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Wine of the Week

Mr. Toad's Charming Chardonnay

These days every winemaker in California seems to be talking about dialing back the use of oak in their Chardonnay. The trouble is, I don't see very much of this in practice. O.K., some, but the change is pretty minimal.

My suspicion is that the winemakers—or their marketing people—are talking this line because they think it's what wine writers and sommeliers want to hear, but that they are shying away from it in practice because their tasting room sales tell them another story. Just a guess.

There is also a growing trend to make unoaked Chardonnay, but many of these are disappointing wines—thin and watery. When you take inferior grapes and remove the camouflage of oak, there's not much left.

But some, such as this week's Wine of the Week, the Toad Hollow Unoaked Chardonnay, Francine's Selection, 2009 ($15) shine brightly.

Frankie Williams started making wine in 1993 at Todd Hollow Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif., with her husband, Todd, now deceased, and their friend and neighbor Rodney Strong, then-owner of the vineyard that still bears his name.

Frankie explains: "Rodney had some Chardonnay and he suggested to Todd that he do something with those grapes because he had been selling them to a very large producer and he felt like he wasn't able to see what the grapes were really all about because they were being blended."

Williams's husband, Todd, also known as "Dr. Toad," was an old friend of Strong's, who had been one of the pioneers of the Sonoma County wine industry. "We partnered up with Rodney and made 3,000 cases of this Chardonnay and it was Rodney's idea that we do something a little different. He had spent time in France and enjoyed French-style wines, so he said 'let's do stainless steel; let's not use any oak.' So we were ahead of the times, but we found a niche immediately. People loved it."

They still do. Williams now makes 60,000 cases of this delightful wine. Made from 90 percent Mendocino County grapes and 10 percent Sonoma grapes, it's fresh, alive, clearly focused, and brimming over with Chardonnay fruit. Besides, in its homage to The Wind In The Willows, the name and label are utterly charming.

To find this wine near you try

When to Drink: Now

Breathing/Decanting: Not necessary

Food Pairing: Fish, cold meats, salads

Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay

Appellation: Mendocino County

Region: California

Country: U.S.

Price: $15

Availability: Moderate

Web Site:

Nick Passmore is an independent wine writer and consultant based in New York. For five years he contributed a widely read monthly wine column to, in addition to which his work has appeared in such publications as Forbes, Discover, Town & Country, the Robb Report, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, Sky, and Golf Connoisseur. He is currently artisanal editor for Four Seasons magazine and contributes a twice monthly column to He is also a judge at the annual Critics’ Challenge wine competition.

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