Rombauer Chardonnay is more than just wildly popular. It has become a California icon, and its distinctive flavor profile captures the essence of the Golden State: the wine world’s equivalent to a Porsche 911 convertible zipping down a picturesque stretch of Pacific Coast Highway on a cloudless day.
Sure, it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you’re after a subtle, food-friendly, French-style Chardonnay, steer clear of this one. (I prefer Rombauer’s newest creation, its reasonably priced, beautifully structured Sauvignon Blanc.)
But there’s no denying the wine’s popularity. I’ve talked to more than one restaurant manager who says that carrying Rombauer’s big, fruity Chardonnay is not an option, but a necessity. It’s particularly popular with women of a certain age, my somm friends tell me.
I chatted not long ago with the man responsible for Rombauer’s Chardonnay, as well as the rest of the respected winery’s considerable output: Richie Allen. The Australia native graduated from the University of Adelaide and made wine in his native country and New Zealand before relocating to California in 2004 to take a harvest position at Rombauer. He quickly rose through the ranks, from enologist to assistant winemaker to head winemaker, and he was named director of viticulture and winemaking in 2013.
Allen said he loved Rombauer’s wine neighborhood from the first time he visited. Los Carneros is the southernmost AVA in Napa (it also spills over into Sonoma), and closest to the moderating influence of the ocean.
“Carneros is that perfect balance between moderate Mediterranean climate and Continental climate,” Allen said. “It sits right at the base of the Napa Valley by the bay. That cool Pacific influence is there, but it’s warm enough to ripen fruit.”
Surprisingly, Rombauer buys fruit from many vineyards that it doesn’t own or control. But Allen isn’t daunted by that complication.
“Every major grape grower here has been in Carneros long enough to make their quality consistent,” he said. “Yes, we work with vineyards that we don’t own, but we’re very specific about who we work with. It’s like dating; you build the relationship. We’re half estate and half purchase, and about 99 percent of our purchased fruit is long-term contracts. We get exactly what we want.”
After many years of working there, Allen is convinced that Carneros’ rare combination of abundant sunshine and cool-ish climate is the key to its magical properties as a wine region.
“When I think of quintessential California Chardonnay, I swear I can taste the sunshine in it,” he said. “That’s the way I think of Carneros. But because of its proximity to the coast, you get acid too. There are very few places like that in the world where you have a balance of warmth and coolness to ripen the fruit perfectly.”
The location brings its problems as well, and they sometimes keep Allen busy, not to mention sleepless at night.
“The challenges are the really cool years,” he said. “2011 was like that. You need to be able to get the fruit ripe enough, which you can do if you manage your canopies. And close to the water, wind can be an issue. Strong evening breezes can really move things around. Mildew is definitely a challenge in Carneros, too. You have these foggy mornings and sunny afternoons that are perfect for mold spores. And the soils here are pretty low in vigor. But all of those challenges give our wines uniqueness. We’re quite different than all other parts of Napa.”
Allen says Carneros leaves its signature on every wine he has created at Rombauer, and it’s easy to define.
“I’d say there is always an attractive ripeness to the fruit, especially with Chardonnay,” he said. “And whether it’s put through malolactic fermentation or not, the underlying acid is the backbone of the wine. That beautiful acidity, coupled with the ripe fruit and the depth and weight you get from a slightly less cool climate, gives the wine this voluptuous quality. That’s what our wine is renowned for.”
Paul Hodgins writes about wine, beer, spirits cocktails and bars for TimesOC. He has been covering the subject for more than a decade, and he has published two books on California wine. Follow him on Instagram @goodlibationsoc.