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The Evolution
of America’s
Most Popular Wine

It’s time to rethink Chardonnay.
The wildly popular wine
is having a moment,
once again.

Originally from the Burgundy region of France, Chardonnay has long held the reputation as the area’s finest white wine grape. Now it is grown in almost every wine-producing country in the world, and maintains its status as America’s most popular white varietal. But it wasn’t until the legendary Judgment of Paris in 1976 that Chardonnay came into its own in the States.

That famed competition—when Chateau Montelena stunned the world by defeating the French in a blind test test—was a critical moment in the evolution of California’s wine industry.

In the 80’s and 90’s, Chardonnay mania ensued as New World winemakers tried to keep up with the booming demand. However, the instant popularity did come with some growing pains. Over-eager producers started intensely aging and fermenting Chardonnay in new French oak barrels, which led to its heavily-oaked “butter bomb” reputation. While this rich, toasty, full-bodied style has its devoted fans, the wine industry has also seen a backlash against it with a movement of ABC (anything but Chardonnay) drinkers.

not all California Chardonnays
are created equal.

Chardonnay is a truly versatile grape, often referred to as a blank canvas in the wine world. It expresses both the character of the area it is grown and the process of the winemaker, which results in a vast range of styles.

For the past 35 years, Sonoma-Cutrer has been producing beautifully elegant Chardonnays out of the Sonoma Coast appellation—a region known for long growing seasons and a cool, foggy coastal climate which creates ideal winemaking conditions. “A lot of people think that all California Chardonnays can be categorized by the big oaky, buttery style, but therein lies the misconception; you can’t lump any varietal into one single category,” shares Sonoma-Cutrer’s Winemaking Director Michael “Mick” Schroeter. “That’s the beauty of the wine industry, there’s so much variation from region to region, and winery to winery.” While each of Sonoma-Cutrer's five distinct Chardonnays have original expressions and reflect unique vineyard characteristics, none of them fit the typical Cali Chard stereotype.

Using oak to enhance,
not overpower

One of the main points of differentiation between California Chardonnay producers is their approach to oak. “People can get hung up on ‘oaky’ as a descriptor, but using oak properly is key to capturing the bright character of the fruit. It’s the ultimate balancing act,” says Mick.

For example, Sonoma-Cutrer signature Chardonnay, Russian River Ranches, is produced using new and neutral French oak, along with stainless steel for fermentation. “This multi-step process enhances the fruit characteristics, adds complexity on nose and imparts creaminess on palate.” Crisp, aromatic and easy-drinking, Russian River Ranches is the most popular Chardonnay ordered in restaurants across the country—and it has been for years.

The “new” movement in California Chardonnay

Recently there’s been a rise in California winemakers—from the big names to the boutique producers—who are making fruity, food-friendly Chardonnays in modern stainless steel or concrete tanks. This “unoaked” approach (bye, bye butter bombs!) is currently a hot trend out of California, as more and more wine drinkers are seeking refined Chardonnays. But what may seem new to some is just business as usual for Sonoma-Cutrer.

Throughout all the Chardonnay trends over the past few decades, Sonoma-Cutrer's vision has always been the same: produce the best Chardonnay possible by combining Old World craftsmanship with New World innovation. “Trends come and go, but our style and quality has remained very consistent. People have always enjoyed our Chardonnay, but now even moreso, our style is in much higher demand,” says Mick.

America’s cultural shift in consumption

As the United States steadily increases its overall wine consumption, the more quality continues to go up—and a lot of the less expensive wines (in the $15-20 range) are getting better and better. There’s been an evolution in food, too. “Rich, heavy foods and Italian-based cuisine dominated the American diet years ago, but now we find people looking for more elegantly structured foods, which pair well with elegantly structured wines. When it comes to pairing wine with food, it’s all about balance,” says Mick. In general, Chardonnay is an extremely food-friendly wine, and every single style—from full and buttery to crisper and lighter-bodied—has its place at the table.

America’s cultural shift in consumption

So what’s ahead for Chardonnay?

As winemaking continues to evolve in the US and on a global scale, Americans will be exposed to an even more dynamic variety of Chardonnay styles—one to suit any taste and occasion. If the sustained success and longevity of the Sonoma-Cutrer brand is any indicator, Chardonnay will continue to dominate the market in years to come. “I see nothing but positive territory ahead because of the approachable, elegantly structured wine we’re making at Sonoma-Cutrer; it’s a style that wine lovers will continue to search out,” says Mick, who as only the third head winemaker in the history of Sonoma-Cutrer, is honored to carry on the brand’s storied legacy and take it to new heights.

For all you ABC drinkers out there,
why not give Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay a try?
One sip might just make you a convert. Cheers!
Find more information about Sonoma-Cutrer wines at

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