Is California Bubbly Finally Coming into Its Own?

John Capone | December 11, 2015 | Story Wine and Spirits

Throughout the country, the popularity of sparkling wine is surging skyward like a cork shot from a bottle. And here in the Bay Area, a growing number of producers are competing with champagne houses to go straight to your head. The bump is being driven by two factors. First, there’s Rack & Riddle, a custom-crush sparkling wine producer whose services have afforded dozens of wineries the opportunity to offer sparkling wine. Second, there’s the emergence of tiny, sometimes artisanal producers who make sparkling wine grounded in NorCal terroir but in the traditional French method.

When he cofounded Rack & Riddle in 2007, Bruce Lundquist recalls, “nobody was doing custom sparkling wine work, unless it was as a favor for another winery.” At his facility, crown-capped bottles of still wine are racked and riddled—meaning stuck in a rack and turned a precise amount every day. Historically done by hand, riddling is now largely mechanized, requiring costly and gargantuan specialized equipment. Rack & Riddle makes it easier for wineries to produce bubbly at scale, and also handles storage during the extended time that it takes to age and release a sparkling wine.

While French champagne houses have long had an influence on wine country (their presence here helped advance our viticulture), a more recent French influence is so-called grower champagne. Produced from grapes in a grower’s own vineyard, it bucks the traditional practice of making champagne with grapes from multiple vineyards. The style is inspiring local boutique producers like Under the Wire (from Morgan Twain-Peterson and Chris Cottrell), Michael Cruse’s Ultramarine, Rajat Parr’s Sandhi, and Lichen (from Douglas and Ana Lucia Stewart) to take a vineyard-first approach.

Under the Wire was inspired by Twain-Peterson and Cottrell’s desire to make a single-vineyard sparkling wine from grapes of the Brosseau Vineyard in Monterey’s vaunted Chalone wine-growing region. “The finished bubbly smelled like Brosseau,” says Cottrell. “The sparkling wine showcases the vineyard characteristics as much as the still wine.” His winery is now making six vineyard-designated sparkling wines specific to North Coast vineyards.

A few years ago, when Twain-Peterson and Cottrell first proposed the idea of experimenting with terroir-driven sparkling wine—and selling it at $50 a bottle—they were laughed at. But their wines now have a waiting list. Rack & Riddle’s Lundquist has seen a similar spike in interest. “The last three years,” he says, “the growth has looked like a hockey stick.”

The evolution of the artisanal food movement, America’s maturing wine industry, and our changing palates are all possible reasons for our current fascination with sparkling wine. “It’s not because people are celebrating more,” says vintner Hugh Davies of Schramsberg winery. “There are more people who just enjoy a glass on a regular basis or with their meal.” And that, in turn, means that California’s producers have reason to celebrate year-round.

What to drink now: Experts anoint their favorite bubblies

2007 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut, Anderson Valley
Perry Hoffman, the new culinary director of Healdsburg’s Shed, calls this his “hands-down favorite.” Its “notes of ginger, cinnamon, and rich baked goods,” he says, make it ideal for rich holiday fare: “I’ve served this wine with roasted pears with ginger ice cream and hazelnuts. It also has just enough acidity to balance the richness of duck pâté.” $48, 707-895-2288

2007 Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs
“This vintage is especially impressive in showcasing the elegance that California can produce in the world of sparkling wine,” says Sons and Daughters’ wine director, Amy Racine, of the tête de cuvée offering from Taittinger’s California winery. “It has an impressive creamy texture, with toasted and citrus qualities.” $105,

2012 Under the Wire Chardonnay, Alder Springs Vineyard
“Just the right mix of hay and crème brûlée—the bubbles are rich and dense,” says Petit Crenn’s beverage director, Courtney Humiston, of this 100 percent chardonnay from a single Mendocino vineyard. “It’s a grown-up version of ordering an orange Creamsicle from an ice cream truck.” $50

2011 Ultramarine Rosé of Pinot Noir, Charles Heintz Vineyard
“I wish I had bought my own case before it became so popular with our customers!” says Lulu McAllister, wine director for Nopa, Nopalito, and Liholiho Yacht Club. The wine’s “juicy, almost tropical guava quality, fine bubbles, and lingering mineral finish” are its most distinguishing features, she says. “It’s easy to fall in love with.” $52,

2012 Lichen Estate Blanc de Gris, Anderson Valley
Petit Crenn’s Humiston describes this 100 percent pinot gris as “a wine made like champagne that is completely its own thing.” Produced from organic Mendocino grapes, it’s “herbal and spicy, with notes of fresh mint and pea shoots,” Humiston says. “We pair it with oysters with candied fennel and pickled shallot mignonette.” $48,

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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