Wine of the Week: Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery 2017 North Coast Chardonnay

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Chardonnay is made in a winemaker’s image. If not, how do you account for all the styles of this multifaceted grape? There’s the bracing, steely Chablis, stony Burgundies and blousy California oak bombs.

This is how David Nakaji, the winemaker of Sonoma’s Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, sees this versatile grape.

“Chardonnay isn’t a blank canvas, but it’s close,” he said. Nakaji is behind our wine of the week winner — the Sebastiani, 2017 North Coast Chardonnay at $14.

This is a layered chardonnay that definitely over-delivers for the caliber of wine. It’s a rich chardonnay with notes of crème brulee and vanilla. But it’s kept in check with bright flavors of citrus and mineral. Apricot and peach find their way into mix. This chardonnay has great balance and nice length. It will no doubt be a talker, a great find for the wine savvy budget-minded.

“The goal for Sebastiani is always to make balanced wines,” Nakaji said. “They drink better and pair well with food. We make a stainless steel chard with no oak, and we make a reserve chard with 90% new oak, and we make wines with the oak in between. They all have balance. The reserve wine is a single vineyard that has huge body and fruit and can absorb the oak and still show the fruit. We dial back the oak to keep the wines in balance as we move down the line.”

Nakaji said he’s well-suited to making chardonnay because experimenting is his forte.

“I’m a mad scientist,” he said. “I love to tinker, and chardonnay lends itself to tinkering.”

The winning chardonnay, Nakaji said, was sourced from many vineyards all over the North Coast.

“We have been working with some of them for several years,” he said.

“This allows us to tailor the winemaking to the strengths and weaknesses of the various sites. We get the maximum fruitiness from one site, body from another, minimize bitterness here, get length there. Each component is a wine with a gap in its profile, but the blend is a complete wine. It’s one of the advantages of blends.”

Finding his way into the world of wine didn’t happen overnight, Nakaji said.

“I didn’t even like wine until I was in my 20s,” he said. “I didn’t know it was a job you could do until I was in my 30s. It definitely was more of a slow evolution rather than a revolution. I’ve always liked making things though, and what is better than making something that can be such a great part of life, that people can enjoy?”

Nakaji, 55, grew up in San Diego and said he was a true beach bum in high school. He studied chemistry, earning a PhD from Yale in 1992. He went back to school to study viticulture and enology at UC Davis.

The most challenging part of crafting chardonnay, the winemaker said, is knowing your audience.

“With all the different styles of chardonnay, you have to get your wine in front of the right people,” he said.

“I try to make this wine one that you would want to drink every day. It is priced that way, and I think the style follows. It is balanced and has oak, but the fruit stands out first and the acidity makes it go well with food. It wouldn’t show well in a flight of big oaky chards, but you wouldn’t finish a bottle of those ... your palate would be exhausted before the second glass.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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