Why Chardonnay Became America’s Favorite Wine

It didn’t have to be Chardonnay. It could have been — get this — Madeira! The fortified wine, from Portugal’s Madeira islands, was the favorite wine of our Founding Fathers (Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, George Washington and John Hancock all loved it).

But it was Chardonnay that captured American hearts. Nobody could have predicted that 50 years ago, when acreage of Chardonnay in California was pitifully low. In the years following the Repeal of Prohibition, U.S. wine drinkers preferred sweet white wines, with names like Sauternes and Chablis. Never mind that real Chablis — from France’s Burgundy region — was made from Chardonnay grapes; most Americans never heard of Chardonnay.

Even in sophisticated San Francisco, that was true. I have a wine list from Oreste’s, a famous restaurant in the 1950s. It had one of the best wine lists in town — but while you’ll find Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Blanc on it, there’s no Chardonnay. There’s a lot of “Burgundy” from California that might have been Chardonnay, but customers had no way of knowing that.

Things started to change in the 1960s, when the “boutique winery” movement picked up steam, first in Napa Valley and, later, spreading throughout California’s winegrowing regions. Although a few pioneering wineries, like Wente and Hanzell, had captured connoisseurs’ attention, the vast majority of consumers didn’t turn onto Chardonnay until small, prestigious wineries started producing it. By the 1980s, Chardonnay was our country’s preferred white wine, and today, it out-sells all other whites. In fact, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is now in its 24th year of being the top-selling Chardonnay in the U.S.

One reason may be that the critics recommended it so strongly. We know that critics have power, whether it be in movies, restaurants, T.V. programs or plays. But even the most powerful critics can’t make a wine popular if there’s no there there. To have staying power, a wine has to appeal to the most basic tastes of consumers. For example, about fifteen years ago the critics were all gaga over Sangiovese. Unfortunately, the wines weren’t very interesting, and so the Sangiovese boomlet fizzled, proving that critics can make something temporarily popular, but not permanently.

But Chardonnay is different. There’s a reason it’s been famous (from Burgundy) for centuries. A well-made Chard is a magnificent white wine; not for nothing did the British dub it one of the world’s “noble” grape varieties. Here at Kendall-Jackson, we have numerous bottlings of Chardonnay, ranging from the sleek, lightly oaked K-J AVANT to the lush, opulent Stature. Chardonnay is just one of those wines whose flavors are nearly impossible not to fall in love with!

Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.