Some people reach an age when they experience midlife crisis; mine appears to be taking the form of chardonnay burnout. Chardonnay may be considered California's greatest white wine, but I'm bored with the whole idea. Wine makers don't seem interested in making a chardonnay that tastes like wine; these days, chardonnay has to be big, rich, bold _ a statement.
Each year as the new chardonnays hit the market, I sample as many as I can get. I judge them in major wine competitions. And I see more and more of the same thing: fat, oaky, overdone flavors; flabby, sweet, thin, innocuous tastes.
In the 1980s, restaurants in the major cities grew up. We discovered arugula and radicchio, tapenade and peanut sauce, wild mushrooms and Southwestern chilies, nouvelle and California cuisines, baby vegetables, Southern cooking with black-eyed peas and grits, and Oriental spices.
But no matter what they ate, people ordered chardonnay. Semillon or sparkling wine would go better with lots of these foods, and so would a half-dozen others: dry German or Washington State Rieslings, Pinot Grigio or Arneis from Italy, or Semillon from Australia. Thai food and sausages scream for dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, yet in places where these foods are served, we are offered chardonnay.
Americans don't lack adventurousness when they are dining _ only when they are drinking
I believe that chardonnay became as popular as it is partly because it is the "safe" choice for diners who don't know enough to comfortably order a Mercury Blanc, a Sancerre or an Arneis.
Instead, as a white table wine to go with dinner, consider sauvignon blanc.
Thirty-five wineries have banded together in the Society of Blancs (known as SOBs) to promote the variety. Their goal: to bring newcomers to wine into the sauvignon blanc camp.
And why not? The wine's benefits are obvious:
In the last five years or so, Californians have made sauvignon blanc with more style and less of the vegetative character that once dominated the wines.
They are far cheaper: The best and most expensive sauvignon blancs rarely reach $15, and most are in the $7 to $10 range. Chardonnays generally sell for $18 to $25.
Alcohols are typically lower, in the 12 percent to 13 percent range; chardonnays usually have more alcohol, a consideration when matching wine with food. (Spicy food tastes even spicier with high-alcohol wines.)
Sauvignon blanc is available in a wider range of styles: some with oak, some without; some with a trace of sugar, others without; some grassy, some like a French Graves.
In a recent series of tastings, I especially liked the 1989 sauvignon blancs from Louis Martini and Raymond (both sell for $8 to $9 a bottle).
Other 1989 sauvignon blancs or fume blancs I have liked this year are Preston Reserve, $11, creamier and richer than typical Loire styles; Buena Vista Lake County, $7.50, and Kenwood, $9.50, both slightly sweet; De Loach fume blanc, $9.50, a spicy, lemony wine; and Dry Creek, $10.50, superb grassy styles; Clos Pegase, $9.25, with a Loire and spice character; Ferrari-Carano, $10, and Iron Horse, $12, leaning more on a lemon grass aroma; Markham, $8; and Matanzas Creek, $14, accenting melons and pears.