Californian Terroir: Sparkling Wine

Bubbles in the New World

We don't really know who made California's first sparkling wine, but there is an 1857 reference to one made by the Sainsevains.

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Considerably more is known of California’s first successful sparkling wie. That was “Eclipse,” produced by Arpad Haraszthy, the son of the legendary “Father of California Wine,” Count Agoston Haraszthy. It dominated the market into the 1890s, and was produced from Zinfandel, meaning it was probably akin to a modern day sparkling Shiraz. So successful was Eclipse that the Korbel brothers, immigrants from Germany, began manufacturing a champagne-style wine in the 1890s to compete with it. They called two of their bottlings Korbel Sec and Korbel Brut, but, according to the wine historian Leon D. Adams, their methodology was a secret, and “nobody was allowed to enter the winery” lest the secret become known.

In 1905, Paul Masson, another legend, made the first blanc de noirs-style wine from Pinot Noir and called it Oeil de Perdrix, which he bottled as medicinal wine during the disaster of Prohibition.

Following Prohibition and World War II, not much happened in California sparkling wine that’s worthy of mention. This was, of course, a dead time for California wine anyway. It wasn’t until the 1960s, and the explosion of interest in wine that has been described as the boutique winery era, that sparkling wine experienced a renaissance. That came with the launch of Schramsberg Vineyards, whose modern era dates to 1965, when Jack and Jamie Davies founded it, on the lower slopes of Diamond Mountain, in the Napa Valley above St. Helena and Calistoga. Their 1965 Blanc de Blancs was a product of the first commercial use of Chardonnay in an American sparkling wine.

In the 1980s and 1990s there were great expectations that interest in, and consumption of, fine California sparkling wine would grow. With the coming of the new Millennium, producers expected an explosion of sales, and many of the old French Champagne houses bought land and planted vineyards, from the Central Coast on up through Napa and Sonoma to Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. Alas, their expectations were not realized. Between the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, and a failed advertising campaign that convinced millions of Americain wine lovers that sparkling wine is meant to be drunk only on special occasions, such as weddings and New Year’s Eve, sales of California sparkling wines leveled off.

Today, only a handful of California sparkling wine producers of repute remains. Schramsberg surely is at the lead, followed closely by Iron Horse and Roederer Estate. Iron Horse uses only estate-grown grapes from their vineyards in the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, while Roederer’s come from their vineyards in Anderson Valley. Schramsberg is unusual in that they source grapes from several counties, making the wines regional blends; but they are masters of the art of blending, as are the Champenois themselves.

In the next tier of quality I would place Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer. Mumm Napa often satisfies, especially with their DVX brut and rosé, both vintage dated. Laetitia, in the Arroyo Grande Valley of San Lus Obispo, can rise to the occasion. After these seven houses, there is really very little fine sparkling wine to speak of in California. Korbel does a reliable job, and has been the largest producer of methode champenois wines in America for a long time. The largest producers of sparkling wine, however, are the bulk, or charmat, producers, dominated by big wine companies such as E&J Gallo.

In recent years, there has been much anxiety converning why Americans refuse to drink more sparkling wine than they do. I alluded to a large part of the reason earlier, in my remarks about the sparkling wine industry’s failed advertising campaign. The industry lately has realized it must convince consumers that sparkling wine is an everyday drink, not merely for special occasions. However, it is difficult to turn attitudes around. Beyond that, the top sparkling wine houses have small advertising budgets and cannot afford expensive media campaigns. They rely, instead, on the wine press to educate consumers, but the wine press reaches only a very small fraction of consumers. Besides, the best California sparkling wines, like the best Champagnes, always will be expensive–not the strongest selling point during the Great Recession, when there often seems little to celebrate.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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