If anyone knows chardonnay, especially what it has to say when it is grown in Monterey County, that would be Dan Morgan Lee.
And his experience with chardonnay and with Monterey have made him the most highly regarded producer of the most daring kind of interpretation of the varietal in the country chardonnay that is made without any oak- barrel fermenting or aging.
On its own, chardonnay customarily talks with more of a whisper than a shout. It needs some wood and some other manipulation in the cellar, principally a secondary malolactic fermentation, to give it a more profound voice.
Lee understands that. That's how he makes most of the four or five chardonnays he releases from each harvest.
The exception is the chardonnay he makes under the proprietary name Metallico. It sees no wood whatever; for its character, it depends solely on the grapes that yielded it.
The inspiration for the name was twofold. The head-banging music of the group Metallica was favored by his cellar crew a decade ago, when he made his first chardonnay without any exposure to wood or malolactic fermentation. Secondly, the name Metallico suggests the stainless-steel tanks in which the chardonnay was made.
A decade later, the musicians of Metallica have yet to object.
"We did ask ourselves, 'What if the rock group decides to sue us over the name?' We thought about it for 10 minutes, then concluded it would be worth the free publicity. But we've never heard from Metallica," said Lee.
In the meantime, plenty of wine consumers have developed a following for Metallico, helping make it the most highly esteemed representation of non-oaked chardonnay in the U.S. market. The 2009 version of the wine was the only non-oaked chardonnay and the only Monterey County wine to be included in the Wine Spectator's top 100 wines late last year.
The current release, the Morgan Winery 2010 Monterey Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay, has been sold out at the winery for months, but still can be found in some wine shops and restaurants. The 2011 is to be released in April.
For a chardonnay that hasn't seen oak, the 2010 nevertheless is deceptively complex. It isn't heavy or thick. It's lithe and spirited, with smells and flavors that suggest tropical fruits, apples and citrus. Suggestions of both lime and kaffir lime leaves help account for its brightness and crispness.
Mostly, it's wine whose snappy acidity makes it a splendid companion with all sorts of equally straightforward seafood.
Lee attributes Metallico's vibrant authority to the vineyards that yielded the grapes that went into the wine. About two-thirds of them are in the terraced and cool Santa Lucia Highlands along the western edge of the Salinas Valley. A little more than a third were from Arroyo Seco to the south.
If you are to make chardonnay without any wood influence, you need "really, really good-quality fruit," said Lee. "Oak can be like lipstick, or makeup; it can cover up a lot of things."
The fruit he gets from both areas represent a mix of clones and sources, including the musque clone of chardonnay, credited with enhancing the resulting wine with floral notes suggestive of gewürztraminer and muscat, but only lightly.
"The fruit has to be picture-perfect. You aren't using any makeup to cover things up," Lee said.
He's been tending vines and making wine in Monterey County since 1978, when he joined pioneering Jekel Vineyards as winemaker shortly after he graduated from UC Davis.
In 1982, he and his wife, Donna, founded Morgan Winery; over the past 30 years they have become highly regarded for their smart and sensitive ways with Monterey County's two principal grape varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay.
(In addition to Morgan, they make wine under the label Lee Family Farm, generally wines from grapes grown beyond their home base in Santa Lucia Highlands, in particular Ron Silva's Silvaspoons Vineyard at Galt.)
Lee made the first Metallico in 2001. His initial intent was a chardonnay in the Chablis style, with little or no obvious oak. Then he noticed that a few entirely unoaked chardonnays from Australia and New Zealand were starting to generate buzz.
"I had been planning to use a small percentage of new oak (for the Chablis-style chardonnay that vintage), but at the last minute I decided to not use any oak and to forgo malolactic fermentation," Lee recalled.
Five years ago, Metallico was his fastest-growing wine, but then demand hit a plateau as competition in the style intensified.
Over the past two years, however, demand has picked up again.
2010 Monterey Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay
By the numbers: 14.1 percent alcohol, 5,000 cases, $20
Context: Winemaker Dan Morgan Lee likes to drink Metallico during warmer weather and with lighter foods. He also makes a pinot gris and finds that he has difficulty choosing between the two when the table is set with oysters or some other food that isn't heavily sauced.
Availability: Whole Foods Markets, Nugget Markets and Corti Brothers generally stock Metallico. Wines also can be ordered via the winery website, www.morganwinery.com.
More information: Morgan has no tasting room at the winery in Salinas Valley, but it does have a tasting room at 204 Crossroads Blvd. in Carmel. It is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.