Love it or love it not as much, Chardonnay is a best-selling wine all over the world, and the leading white in Sonoma County Wine Country.
Walk up to any wine tasting bar and, chances are, you’ll find a Chardonnay there. Sonoma County grows some 15,800 acres of the stuff, ranking second among California counties — but some might say tops in overall quality.
Where to taste Chardonnay in Sonoma County? Perhaps the better question is, “Where not to taste Chardonnay in Sonoma County?”
Wine tasters possessing an open mind and a non-jaded palate can find agreeable Chardonnay throughout Sonoma County. The more interesting pursuit for the Chardonnay lover on a limited budget of time, then, is to hit a selection of producers who represent Sonoma County’s key styles, regions and historical highlights in Chardonnay.
Ready? Let’s start at the top, geographically.
Kendall-Jackson’s “Vintner’s Reserve” Chardonnay wasn’t the first pony out of the gate, but it famously took the lead in the era of “fighting varietals” in the 1990s and helped to make inexpensive, barrel-aged Chardonnay an everyday feature on American tables. Later, founder Jess Jackson took to the hills, and the mountain-grown wines of Stonestreet, which include half a dozen single-vineyard batches that exemplify the Jackson style of Chardonnay turned up several notches of intensity — Vintner’s, with better breeding. Mountain excursions take you to Chardonnay with a view; tastings available at the Alexander Valley winery and in downtown Healdsburg.
Russian River Valley
California Chardonnay history parks here — along with Helen Bacigalupi’s vintage Volkswagen truck with which she delivered a good portion of the grapes that went into the “Napa” Chardonnay made famous by the “Paris Tasting” of 1976. Anyway, the red VW is somewhere on the property — the point is, the Bacigalupi family’s own estate Chardonnay, which tends to be notably subtle and lean, in contrast to California Chardonnay stereotypes, is an important stop on this yellow-fruited road. They’re located on Westside Road, just a 15-minute drive from Healdsburg.
Further down Westside Road, perched on top of a little hill, Gary Farrell commands a great view of the forested ridges in between the valley and the sea. But you think Gary Farrell, and you think Pinot Noir, right? While it’s true that the one-time wunderkind vintner gained fame for the red Burgundian grape, the winery’s current Chardonnay lineup is a like roll call of great Russian River Valley vineyards, including Rochioli, Ritchie, Bacigalupi and Olivet Lane, plus Sonoma Valley’s Durell, which is owned by one of the winery’s current owners.
Don’t be wary of the humble, homey setting of this Sebastopol-area tasting room, a 30-minute drive south of the Healdsburg area. This is the home tasting room of a family that supplies Sonoma County winemakers with some of the best, and the oldest, Chardonnay in the region. It’s inviting and worth a stop.
In the central area of the Russian River Valley AVA, the Pellegrini family farms one of the older Chardonnay vineyards in Sonoma County, called Olivet Lane.
Here, even the “unoaked” Chardonnay displays a characterful intensity that elevates the wine far above similarly labeled efforts.
Bennett Valley and Sonoma Valley
Set amid estate vineyards and famed for its lavender fields, Matanzas Creek helped to define a style with its rich, buttery Chardonnay of the 1980s — which reportedly originated with bacteria from the winery’s days as a dairy. Still worth a visit for Chardonnay pilgrims, although the wines now show a more subtle flavor profile.
Best known for their widely distributed Overlook Chardonnay, Landmark sources from top vineyards like Lorenzo, Heintz, and Rodgers Creek, and the house style showcases a lean, elegant version of barrel-aged Chardonnay that challenges “oaky” stereotypes. The winery is located in picturesque Kenwood, but if you’re still back on Westside Road they’ve opened a new tasting room there, too.
Over the years, this restaurant-focused brand has developed relationships with great Chardonnay (and Pinot Noir) growers and vineyards like Chenoweth Ranch, Gap’s Crown, and Dutton Family since the 1980s. Their stylish new wine tasting salon, situated a mile or so south of the town of Sonoma, offers seated tastings by appointment.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.