RECOMMENDED: Sterling Vineyards, 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay (silver label). Usually $16.99-17.99; available for as little as $12.95. 14.5% ABV.

Mind you, we all have different tastes. Some folks like unoaked, “naked” Chardonnays. Not me—I prefer them big, beefy, and all grown up, dressed with a cashmere overcoat and tickets to the opera. So if you like your Chardonnay buff—buttery, velvety, golden, full-bodied, and oaked—read on.

Back in the early ’80s, I first fell in love with wine after encountering the massive 1980 Napa Valley Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons. These big boys—made by the likes of Raymond, La Crema, Kistler, Stag’s Leap, and, of course, Chateau Montelena—were truly blockbusters, but this style of wine-making disappeared in the sense that prices zoomed into the stratosphere and one couldn’t just pick up a bottle of any of these masterpieces at the grocery store anymore. For years afterward, I wandered the wine wilderness looking for wine experiences that would measure up. I’ve had plenty of thin, overly sweet, or just plain disappointing Chards; plenty of sweet, harsh, or aggressive Cabs. During the journey, we even found a fairly inexpensive wine that hinted at the big 1980 Chards: Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Vintner’s Reserve. It’s quite good and utterly reliable regardless of vintage, so for a long time this was our go-to. Priced at $10-12, it’s an excellent buy.

But I digress: back to the 2008 Sterling Napa Valley Chardonnay. This is indeed an old-California-style treat: golden, full-bodied, big and chewy, oaky, velvety, buttery, smooth, and delicious. It isn’t quite as in-your-face as the 1980 Napa Valley monsters, but it’s extremely pleasing. The depth of flavors includes lemony acidity; the spiciness of cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla; and the weighty, fruity tastes of ripe pears and apples. It’s beautifully well-balanced with a long, clean finish, and we found ourselves saying “Oh, yum” or “Man!!” with every sip. (The Sterling silver-label Merlot is reliably wonderful, so we weren’t surprised that the Chardonnay is excellent as well.)

LABEL NOTES: Ripe pear and apple fruit characters are complemented by hints of caramel and cinnamon. Oak barrel aging gives the wine toasty nuances and overall textural complexity. This wine’s rich and complex flavors well complement seafood, white meats and lighter pasta dishes.

VINTNER’S NOTES: Our Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay comes from the southern half of Napa Valley, including vineyards in the cool Carneros region as well as the warmer Rutherford region. Aromas and flavors of fresh pear and ripe apple mingle with vanilla and oak spice from barrel fermentation and aging.

WINE SPECTATOR: Exudes Napa style with full body, rich flavors and a bright freshness. Up front, crisp Asian pear, pippin apple and tropical fruit guide the entry, balanced by notes of caramel, ginger and clove. Across the middle, the Carneros [region] grapes show their face, lifting the silky fruit with a distinct lemon essence and sprightly minerality that carries through the finish. Well balanced, with layers of fruit and spice, this wine makes a versatile food companion.

ANOTHER WINE SPECTATOR REVIEW: Fresh, vibrant and full-bodied, with tangy nectarine, peach and green apple flavors that are pure and focused, ending with a cleansing finish. Drink now through 2014. 50,000 cases made.

WEB SITE: Be sure you get the silver label, not the off-white; it does make a difference.

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