Wine Importing and Marketing Services

7 Napa and Sonoma Producers Bringing Out the Best in Chardonnay

Winemaker Ryan Prichard of Three Sticks Wine / Photo courtesy Three Sticks Wines

At its best, Chardonnay is sublime and sophisticated, with classical elements of freshness and structure, the fruit, oak and acidity all in balance. In Napa and Sonoma, Chardonnay is having a heyday, with many winemakers devoted to mastering it. These are just a few.

Ryan Prichard, Three Sticks Wines

A Champion of Site Expression

Winemaker Ryan Prichard of Three Sticks Wine / Photo courtesy Three Sticks Wines

Three Sticks was founded in 2002 by Bill Price, a few years after he purchased the famous Durell Vineyard in Sonoma Valley. Price also owns the Gap’s Crown, Walala, Alana, One Sky and William James Vineyards in Sonoma, all important components of the Three Sticks lineup of Chardonnays.

Winemaker Ryan Prichard was brought on to the Three Sticks team by local legend and Director of Winemaking Bob Cabral; the two had previously worked together at Williams Selyem. Prichard grew up in Northern California and fell in love with wine while at Cornell University, furthering his winemaking studies at the University of California, Davis. He is drawn to the tension and verve of Chardonnay.

“The acidity is so important and sometimes overlooked,” he says. “California has such nice sunshine and the ability to get things ripe, but it’s about finding that balance between texture and the energy provided by the acidity.”

The Chardonnay grapes Prichard gets from across Sonoma County allow him to make very different expressions.

“People talk about it being a winemaker’s wine and that’s true, but to make truly great Chardonnay, you can’t build it—it comes from the vineyard,” says Prichard.

To make Durell Chardonnay, the wine goes through 100% malolactic fermentation and is aged 15 months in French oak, 27% of it new. Prichard also makes Durell Origin, a Chardonnay fermented in concrete amphora and egg that undergoes no malo or oak aging.

Gap’s Crown Chardonnay is a completely different take again. The site, so well known for Pinot Noir, is an overlooked gem for Chardonnay.

“It’s a different version of California Chardonnay, planted to Dijon clones, a cool-climate site, more minerality-focused, steely, slatey and elegant,” says Prichard.

At this vineyard, the grapes are picked at night and then whole-cluster pressed into the tank without sulfur additions, as Prichard feels the biggest enemy for Chardonnay is oxidation. The wine goes from tank to barrel with no yeast additions, allowing native or spontaneous yeast to work its magic instead.

Nicole Marchesi, Far Niente

Focused on Freshness and Texture

Nicole Marchesi, winemaker at Far Niente / Photo courtesy of FarNiente

Napa Valley’s Far Niente has made Chardonnay without malolactic fermentation since 1979, opting instead to preserve as much natural acidity, texture and potential to age as possible from its grapes.

Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that happens either during or after the wine’s primary fermentation, when the sugar in the grapes is being turned into alcohol. During malolactic fermentation, naturally occurring malic acid is transformed into lactic acid.

“Because Napa can be so warm, acids can drop out really quickly,” says Nicole Marchesi, winemaker at Far Niente. “We do no [malolactic] in order to retain freshness and acidity and so that the wine will age and pair well. For our sites, it’s really important to maintain good freshness.”

The majority of Far Niente’s grapes are grown in Coombsville, a relatively cool region in the southern part of the valley with well-drained gravelly loam and volcanic ash soils. The vines are planted to the Charlemagne clone of Chardonnay, propagated by cuttings brought from Burgundy decades ago.

“Because Napa can be so warm, acids can drop out really quickly. We do no [malolactic] in order to retain freshness and acidity and so that the wine will age and pair well.” —Nicole Marchesi, winemaker at Far Niente

In 2021, Far Niente bought a property in Carneros that previously belonged to Clos du Val, with 60 acres of Chardonnay and Merlot and 133 additional acres of plantable vineyard land. Far Niente plans to plant 73 acres more, mostly to Chardonnay.

“Chardonnay grapes can be hard to find; so many people in the Napa Valley are pulling out whites,” says Marchesi. “We’re committed to making Chardonnay for a long time.”

A graduate of University of California, Davis, Marchesi came to Far Niente as an enologist in 2005 and in 2009 became only its fourth head winemaker since 1979.

“The fun thing about Chardonnay is its versatility and malleability; there are so many points along the decision-making tree from which clones you plant and where you plant and how you define your style,” she says. “The first impact is when you pick and, in the winery, how you get juice out of the grapes.”

Tom Rochioli, J. Rochioli Vineyard and Winery

Continuing Generational Greatness

Joe Rochioli, Jr. and Tom Rochioli in 1985 / Photo courtesy of Rochioli Vineyard Winery

Joe Rochioli, Jr. was born in 1934 near Fenton Acres, a 125-acre property in the Russian River Valley where his family soon moved. More than anything, he is known for planting Pinot Noir here in 1968, followed soon after by Chardonnay.

His son, Tom Rochioli, began winemaking with Rochioli grapes in 1985.

Today, as owner and winemaker of J. Rochioli Vineyard and Winery, Tom makes a handful of Chardonnays, all from specific blocks of the estate, including a tête de cuvée single-vineyard blend. He whole-cluster presses the grapes directly into barrel and barrel ferments in all French oak with a cultured Burgundian yeast. He coaxes texture out of the wine through low yields and light pressing, and starts malolactic fermentation midferment to better absorb the diacetyl, the component that can contribute buttery notes.

The property is blessed with older vines planted to such heritage clones as Hanzell, Mount Eden, Calera and Old Wente.

“We have flavorful grapes with natural acidity and low pH,” he says. “We get freshness with richness.”

David Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars

Perfecting California Chardonnay

David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars / Photo by Kelly McManus

Sonoma County-based David Ramey is a master of many wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. But he has long been especially admired for Chardonnay, earning two 100-point scores from Wine Enthusiast for his 2018 Hyde and Rochioli Chardonnays, among other accolades.

Ramey and wife Carla launched their own winery in 1996. When making Chardonnay, he avoids skin contact and the use of oxidized juice but does employ malolactic fermentation, whole-cluster pressing and aging in barrel sur lie (on the lees). Ramey is also a huge proponent of Diam closures, with aging always top of mind when making Chardonnay.