2003 TAZ Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County, California

It’s always a little bit of a mystery to me when I come across small producers that are part of huge wine corporations. Firstly, I wonder at their ability to remain relatively independent entities and I’m inherently suspicious about whether they are actually small producers that perhaps one day decided to cash out and become part of a conglomerate, or whether they are cleverly executed niche marketing programs set up by savvy corporate marketers.

Take TAZ Vineyards for instance, which is part of the large wine conglomerate known as Beringer-Blass which produces a staggering 7.7 million cases of wine per year from it properties all over the world. TAZ, named after winegrower Bob “Taz” Steinhauer, who was assigned the nickname due to his resemblance to a certain cartoon character, is described as a small artisan producer that works out of a winemaking cooperative in Santa Barbara. It produces about 7,500 cases of wine per year.

That sounds pretty good, no? Just the sort of winery we like to check out here at Vinography. Yet here they are part of, well, not the Wal-Mart of wine companies, but maybe the Nordstrom of wine companies? Steinhauer is not only the winegrower, he’s the Senior Vice President of Vineyard Operations.

Makes my head hurt.

Sadly enough it looks like TAZ is more of a niche brand than a true mom and pop operation, and one that was developed partially as a tribute or even an anniversary present for Steinhauer after more than 25 years of being at Beringer. They weren’t purchased, they were “launched.” Which is to say they were conjured out of thin air by someone who thought they could sell wine to people like me. Well, maybe they can.

While I may be a little bitter at the degree to which big companies try to appear like tiny little ones, at least TAZ seems to be doing a decent job of making wine.

TAZ will be focusing its local Santa Barbara efforts on primarily Pinot Noir as they develop a vineyard known as Fiddlestix, that sits adjacent to the famous Sanford and Benedict property, which is renown for its Pinot Noir production. At the moment, TAZ produces several wines of which this Chardonnay is one.

The wine is made by John Priest, former winemaker at the small producers Adelaida and Wild Horse, both of which are honest to goodness boutique wineries in the Paso Robles area.

The fruit for this wine comes from a vineyard named Cat Canyon Vineyard. I know very little about the winemaking for this wine other than it was barrel fermented in French Oak and aged for 8 months in the same before bottling.

Oh yeah. One more thing. I guess one nice thing that being a part of a big company is the marketing and packaging budget. Nice bottle and label on this one.

Tasting Notes:
This wine is a pale, nearly colorless gold in the glass, which is usually not a good sign for Chardonnay. However, the nose makes up for the lack of color with a decent bouquet of vanilla, butterscotch, toasted oak, and buttercream. In the mouth it walks a fine line between fruit and oak driven flavors with elements of toffee, lemon, and butterscotch again as it tapers to a finish that definitely has a hint of woodiness to it. The wine is relatively well balanced, though, and does not make the error of so many California Chardonnays these days by descending into an oak flavored miasma from which there is no return. It’s a pleasant wine, if lacking in a little fundamental personality.

Food Pairing:
This is a great “house white” to have around when you want something light to drink with fish, pastas with white sauce, etc. Because it does have some oak, I recommend it with richer dishes rather than with light stuff (not with sushi, for instance). Try it with a fish soup with bread and rouille.

Overall Score: 8.5/9

How Much?: $14

This wine is readily available on the Internet.