Chardonnay was California’s first “glamour girl” wine. In the mid ’70s, exploding like a model from a birthday cake, its popularity skyrocketed and grew. Thirty years later, like many a pretty face, it may be losing its center stage charm. The diva may soon be relegated to a place where perhaps it should be; one of many white wines to choose from. With each passing vintage, excellent examples of sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot blanc and pinot gris just get better and more popular. The ultimate question is: Are you still really enjoying your chardonnay, or is it just a habit? A recent tasting of mine makes me wonder.

It is not poor chardonnay’s “fault” that it can make a pleasant drink in practically every corner of the globe. Seemingly everyone everywhere wants to, and thinks that they can, make a good chardonnay. Styles range from icy clean and bright to tree trunk thick and ponderous. Balance and flavor appeal can reign over a myriad of styles if winemaker imagination and skill is carefully applied.

Regular readers know of my passion for California wines of all shades, but chardonnay stubbornly remains the varietal that I enjoy least. So many seem beat up and laid low by the excessive use of oak, either during the fermentation process, the aging process–or both. The use of a second fermentation, where brisk malic acid is converted to puppy dog lactic acid, is still too often practiced to extreme. Chardonnay can offer up hints of apple, pear, peach and tropical fruit, but consistently these elements are submerged and sabotaged by a barrage of wooden barrels. I am reminded over and over again, in the bouquet of such entities, of a smell that I can only describe as dirty dishwater, distant skunky sewage and chemical elements that precede, stifle and quash any desire to drink it. This is just plain wrong, and avoidable.

Australia and South Africa are far from innocent either, and their wines often share genetic similarities in this predilection towards excess. The French, love ’em or not, usually utilize their centuries of winemaking experience to consistently create a deft touch with chardonnay. Their wines, only a small fraction of my blind tasting, inspired such comments as “subtle, ripe fruit predominating, sexy with balanced acidity, stylish, layered and balanced” or “trips lightly.” Even “La Biciclette Rouge,” a new Gallo product made in southern France, somehow achieves this better sense of a fruit drink enhanced by judicious winemaking that retains vibrancy and mouth-watering refreshment.

My complaint is far from new, yet many New World winemakers are still convinced that their top of the line chardonnays benefit from, and must receive, the royal oak treatment. I consistently don’t taste the benefits, and find more frustration and less pleasure in tasting large flights of domestic chardonnay than any other white wine. I think, to some extent, that American palates have grown accustomed over the last 20 years to this bigger is better, more bang in each sip style. But ask yourself, does your chardonnay have fruit, life and thrill to it, or is it just smooth, no up or downs, boringly consistent? Since chardonnay remains so popular, I plead with you to expect more charge in your chard. Don’t settle for harmless, or worse.

A number of huge, unpleasant surprises met me in this grouping. GALLO OF SONOMA ESTATE ($45) has a wonderful track record. Yet the 1999 release was off-putting, vegetal, soapy and barely drinkable. (Could something have gone terribly wrong?) PENFOLDS YATTARNA, BIN 144 ($65) has also been historically magical. This 2001 example was healthy, but less than a good drink.

On the plus side, bargain 2003 McMANIS was awash in delicious apples, tropical fruit, an overall well rounded texture and high pleasure factor. I spoke with McManis winemaker Jeff Rundquist, who barrel-fermented 23 percent of the chardonnay, also undergoing malolactic fermentation. The other 77 percent was vinified in temperature-controlled stainless steel with oak staves attached to the inside walls of the tanks. This produced a super wine. Could it be a formula of the future?

2001 ST. CLEMENT had floral spice, pear essence, a warm mouth feel with requisite zip of refreshment. Finally, the 2002 CHATEAU FUISSE, LES CLOS shows what balance, depth, rolling layers of spicy fruit and elegance can achieve in a finely crafted chard. Here then are the results of 52 wines, tasted over the last three weeks, blindly and unchilled:

2002 Kendall-Jackson, Grand Reserve $20

Decent balance, hazelnutty and mellow fruit bouquet aromas. Soft on the palate yet a bit cumbersome and flat-footed. Tannic, perhaps needing time to integrate. Grade: 84

2001 Chateau St. Jean, Robert Young $25

Spicy oak dominates a warm amalgam of fruit impressions. Refined flavors with a medium weight texture on palate. A bit hollow. 85

2002 Kim Crawford, Tietjen-Briant $23

Well blended fruit oak balance. Serious, alive. Creamy mouth feel. Well done but a bit leaden, ponderous. 85

2003 Matua, “Gisbourne,” New Zealand $11

Warm, soft, mellow. Apples and oranges! A bit light and lean but thirst quenching and spirited. 85

2002 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma $14

A “dark” full aroma with caramelized oak overtoning the fruit. Butterscotch, not fruity, yet tangy fresh flavors. A bit short with a woody finish. 86

2003 Red Bicyclette, Pays d’Oc $9-12

Ripe apples, overall fruit sensations and a touch of tree bark. Apple pie and juiciness on the palate. Well rounded and refreshing. A bit tart. 86 GOOD VALUE

