Some folks shudder when they hear the phrase ‘American Chardonnay.’ For many, the reference conjures up movie-theatre butter. But instead of the butter being inside a bucket with us seated in front of a big screen with lounging chairs, it’s in a wine glass. And there is some legitimacy to that image. There was certainly a time when American Chardonnay, particularly those from California, all seemed a little “extra.” Extra oak, extra malolactic fermentation, extra price maybe. I say ‘all,’ and I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but it was certainly a prevalent style. Oaky, butter bombs with little personality. Or at least not the personality that we like by today’s standards. Sure, people still make wines in those styles (and there are consumers that love them), but as many consumers’ tastes have shifted, so have winemaking practices.

As for me, I’m a Chardonnay lover through and through. When it’s made well, it can be ethereal. So if you’re STILL on the ‘ABC’ (Anything But Chardonnay) train and it’s been while, I beg you to give it anther whirl. Here are some of my fave regions making delicious American Chardonnay.

Sta. Rita Hills

My fascination with California’s Central Coast, and Sta. Rita Hills in particular, began with a work colleague occasionally popping into my office to talk about wine. He went on and on about the likes of Paul Lato, Ken Brown, Sanford, and more. And the more he talked about the wines, the more I took notes and filed them away. Not long after that, I was invited to a trade event put on by Jackson Family Wines that highlighted the wines of Santa Barbara and after tasting several wines there, I was all in. Not long after, I booked myself a trip out to the region to get a look first hand.

Sta. Rita Hills is a sub-region of Santa Barbara, which is one of the oldest wine-producing areas of California and is regarded as a marine-derived paradise for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Even though the first vineyards in the region were planted in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the region really came into its own and began to garner international attention due to the vision of Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Wines. Sta. Rita Hills’ unique geographic characteristics is what makes the region so special. The region’s vineyards lie in east-west valleys (transverse ranges) along the Pacific coastline. Ocean refrigerated air is pulled in from the Pacific resulting in hyper-cooled temperatures in the vineyards. These cool temperatures translate into a long growing season which results in optimal physiological ripeness of the grapes. Add in the region’s marine soils, and you’ve got something truly special.

A few producers that I recommend are:

Liquid Farm

Brewer Clifton

The Hilt Estate

Sandhi Wines

Willamette Valley

Do yourself a favor and run and get some Willamette Valley Chardonnay! Any Willamette Valley Chardonnay. Right before the dreaded ‘Rona, more and more Chardonnay was coming into my purview from Pinot Noir Country, i.e. Oregon’s Willamette Valley. And then it just kept on coming. It all came to a head when I was in a room full of Willamette Pinot Noir (which I adore) and all I could do was run to the Chardonnay! These are some of the most linear, focused, ethereal, and sublime Chardonnays I’ve even had the privilege of tasting. As I discussed in my article on Ponzi’s 50th birthday, much of the change in Oregon Chardonnay came with many winemakers switching the types of clones they used. 

As recently as the mid-90s, hardly anyone in the Willamette Valley was producing Chardonnay. Most had pulled it up because it just wasn’t working. But then winemakers took a closer look at the type of Chardonnay planted and many replaced their Wente Chardonnay clones with Dijon clones and here we are today. In a short span, I’ve been able to try many of these wines, and they seriously do not disappoint. And honestly, I just love visiting out there.

A few producers that I recommend include:

Big Table Farm

Walter Scott Wines

Evening Land Vineyards


For me, it was a glass of Carneros wine while sitting at a wine bar in the Ferry Building in San Francisco that took me down the rabbit hole that is wine. At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, that glass of wine changed everything. After talking to the somm and learning more about the wine, including the fact that it came from Carneros, I was on a mission to find more of it. In fact, I wanted to find any Carneros wine that I could get my hands on. That was probably 15 years ago (or more) but I’ve never forgotten the experience. I did indeed visit Carneros wine country not long after and have been fortunate to be able to visit on a couple of occasions. And each time I have the wines, I’m reminded of why this is such a special place.

Carneros is a unique region in that it straddles the southern parts of Sonoma and Napa. The region sits just north of San Pablo Bay, an extension of the northern portion of the greater San Francisco Bay. The bay provides a key role for the grapes of the region and helps to keep the area cool and windy. The winds off the bay and the cooler climate means it’s a great place to grow both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for still and sparkling (y’all know I love my bubbles) wine. There’s an amazing dichotomy between the ripeness of fruit and the acidity that Carneros gets from those bay winds. These are wines that exhibit tension, acid, and complexity. In other words, damn good wines. 

A few producers I recommend are:

Nid Tissé

Hyde de Villaine

Donum Estate

Santa Lucia Highlands

After visiting Sta. Rita Hills, the Santa Lucia Highlands was the next region I visited in California’s Central Coast. Perched on southeast-facing alluvial terraces of the Santa Lucia Mountains near California’s Monterey Bay is one of California’s most exquisite, yet under the radar wine growing regions – the cool climate Santa Lucia Highlands (“SLH”) AVA. And the wines are spectacular! The region is nestled within the larger Monterrey AVA and is a long, narrow region comprised of only 22,000 total acres – much of it unplantable mountainside – with total planted acres coming in just shy of 6,000. Measuring about eighteen miles long and one to three miles wide, it is small, but mighty.

The region is known as a cool-climate region – an essential characteristic for world-class Chardonnay. To be sure, the cold, deep Monterey Bay is the most important climatic influence in the SLH providing the area with significant amounts of wind and fog. The bay also provides a moderating effect for a long, consistent growing season. This translates to beautifully ripe fruit with balanced, vibrant acidity.

A few producers that I recommend are:

Luli wines are crafted with the goal of offering quality wines at affordable prices.

Luli Wines

Lucia Vineyards

Morgan Winery

McIntyre Family Wines

Livermore Valley

What can I say, more Central Coast California love. OK, yeah, putting ‘California’ and ‘love’ together instantly conjures up images of 2Pac and Dr. Dre in the desert. But I digress… Livermore Valley is responsible for so many firsts when it comes to wine. It is actually the oldest wine region in California and was the region that won America’s first international gold medal for wine at the Paris Exposition. And here I was thinking it was the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 aka the Judgment of Paris wine competition. Additionally, Livermore Valley was the first to introduce varietal-labeling for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Petite Sirah. In fact, the region’s Chardonnay is the basis for much of America’s Chardonnay. Around 80% of California’s Chardonnay vines trace their genetic lineage back to the Wente clones propagated in the Livermore Valley. In other words, the region is synonymous with American Chardonnay.

Having just visited the region, one of the long held beliefs that was immediately dispelled was that it was too hot to make lighter, elegant wines there. So many wines I had were fresh, delicate, aromatic – and with vibrant acidity. Needless to say, I put those pre-conceived notions to rest. I dare say (being dramatic again) that a couple of the Chardonnays brought a tear to my eye.

A few producers that I recommend are:

This Page Mill Chardonnay was so seriously swoon-worthy. And apparently considered their entry-level Chard. Wow!

Page Mill Winery

Pruett Farms

3 Steve’s Winery

Well there you have it, my love letter to American Chardonnay. Of course, I’m just scratching the surface as I have some West Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley producers whose Chardonnay that I also love. And don’t get all dramatic on me – yes, of course, I still love Bourgogne Blanc (when it isn’t oxidized) and always will. But if people still think American Chardonnay isn’t worth their time, they’d better think again.

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