Two Good Chardonnays

I’m not much of a wine collector, but I do have a basement that maintains a good cellaring temperature, and once in a while I do acquire a case and sit on it. But for the last five or six months, I’ve been buying so many new bottles to taste that I haven’t had much occasion to dig around downstairs. Just this week, though, I got a dinner invitation that mattered to me, and found myself rummaging around again, and surprised by how much I liked some wines I’d largely forgotten.

The invitation came from our friend Anton, who lives a few blocks away. Anton and my wife were friends in college, and they’ve stayed in touch ever since, plus my wife and I are both especially fond of Anton’s parents, Jan and Nancy. It’s quite a family, in fact: Anton has a PhD in neuroscience, played jazz piano (and sang, beautifully) for years in restaurants around San Francisco, and is now a science teacher at a great local high school; Nancy is a professional jazz singer who has cut many, many albums; and Jan consults with universities and arts institutions. Most important, there’s something about eating and drinking and talking with Anton and Jan and Nancy that makes L and I giddy with pleasure, simply unable to imagine more delightful company.

The invitation this time was off-the-cuff and simple: Anton picked up some takeout at a neighborhood place that bills its food as “sushi and pacific grill,” and while L waited on the sidewalk in front of our house, I ran to the cellar for an offering. Thinking about that restaurant’s food, I settled on Chardonnay, and realized I had cases of two interesting ones: 2004 Dynamite Vineyards Mendocino Chardonnay, and 2004 Solstice Monterey Chardonnay. The walk was short and pleasant, on a cool San Francisco evening, and our two little girls were in great moods: holding hands, laughing and bouncing around the street. We opened the wines as soon as we all sat down, and then conversation took off like it always does with that crowd. Our kids were happily playing with Anton’s kids, and Nancy was talking about a recent trip to Japan—a puppet show for which she wrote the script and music, which has been showing for years now in Lower Manhattan, is being produced all over Japan. And while I settled into the pleasure I always feel in the way she talks about art, and about life in the arts, I was so delightfully surprised by the Solstice, which we opened first. If you’ve learned to find California Chardonnay off-putting, like a lot of people, you should run out and try some of this stuff: It absolutely has the oak and butter qualities that can be awfully overdone, and it also has the plush mouthfeel and full, rounded fruit, but it’s all so beautifully integrated and balanced. Same for the Dynamite. I suppose it’s not a coincidence that these are both cool-climate, coastal Chardonnays.

But anyway, this is what felt so right, beyond the fact that the wines mated well with the Asian-flavored food: There’s something obvious about bringing California Chardonnay, for people who know wine as well as that crowd, and on the right night that can send a calm message, saying, “I’m not making some big play for a wild wine experience, I’m just bringing wine”; and there’s something wonderful about surprising people, bringing them a wine style they’re used to resisting, and changing their minds.

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