"What are my white wine choices?" I asked the other day after boarding one of the roughly 24 Southwest Airlines flights that I will take this year, as I commute monthly to work with one of my clients in California.
"Chardonnay," answered the steward.
"Is there more than one producer or label?" I inquired.
"Chardonnay," she politely replied in the same monotone (it was the last flight out of Texas for the day).
"Well, then, I guess I'll have the Chardonnay."
"It's either that or Merlot."
Now, don't get me wrong: I love Southwest, a Texas-based, homegrown air carrier. I am a frequent flier and fan of the no-frill low fares, the flexible ticketing, and the good spirit and humor that the stewards always share with their guests -- the brand's trademark in my experience.
But let's be honest: I have rarely ordered wine on a plane because in my experience, the options are limited to anonymous commercial wines that taste like fortified fruit juice. (Beer or vodka are generally my choices when flying the friendly skies.)
On this occasion, however, I felt like I should take one for the Eating Our Words team and write a review of the 2009 Coastal Ridge Chardonnay that I drank mile high.
The most remarkable thing about this wine is the vintage. Generally, commercial wines like this one are released the year after harvest. In fact, I discovered, reading the Coastal Ridge website, this wine was released in September 2010. The value of Chardonnay in California has gone down with the last two harvests, in part because a cooling trend has delivered less fruit and in part because the financial crisis seems to have diminished Americans' thirst for "California Chardonnay." Was this split (a split is a bottle that contains 187 milliliters of wine) a reflection of this trend?
For the record, my favorite California wine industry blog, Vinsanity by Vino Girl, reports that "the 2011 Chardonnay crop was the smallest since 1984."
I'm not sure what to make of these data but they certainly give me Chardonnay for thought.
The other thing that fascinated (and pleased) me about this wine was its extraordinarily low alcohol: 12.5 percent. While the wine was dominated by candied fruit flavors (owed no doubt to the use of cultured yeasts employed in fermentation), the alcohol was well integrated and in balance in the wine. Unlike most commercial expressions of Chardonnay (and wines that ride the "California Chard" brand band wagon), it didn't have that whopping alcohol content that turns me off at first sniff.
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Did the wine have any nuance or character? No, it was uni-dimensional and tasted like Welch's white grape juice with alcohol added to it. But it was clean and fresh (despite the age) and quaffable.
Would I recommend it? No, I couldn't responsibly do that. But, then again, when you're mile high, you might as well join the club.