Featured Wine: Sanford Chardonnay, California, USA
ESTATE BOTTLED CHARDONNAY 2002
SANTA RITA HILLS, Santa Barbara County, California, USA, $18
We first came across the Sanford Chardonnay on honeymoon in Hawaii, an appropriate place to discover a wine that was, still is, and hopefully forever will be awash with Pacific flavors of pineapple, apricot, mango and fig. Back then, in 1993, we were such wine novices we didn’t realize that not every Californian Chardonnay was of such unique quality, but we were smart enough to bring the cork home with us and make Sanford our special occasion Chardonnay for the next few years. In the hot 1997 vintage, the Sanford was so ripe, the grapes picked so late, that it had a touch of botyritis to it (like a Sauternes), which we found delightful but was clearly not to everyone’s taste: we ended up buying a case of it for a ridiculously inexpensive $12.50 a bottle, which enabled us to make it our everyday Chardonnay too.
But even our own tastes are prone to change and, turned off by all those buttery, oaky double-malo Chardonnays that have hogged the headlines and shelf-talkers and become the norm in California, we forgot about Sanford’s exception to the rule as we moved on to white wines from the Loire, the Rhône and Germany. Besides, every time I saw Sanford on sale (which is not that often: they’re produced in moderate quantities), it was priced above $20, much much more than I like paying for white wine of any kind.
But then came Sideways. If you’ve seen the film, you may remember that Sanford is the first winery to which wine geek Miles takes his neophyte buddy Jack, assuring him that Sanford makes “some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the county.” Watching the movie for the first time, that moment set off alarm bells in my head: I knew I needed to taste Sanford’s wines again – and before the fictional film’s focus on real life wines pushed the price even higher.
Fortunately, only Sanford’s Pinot has seen a Sideways-inflicted price jump. I picked up the 2002 Chardonnay for well under $20 at The Bottle King on Route 17 in New Jersey. Only two things had visibly changed about the wine since last we shared each other’s company. The AVA (the American term for an appellation) is now the new Santa Rita Hills, rather than simply Santa Barbara County. And the alcohol content seems to have risen. For all that the back label boasts of the Hills’ “cool maritime breeze off the Pacific,” Sanford is still just as close to the Equator as an American winery can be, and the 2002 comes in at a staggering 14.5%.
I wouldn’t pretend you don’t notice the wine’s strength, but before it knocks you, um, sideways, you’ll hopefully make notes like my own: “Lots of tropical pineapple and guava on the nose, plus tangerine and grapefruit. Kiwi too. Good balance on palate of tropical fruit and bright acidity. Citrus kicks in mid-palate and alcohol at the end with some of that lean oiliness I’ve come to associate with this wine.” Note the lack of common Californian Chardonnay descriptors like “butter,” “vanilla,” and “oak.” Sanford’s flavors are not absolutely unique to the winery – my Jancis Robinson/Hugh Johnson World Atlas of Wine compares California’s southern Central Coast to New Zealand for “naturally high acidity offset by fruity intensity – but this is still an exemplary and entirely unique bottling. It will stand up to very rich dishes, and while fish-lovers could go that lobster-in-ginger route, I imagine trying my next bottle with a fruit-flavored curry.
There are yet more reasons to love Sanford. Proprietor Richard Sanford planted the famous Sanford & Benedict vineyard back in 1971, which opened up Santa Barbara as premier wine country: we’re dealing here with a pioneer. And the back label to the Chardonnay assures not only that all Sanford’s vineyards are certified organic, but that the winery’s “work is focused by love and respect for wine, the natural environment, our co-workers and our customers.” It would be so much hollow rhetoric were the wine itself not this exceptional. For myself and my wife, it’s hard not to drink it and be taken back to the sunset in Kaui. As for Miles and Jack in Sideways, it’s a wonder they were ever able to progress further along the Santa Barbara wine trail.