Supermarket Chardonnays 

California's Central Coast offers some strong selections.

There's nothing better than a good California Chardonnay to go with your favorite appetizer. But choosing among so many inexpensive selections can make for a daunting shopping experience at the local supermarket. So we decided to make it easier by limiting our choices to the burgeoning Chardonnay region of California's Central Coast.

At an Oakland Safeway store, we purchased four wines for about $10. From Monterey County, we bought a J. Lohr Riverstone Estates Arroyo Seco (2007), an Estancia Pinnacles Ranches (2008), and a Sterling Vintner's Collection Central Coast (2007). And from San Luis Obispo County, we chose an Edna Valley Vineyard Paragon (2007). All were $9.98 with our Safeway club card.

Because some of us were familiar with these Chardonnays, we conducted blind taste tests. It made for some surprises, and in the end, we decided we could strongly recommend two of the four wines while giving a slight thumbs-up to a third.

Our surprise favorite was the Sterling. Two members of our group, including me, didn't expect that this wine would come in first place because we had tried it previously and were less than impressed. But under blind conditions, we found the Sterling to have a burst of flavor with overtones of tropical fruit and a smooth aftertaste. It also exuded a bright, clean aroma with hints of melon. One in our group even detected a bit of vanilla. On a scale of one to ten, we gave it a seven.

Our second-place winner, in close balloting, was the Edna Valley. It's a very light Chardonnay, almost like a Pinot Grigio. We viewed it as the consummate daytime wine, great for brunch or lunch and a perfect complement to fish, particularly salmon. It features bright, clear flavors with hints of fruit and nutmeg while leaving a smooth aftertaste. One of our tasters described it as "a nice wine for a light summer occasion." We gave it a six.

Our third choice was the J. Lohr. Its placement in our rankings came as a big surprise to two of us, including me, because we drink it often and thought it would score much higher. It sports a fruity and crisp bite with brooding and complicated overtones. But one of our tasters, who is a regular J. Lohr drinker, was startled to find it had a somewhat acidic and immature nature. We gave it a five.

And finally, our fourth choice was the Estancia, another surprise for me, because I have liked this Chardonnay in the past. But we found it to be a boring, bland white wine that's not worth the price. Sure, it's smooth and clean and has no bitter aftertaste like some similarly priced Chardonnays do, but there are plenty of better choices for around $10. We gave it a three.

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