Dinner on Austrian Airlines made me think of California chardonnay. Not that I wanted any, as the fruity, simple zweigelt was fine, but the in-flight entree en route from Washington to Vienna was chicken in cream sauce and that always says California chardonnay to me.
You see, back in the late 1980s when my wife and I were first indulging our interest in wine, I attended a tasting of Sonoma County wines held in Washington, D.C. As I recall, the event cost $40, which seemed like a lot at the time, so I went alone to save the price of a ticket. As I went around the room, I tried chardonnay after buttery chardonnay and compared my reactions to those of more experienced wine lovers. (“I think they overdid the malolactic on this one,” was a comment that sent me to my wine books as soon as I got home.)
Being an ultimate newbie, I asked winemakers what food would go with their chardonnay. I expected them to recommend buttered popcorn, but every darn one of them said, “Chicken in cream sauce,” as if the answer was obvious. I did not, and still don’t, cook with cream as a rule, so this answer was unsatisfying. And its repetition probably solidified the image in my mind of California chardonnay as a heavy, one-dimensional wine. That image remains, though I can of course rattle off a list of exceptions.
I don’t remember the names of the winemakers who gave me such rote advice, nor do I remember the names of the wineries, except for one: Alderbrook, near Healdsburg. Alderbrook, now part of the Terlato empire but then independent, was pouring a semillon that I took a liking to. So I complimented the winemaker and asked what food to pair it with.
“Well, it would be fine with chicken in cream sauce,” he said, sounding rather bored. Then he brightened and added, “but it’s great with pan-fried pork chops!”
Finally, I thought – someone who speaks my language. Of course, I haven’t had a Sonoma County semillon in years.