To be honest, my record is mediocre at best. In my many attempts to show Alessandro Pepe that American wines can be interesting, I've failed more often than I've succeeded. The most recent attempt was a few weeks ago in Rome. Going in, I was certain the bottle would be a winner. It was a 2013 Cameron Clos Electrique Chardonnay, a great producer's best wine in a great vintage.
Cameron was new to me just a few months ago. Since moving from Rome to Washington, DC in late 2014, I've spent my free Saturdays working at a local wine store. During one shift in October, a knowledgeable customer told me he had given up on U.S. Chardonnay, which he found too clumsy almost without exception. But he mentioned a few he still buys: Cameron, in Oregon's Dundee Hills, and Ceritas, a California producer sourcing fruit in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Sonoma Coast. I threw out a couple of suggestions of my own, like Mount Eden, Rhys and Arnot-Roberts, and vowed to try his picks. As luck would have it, he had a cold bottle of Ceritas Porter-Bass Vineyard Chardonnay in his car and opened it for the store staff. This great fortune, I might add, reminded me of why I decided to work in a wine shop in the first place.
The small pour I took of the Ceritas was a revelation. It was probably the best old world-style American Chardonnay I'd ever tasted. There was elegance, harmony, and a Chablis-like, chalky and complex minerality that cleansed my palate. Almost immediately, I thought this Ceritas would be a wine to open for Alessandro Pepe. My customer then relayed that Cameron in Oregon was similar in style, but the wines had more pronounced earthy notes and perhaps a bit more opulent fruit. To me, that sounded even more Alessandro-friendly than the Ceritas! In short order, I grabbed two bottles of Cameron 2012 Clos Electrique Chardonnay from the store, opened one to test, and, sufficiently blown away, brought the second bottle to Rome in November. It turns out Cameron is a biodynamic producer who somehow gets his barrel-maker to fly out from Burgundy every year. How could a winemaker like that fail to impress my great, albeit a bit snooty, Italian wine friend?!! Just to be sure, I decided to test the second Cameron 2012 on other Italian palates, before subjecting it to the Alessandro test.
Sure enough, my Italian wine geek friends loved it. My buddy Gianluca asked me to bring more bottles back to Italy so that he can open them blind next to Meursault, with hopes of fooling his Burgundy-loving friends. Since the 2012 was out of stock at the store, I promised to return with the 2013, which was reported to be even better. With Cameron now well-tested, I gave a bottle of the just-arrived 2013 to Alessandro on March 14th, 2016. He decided to open it that same day, slightly too warm, during an industry tasting lunch in Rome, with producers, restaurateurs and a distributor all present. You could say the pressure was high, but I was confident, and looked forward to seeing Alessandro's reaction.
Well, that bottle of wine was a clunker. I wouldn't say it was flabby, although it was definitely softer than the 2012 version, with more overt oak and little of the persistence I remembered. The worst part was that Alessandro, as is his habit, shared it with everyone within shouting distance, including a small group of (excellent) Italian winemakers, all of whom were anxious to sample the foreign wine. On second thought, the real worst part may have been their pity. The winemakers all said nice things about the wine, but their body language confirmed my own opinion. Fellow American Lindsay Gabbard tried to make me (and the wine) feel better by saying something like, "you know, I can see why the style of this wine was appealing. There are plenty of American Chardonnays with less backbone." More pity.
So Alessandro was right again, much to my chagrin. Where did I go wrong? I'll have to do better the next time I'm in Rome. Any suggestions on what I should bring? My first 6-pack of Ceritas Chardonnay just arrived a few days ago. Maybe I can find another 2012 Clos Electrique somewhere. I'm definitely not giving up on this noble quest. Christopher MacLean
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