Wine & Beer

SLO County’s Chardonnay Symposium puts focus on wine, cheese

Chardonnay grapes glow in the sunshine.
Chardonnay grapes glow in the sunshine.

Now in its seventh year — its second with an international scope— The Chardonnay Symposium is slated for May 12 through 14 at various South County locations. Established as an educational opportunity for both consumers and wine professionals, the event showcases chardonnay wines and styles via seminars and several tasting opportunities.

Wine and cheese go hand-in-hand, so it’s appropriate that one of the Symposium’s food-centric events will feature Laura Werlin, a well-known cheese aficionado, educator and James Beard Award-winning author. She’ll explain the nuances of how to pair artisanal cheeses with chardonnay.

Another delectable tasting event is new this year. Though many winemakers often tout potato chips — in all seriousness — as the best pairing with sparkling wines, The Chardonnay Symposium is raising the bar by adding the Pét-Nat, Sparkling Wine & Oysters Gala.

Sparkling wines and oysters are one of the most classic food and wine pairings around, and not just because both have an aura of prestige. The minerality typically found in sparkling wines mirrors that in oysters, and the wines’ acidity can stand up to almost any preparation — whether raw on the half-shell or kicked up with the richness of oysters Rockefeller.

Pét-nat is short for pétillant naturel, meaning “naturally sparkling” in French. This style of wine has garnered a lot of buzz in recent years, in part because it has a lower price tag than Champagne and many other sparkling wines due to its low-tech method of production.

With pét-nat, the wine is bottled while it’s still in the process of fermentation, so the fermenting finishes in the bottle. It’s not as controlled a process as crafting other sparkling wines, which have sugar and yeast added after fermentation, but pét-nat is gaining appreciation as a more natural product.

In addition, the refreshing effervescence makes for some very approachable sipping, especially as summer approaches.

Larry Brooks talks chardonnay

Among those who have been instrumental in developing The Chardonnay Symposium is consultant Larry Brooks. He brings more than 35 years of experience in both grape growing and wine making, especially with chardonnay and pinot noir varieties at such well-regarded labels as the Chalone Wine Group, Acacia Winery in Napa and Tolosa Winery & Vineyards in San Luis Obispo.

Here, he shares some of his knowledge about chardonnay as a grape variety, wine varietal and partner with food. (Spoiler alert: You’ll be rethinking that old adage about pairing white wine with meat.)

Q: In general, how would you describe chardonnay as a grape variety?

A: Well, it’s fascinating for a winemaker because it is such a blank slate or empty canvas for you to create on. It’s not strongly flavored like sauvignon blanc so the recipe you execute and your techniques have a profound influence on the flavor of the chardonnay you make, and that’s exciting for a creative winemaker.

Q: What are some signature characteristics of Central Coast chardonnays, and what sets them apart from those grown in other regions?

A: There are both regional flavor characters and specific vineyard characters with fine wine in general, and with white wine in particular. The Edna Valley Collective did an excellent descriptive tasting of chardonnay recently and the primary characters were strong in apple and low in peach. There is a tendency to (a) honey character in the local chardonnays as well. I believe that some of the most interesting chardonnays in California can be found in some Central Coast appellations. Santa Maria, Edna Valley and parts of Monterey all make superb chardonnay.

Q: How does aging in stainless tanks, concrete tanks and oak barrels affect non-sparkling chardonnay?

A: You could write a book on this one, but basically oak barrels add flavors that are associated with the wood that they’re made from; vanilla, spice and toasty flavors are dominant. Oak also adds some tannins which augment the wine’s astringency. With stainless steel and concrete, as well as other mostly neutral containers, you have the development of the fruit character as well as some minerality from the lees.

Q: What are the best food pairings for chardonnay?

A: There are lots of different styles of chardonnay and a wider range of foods pair with chardonnay than is generally thought. I’ve enjoyed rare beef with big oaky reserves for example. In general you can’t go wrong if you pair chardonnay with root vegetables — a potato, carrot and parsnip soup is heaven. Rich shellfish such as crab and lobster is also a natural.

Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at

The Chardonnay Symposium

May 12 through 14

Events held throughout the South County include seminars, tasting opportunities and winemaker dinners. Prices for individual events range from $50 to $140; dinner packages that include VIP access to Grand Tasting are $300.