the 2013 Chardonnay El Camino Vineyard Santa Barbara County from Varner
Varner single-block Chardonnays from the Spring Ridge Vineyard up in the Santa Cruz Mountains are undeniably some of California’s most exquisite Chardonnays. They garner high scores from critics who bestow points, are collected by passionate advocates of California Chardonnay, and are universally admired for their rich fruit and restrained balance. My personal take on the wines is that if you champion and appreciate great Chardonnay, Varner should be on your list of wines to drink. So, can you imagine my excitement when I learned that Varner was about to release a brand new wine from a vineyard in Santa Barbara County?!
As Jim Varner explained to me, he doesn’t really like telling people he can’t sell them any more wine. Poor guy has to do this probably all the time, since Varner wines are allocated and in great demand. It makes sense then that Jim and Bob Varner would want to look for a way to use their Chardonnay making prowess to expand their offerings. Jim went on to explain to me that he and his brother were ready to take on a new project and wanted another creative outlet, so the search was on for the fruit. The El Camino Vineyard in northern Santa Barbara County parallel to the Santa Rita Hills was the right spot. The grapes come from a single block (see a pattern here!) of clone 4 Chardonnay. Clone 4…what does that mean? In the beginning stages of a vineyard’s life, clones matter, but over time – 10 years out or so – Jim tells me grapes can lose their clonal distinction as site overtakes influence on the vines.
Cooking with Varner Chardonnay
El Camino Vineyard is five miles east of the Pacific Ocean with cool, coastal influences, but it is not a windy site. The Varners don’t favor windy sites. The phenolics in the grapes were especially compelling to the Varners and fit in with the direction they wanted to take with this new project. With the 2013 El Camino Vineyard Chardonnay, the Varners de-stemmed the fruit and fermented it in stainless steel tanks. A quarter of the wine was then aged for 6 months in new French oak puncheons, while the rest remained in tank resting on its lees. The intention was to preserve acidity and temper the tropical notes of Santa Barbara Chardonnay, moving flavors towards citrus and apples, convening into “a more tightly coiled Chardonnay in a modern style”.
I must confess, I was taken aback by the wine when I first tasted it because I was expecting another Spring Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay, which it isn’t. I had failed to pay close attention to the tech sheet provided by the winery. This wine is a clear juxtaposition to their barrel-fermented Mountain wines. The 2013 El Camino Vineyard is quick on its feet with pronounced acidity. The tropical fruit notes while not eliminated, play background to the lemony citrus notes. At this stage, none of the oak is detectable. I predict that with some bottle age those flavors might emerge ever so slightly. The tangy acidity and firm structure of the fruit are its dominant features. Jim told me he was under a lot of pressure to release the wine early. I can see why. The quality, price, and the fresh, vibrant style is ideal for restaurant by-the-glass lists, not to mention Varner fans and anyone looking for a different expression of California Chardonnay.
Jim & Bob Varner
Once I put away my expectations of what I thought a Varner Chardonnay should taste like, I began to appreciate the 2013 El Camino Vineyard Chardonnay on its own merit. Fortunately the night I opened a bottle, I had prepared for dinner a simple quesadilla with caramelized onions and sautéed nopales. The green tartness of the nopales was perfect foil for this crisp Chardonnay. It was also another unseasonably warm winter California evening, so something light and fresh was definitely in order. Its no secret that the entire staff at The Wine House are admirers of the Varners. Both Jim and Bob are uncommonly gracious. They’re a couple of the good guys who happen to also make great wine! Oh and here’s a teaser: a Varner Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is coming soon! So stay tuned.