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California chardonnay has all the right stuff

Edward Deitch finds an exquisite balancing act in Gainey’s ’04.
/ Source: TODAY

I focused on syrah when I visited and wrote about the wines of Santa Barbara County last fall, but I recently discovered some exciting chardonnays from this area on California’s central coast. These wines have exceptional balance and complexity, and one of them turns out to be a great value when it comes to high-end California chardonnay.

The 2004 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay from Gainey Vineyard has a suggested price of $19, and you would have to look hard to find better chardonnay at this price. In fact, I've seen it advertised on the Web for even less.

The wine is luscious and mouth coating but is saved from being sappy by its lively acidity, a key component, at least for me, when it comes to chardonnay. The balance comes from the fact that the region, a few hours’ drive north of Los Angeles, is really a cool climate area where intense sun is tempered by Pacific Ocean breezes and nighttime fog. The resulting wines are at once ripe and crisp.

About three quarters of the grapes used in the chardonnay come from Gainey’s Evan’s Ranch vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. The rest are from three other sources in the area — the Bien Nacido, Huber and Sweeney Canyon vineyards. Although Gainey has been around for four decades as an 1,800-acre farm and ranch, serious winemaking started only 20 years ago or so with Bordeaux varieties like merlot and cabernet franc in the warmer, eastern side of the Santa Ynez Valley. Expansion to cool climate grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir began in the 1990s in the Santa Rita Hills.

That area “tends to give us not only a nice citrus and tropical fruit character, but it also has a minerality to it that we particularly like,” Dan Gainey, the vineyard's owner, told me. He explained that with the naturally high acidity of the grapes, even with a “traditional chardonnay” made in a rich, creamy style “you still end up with a wine that has tremendous brightness to it.” He'll get no argument. The wine is more Burgundy than Napa.

With its deep, almost golden color, it's marked by aromas and tastes of pear, honey, cinnamon, vanilla and touches of lime and orange rind. Mouth watering, we enjoyed it with a gumbo-like fish stew that included shrimp, red snapper and cod mixed with tomatoes, onions, a little garlic and a couple of cups of sliced okra.  Okra, with its intriguing, slightly nutty aromas, has become one of my favorite additions to seafood and even chicken stews. When sliced and cooked, it releases a good deal of starch so it also serves as a natural thickener.

The wine was a beautiful companion to the dish, with each enhancing the other and the wine serving as a refreshing counterpoint. Some 4,900 cases of the '04 were produced and the '05 will be released soon.

I also enjoyed another wine from the area, Tantara Winery’s spectacular 2004 Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay, with a similar but somewhat richer style and priced at about $30 or so.  Production on this one was just 118 cases, so availability will be limited. But Tantara is clearly another winery to watch.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at