Participants in Saturday's third-annual Chardonnay Symposium at Byron Vineyard & Winery enjoyed chardonnay from 56 California winemakers during a summer day that showcased both the gentle warmth and gusty winds for which the Santa Maria Valley is famous. The symposium's morning panel session and afternoon grand tasting both sold out, said Chris Slaughter, executive director of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association, event sponsor. "We are thrilled to be able to share our Santa Maria Valley hospitality with so many people from throughout the state of California."
Some of the Central Coasts most popular restaurants and caterers, among them Full of Life Flatbread, the Ballard Inn, Central City Market and Trattoria Uliveto, offered guests some of the freshest fare around, as well as cooking and wine pairing demonstrations.
Eight chardonnay producers from throughout California participated in the symposium's morning panel: Bob Cabral of Williams Selyem; Joshua Klapper of La Fenetre Wines, (subbing for Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi of Bonaccorsi Wine Company, who had a family emergency); returning 2011 panelist Dieter Cronje, Presqu'ile Wines; James Hall, Patz & Hall; Eric Johnson, Talley Vineyards; Heidi von deer Mehden, Arrowood Vineyards & Winery; Bill Wathan, Foxen Winery; and Graham Weerts of Stonestreet Wines.
Led by moderator Steve Heimoff, each speaker offered a variation of the panel's theme, "Chardonnay & Terroir." Heimoff is an editor at "Wine Enthusiast" and wine blogger.
Klapper noted that Byron's Nielsen Vineyard, one of the Santa Maria Valley's oldest, produces grapes that are "very much Santa Maria Valley" in that they showcase the balance of acidity and sugar for which the region's chardonnays and pinot noirs are known.
The cool area leads to vines' early bud break and a long growing season, one described by panelist Bill Wathen of Foxen Winery as lasting an average of 125 days from bloom to harvest.
While winters are "warm," and the warmest time each day tends to be around 11 or 11:30 a.m., by noon the winds pick up and the window for the vines' photosynthesis closes, Wathen said. "There's a very short growth period during each day."
At Stonestreet Winery's Alexander Mountain Estate Vineyard, winemaker Graham Weerts has learned that "cooler climates make better chardonnays — and better wines" in general, he said.
The South African native described how the vineyard that produces Stonestreet's Broken Road and Bear Point chardonnays ranges between 1,800 and 2,000 feet in elevation. "We grow chardonnay right about at the fog line" on the property, he said.
The Stonestreet 2010 Upper Barn Chardonnay radiates flavors of white peach. To be sure, Weerts noted, some of the best characteristics of chardonnay are "peach pits" and an essence of gravel on the palate.
As California's most widely planted grape, chardonnay is "even more diverse" than it was 25 years ago when some of the state's earliest vineyards were created, said panelist Bob Cabral, winemaker for Williams Selyem.
With so many chardonnay styles from which to choose, Cabral urged panel attendees to "find the one that you like, and just drink wine."
At the panel's end, Heimoff led panelists in saluting the Wente chardonnay clone, which was imported to California in 1912 by Ernest Wente via cuttings in France and cultivated at the famous Wente Winery in the Livermore Valley.
Local chefs who offered live cooking demonstrations were Budi Kazali of The Ballard Inn; Alfonso Curti of Trattoria Uliveto; and Ryan Gromfin, consulting chef for the Santa Maria Inn.
The weekend event, in its third year, featured a "BYOC (chardonnay) barbecue Friday night at Sierra Madre vineyard, Saturday's Byron events, a sold-out winemaker dinner Saturday night with longtime area winemaker Kenneth Volk, a seafood-and-chardonnay dinner at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery and a Sunday brunch at Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery.