equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, & Syrah)... and, most notably for our purposes here, Chardonnay.


Wines made from Chardonnay can be challenging for wine geeks to describe because versions from all over the world can taste so different. In the northernmost reaches of France's Burgundy region, for instance, Chardonnay-based Chablis had long tended to be sharply acidic, austere, and mineral-driven, while Australian examples are quite the opposite, commonly described as fruit bombs... or, disparagingly, as "banana juice." Before Californian Chardonnay lost its way, the best versions thereof sat fetchingly balanced between those two extremes-- many were excellent, and some were even good enough to embarrassingly fool the French judges at the infamous 1976 "Judgement of Paris" tasting.


Describing MEOMI Chardonnay on a scale that includes "good" or "excellent" doesn't do it justice; I choose to explain it as tasting uncannily like the decent Californian Chardonnays of yore-- bearing the unmistakable perfume of French oak, with a nose quite similar to their Burgundian sisters; oh-so slightly sweet, but not overtly so; light-to-medium in mouth weight, and therefore a perfectly good companion to seafood.


Napa Valley's Chateau Montelena Winery produced the 1973 Californian Chardonnay that beat the best of France in that 1976 tasting; their current vintage (2021) sells for $75/bottle on the wine.com site. Want the very best? A bottle of Kongsgaard 2021 "The Judge" Chardonnay-- if you can even find one for sale-- will set you back $800.


Or, for $18-20/per bottle, you can enjoy a bottle of MEOMI Chardonnay.


NOTES:


My bride Andrea occasionally presents me with a "stumper," a wine for me to taste blind and then attempt to identify. She recently brought out a MEOMI Chardonnay, and it took me directly back four decades, when right out of college I was managing a French restaurant for a mobster who regularly had me taste his $200 French white Burgundies.


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