2018 Sea Sun Chardonnay, $25-$28

What’s the Deal?

There’s no wine family in California that understands what customers want more than the Wagners. The Mondavis were trailblazers, the Jacksons continue to be visionaries, but when it comes to a family who can deliver to both the high end and the more moderate end and everything in between it’s the Wagners all day, every day. Their high end is set by that magical 6-letter word…Caymus. Caymus’ legendary Special Selection Cabernet, created by patriarch Charles and brought to prominence by son Chuck, may be the only wine that is both $200 and a good deal (considering its competition) at the same time. And if that weren’t enough, a few years later offspring Joe Wagner created a small Pinot Noir side hustle called Meomi that utterly transformed Cali Pinot (for both good and bad) before being sold for $300 million back. I didn’t even mention another genre-changing wine—Conundrum—or the beloved Mer Soleil, both of which are under their umbrella. So this wine is their newest offspring, overseen by Joe’s brother Charlie, and its goal is to re-invigorate that market for a classic Cali Chardonnay that sells for a reasonable price.

What’s in the Bottle? 

The days of sourcing fruit in Napa, or even most parts of Sonoma, and selling it for $20 are long over. So here we have some grapes from Santa Barbara (where Mer Soleil is made) and Monterey, but also from the up-and-coming Solano County, well east of Napa where the land (and grape prices) are much more reasonable. But while this wine harkens back to a nostalgic version of California Chardonnay, the reality is that there’s a far lighter hand at play here, especially with a more restrained oak treatment. Gone are the huge waves of butter, vanilla and pineapple and instead there’s a more subtle approach or ripe fruit, quite a bit more citrus notes and a level of freshness that’s, well, refreshing. That being said, this isn’t Chablis—one sniff and swirl and you’re 100% in the ripe California genre, but if that’s a genre you cotton to this is an excellent example at this price.

Should I Buy?

Well, yes, if you like California Chardonnay. In fact, if it were a less canny family, I’d be concerned about this wine cutting into Mer Soliel’s territory with its similar profile and lower price point. If you don’t like Chardonnay (BTW, not something to brag about) this won’t likely change your mind. But it’s an unbeatable value.