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The first wine Marimar Torres ever made was a 1989 chardonnay from estate-grown Russian River Valley vines.

It was her first harvest after having bought in 1981 cleared land 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean on Graton Road. It's an area now known as Green Valley, a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley.

On the advice of her brother — who had told her the land was too expensive, had too low a soil pH and without any other vineyards around was too isolated — she started a system of high-density planting, putting in 2,000 vines per acre, four times the traditional spacing in California.

"Our planting style is unique in chardonnay," explains Marimar Estate cellar master and vineyard manager Tony Britton. "The denser planting has become popular in premium pinot noir vineyards, but there aren't a lot of chardonnay vineyards planted with this spacing. We're thinking that with the root competition we're getting more concentration of flavors than you otherwise might see."

In Spain, Torres' family had been growing grapes and making wine since the 17th century, establishing the House of Torres in 1870. Her father, Don Miguel Torres, and mother, Dona Margarita, had guided the family winery through 60 years of growth and progress.

They didn't quite understand why Marimar, their only daughter, was fixated on Sonoma County instead of on joining her two brothers to run the wine business back home.

But Marimar brought her chardonnay to Spain and had her father try it. He declared it the best white wine he had ever had, turning to his wife Margarita and announcing that "we must have a winery in California."

"Our chardonnay gets some of the best soil and best microclimates on the property," Britton said. "We get tremendous acid structure, there's a crispness that we find that maybe you don't find in some of the warmer areas of the Russian River and Napa Valley."

And so Marimar Estate Vineyards and Winery began. She added an estate pinot noir in 1992 and built their onsite winery and tasting room.

In 1999, she released "Dobles Lias," a chardonnay that gets extended lees contact, a traditional Burgundian technique that adds richness and complexity. Torres admits it's a wine people either love or hate.

In 2005, she released Marimar Estate "Acero" Chardonnay, a wine that spends no time in oak, that's very aromatic, silky and fresh, ideal with lighter fare like tapas.

"I was concerned because unoaked chardonnay at the time was considered insipid and cheap," Torres said. "But I thought the market could be ready. We made 1,000 cases and ran out quickly."

Today, Marimar Estate makes four different chardonnays — its flagship La Masia, its whole-cluster pressed, barrel-fermented chardonnay; Dobles Lias; Acero; and also Bonita's Hill Chardonnay, named for one of Torres' beloved English Springer Spaniels. It's a barrel selection that ages in 100-percent new French oak, like the Dobles Lias.

Winemaker Jeff Gaffner, who spent a lot of time at Chateau St. Jean making a lot of chardonnay and who now makes a spectrum of varieties for wineries such as Black Kite, Stephanie, Xtant and Ram's Gate Winery, likes that there's an increasing market out there for different styles.

"It's the most consumed wine, the backbone of the wine industry, but it's got this really weird thing going on," he said. "You have the Gucci frou-frou world, the eclectic, the workhorse and the value-driven. For the high-end, eclectic chardonnays that I make it's almost a different world, a different market."

Based on making a "gazillion gallons" of chardonnay at St. Jean for 15 years, Gaffner swore he'd never make chardonnay again. But he's come around and admits that he does like it, but doesn't like a lot of the basic chardonnays that are made in California right now.

To him that includes the "butter-bomb, sweet chardonnays" that he says are so easy to make it's just cheating.

"People like sweet, people like butter. Bells and whistles go off in the brain but I don't think they have a lot of personality and you can make them with almost any fruit," he said.

The other style he doesn't like is what he calls stripped-down, generic white wine that's called chardonnay, explaining that just becomes "a media for oak, alcohol and sugar."

Inspired by Chablis, where the chardonnay, stainless-fermented, is renowned for having wet-stone minerality, Gaffner now makes Etre, his own label of chardonnay, as well as Ram's Gate Sangiacomo Green Acres Chardonnay, from fruit grown in cool conditions.

Inspired by white Burgundy, Gaffner makes Saxon Brown Chardonnay, another of his own brands, as well as Ram's Gate Ulises Valdez Diablo Russian River Chardonnay.

"I don't want that butterball, butterscotch. I want more the hazelnut, nutmeg characteristic," he said. "We're seeing as the consumer becomes more educated, they're plugging back into chardonnay. People are coming back to it."

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.