2002 Hogue Reserve, Columbia Valley $22

“Shining” fruit amplified by a nice oak backdrop. Brisk, vibrant flavors with good length and an oaky finish. 86

2003 Rainbow Ridge, California $13

First blossom of fruit; apples, bananas, peaches. Clean, bright and appealing. Citric and snappy with nice structure. Bitter almonds. A perfect “wine by the glass” style. 86

2001 Sebastiani, Sonoma County $9-13

Positive, well crafted, low key wine. Apples and pear abound, but not overly interesting. Still, good refreshment, nicely crafted. 86 GOOD VALUE

2002 Bourgogne, Antonin Rodet $12

Subtle, pleasing bouquet of ripe fruit, well amalgamized. Refined and sexy. Nice flavors, balanced acidity. A stylish drink. (Best with food.) 87 GOOD BUY

2003 Broquel, Mendoza (Argentina) $15

From the Trapiche family of wines. Very inviting with a good blending of elements. Not fruity but intensely interesting layers of apricot. Bracing fruit with bursts of flavor and good balance. Neither heavy nor dull. 87

2001 Beringer Private Reserve, Napa Valley $35

Apples in a cream sauce. Good quality with a whiff of charcoal. Pleasant, brisk, some fruit impressions but feels somewhat heavy-handed overall. 87

2002 Anapamu, Monterey $16

LOTS of butterscotch and oak. A monster, competition-style wine. Smooth–all butter and cream. Exceptionally well made, but you’ve got to like to be overwhelmed. Like a police dragnet, the fruit is completely surrounded. 87

2002 Chateau Fuisse, Vieilles Vignes $50

Calm, neutral, shy peach and apple smells. Lip-smacking fruit with vitality. A bit short, yet tasty stuff. 87

2002 Sequoia Grove, Carneros $16

“Sweet” fruit warmth surrounds you like a warm fire. Orange blossoms and pear sit on a marshmallow cushion. Excellent freshness and very brisk acids. Very good indeed. 88 NICE BUY

2002 Greg Norman, Victoria $14

Pleasant nutty, apple, tangerine and peach. Round fruit flavors with spice and a jazzy mouth feel. “Neat” stuff. Australian. 88 GOOD VALUE

2002 Hogue, Genesis $16

A nicely rounded fruit compote. Relaxed, elegant. Toasty, but good fruit length on palate and long-satisfying aftertaste. 88

2003 McManis, River Junction $11

Awash in delicious apples and tropical fruit. Brilliant, fetching, very complex nose of banana and apricot delights. Drinks with a warmth of ripe fruit, rounded texture and a certain grandeur. Excellent aftertaste. A real surprise. 89 BEST BUY

2001 St. Clement, Napa Valley $16

Floral, pear, light spice and very attractive. A “fuzzy” chardonnay that makes you feel secure. Has a proper grip of a palate cleansing finish. Distinctive and good. 89 SUPER BUY

2002 Chateau Fuisse, Les Clos $40

Fruit and oak in perfect balance. Good depth and penetrating aromas that entice you. Rolling flavors, well layered and balanced. Trips lightly and finishes beautifully with memories of spiced apple and pear. 91 BEST OF TASTING And the Rest… (Initial number is grade)

84 2001 Deloach, Russian River Valley $15

84 2002 Beringer, Napa Valley $16.50

84 2002 Beringer Founder’s Estate $11

84 2002 Gallo of Sonoma Reserve $11

84 2001 Chateau Potelle VGS, Mount Veeder $39

83 2003 Rosemount Estate, Australia $11

83 2002 Hogue, Columbia Valley $10

83 2002 Beringer Founder’s Estate $11

82 2001 Dutton-Goldfield, Dutton Ranch $30

82 2002 St. Francis, Sonoma County $14.50

82 2003 Pepi, Napa Valley $10

81 2002 Meridian Reserve, Santa Barbara County $16

81 2003 Lindemans Reserve $10

80 2002 William Hill, Napa Valley $15

80 2002 Frei Brothers, Russian River Valley $20

80 2002 McWilliams, Hanwood Estate $12

80 2001 Chalk Hill, Sonoma $36

80 2002 Meridian, Santa Barbara County $12

79 2002 Carmenet, California $9

79 2003 R.H. Phillips $9

79 2001 Yattarna, Penfolds Bin 144 $65

79 2002 Chateau Souverain, Sonoma County $14

79 2002 Beringer Private Reserve, Napa Valley $35

78 2002 J. Lynne, Russian River Valley $14

78 2002 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve $12

77 2002 Hope Estate, Hunter Valley $11

77 2002 Brancott Vineyards, Gisbourne $11

76 2002 Toasted Head, R.H. Phillips $17

75 2002 Rosemount, Grant’s Creek $17

73 2002 Mirassou, Central Coast $10

72 2002 Bishop’s Creek, Central Coast $13

70 1999 Gallo of Sonoma Estate $45

Arturo Ciompi can be reached at