Chardonnay without wood, why bother?

Tim's Wine Market

In the 1970’s consumer trends toward wine drinking shifted from red wine to white, catching many of the early California wineries by surprise.  For decades if Americans drank wine it was usually red and most vineyard land was planted to varieties like Zinfandel, Carignane and Cabernet Sauvignon.  At that time Bob Trinchero, the head of Sutter Home winery, adapted his production of red wine towards a style of European wine, rosé in order to accomodate these tastes.  (From what I understand the original versions of Sutter Home White Zinfandel were almost dry, but the wine was gradually sweetened as consumer acceptance grew.)  This is a good example of how wineries adapted their production in reaction to consumption trends.  
More troubling is a current trend by wineries that reminds me of the old saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”  In this case the metaphorical horse is Chardonnay produced only in neutral, stainless steel or fiberglass vessels.  To me, in most cases, these “unwooded” Chardonnays are an example of wineries pushing their own financial agenda ahead of making the best possible wine.  We have found very few customers who embrace the style, more often opting for Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or European, dry white wines in leu of unwooded Chardonnay.  (I mention this to every winery representative we meet, pushing an unwooded Chardonnay, and we are always told that we buck the trend.  Later, in confidence, most distributor reps tell us we are dead on the money and to please continue our candor.)

So I have to admit that I smirked a little when reading a recent Wall Street Journal review of unwooded Chardonnay.  I rarely agree with the observations of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, (the couple who write the WSJ columns) but in this instance I think they are dead on.  There are a couple of compelling wines that do the category justice, but most are just bland and uninteresting.  Several years ago winemaker Dave Ramey, who I feel is one of the best in the country, told me that Chardonnay lacks the qualities needed to stand on its own and needs to oxidize in wood a bit to develop complexity.  Even older barrels, long leached of their oak flavor, can provide the right environment for Chardonnay to develop and evolve into a complex wine.  To be fair there are a few sites in the world where Chardonnay achieves a distinctive character, but they are few and far between.  

So why the push by wineries for this style?  We used to hear that chefs were demanding unwooded wines to not mask the complex flavors they were trying to achieve.  While this is a good argument, how much wine as a total of the percentage is sold in such restaurants?  More likely it has to do with the cost of good quality, French oak barrels rising about $800 each in the past couple of years.  When you calculate that most barrels only produce about 300 bottles, that is almost $3 a bottle in just the cost of wood.  (To give you an idea of the financial impact of this, figure that every dollar spent in production must be multiplied 6 to 10 times to achieve the retail price.) If winemakers can “make” the wine interesting using specialized yeast strains and fermentation techniques in reusable tanks, think of the cost savings.  The greatest example of this to me is the Mer Soleil Silver label.  The wine is made using the same fruit as the regular Mer Soleil label but aged in large, concrete tanks, and sells for the same price.  When pressed about the lack of price disparity despite the lower cost of production, their representative told me that, “concrete tanks are very expensive.”  Of course they are, but they also last forever.
So I would love to say this is a call to action but it is not, just a commentary that my observations have been correct all this time.  Unwooded Chardonnay is fine as a category if you are afraid of too much flavor otherwise, there are too many good options for white wine drinkers that offer real complexity.