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Thursday Trials and Tribulations
An Appreciation of The Rising Tide of Good Local Sparkling Wine

By Charles Olken

Here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, we have offered reviews of sparkling wines every year for decades, and this year is no different. Our subscribers have been treated to in-depth analysis of some eighty separate bottlings (see the left hand column for our announcement of that coverage), a number that just keeps on climbing year after year, and is destined to keep climbing now that Rack & Riddle, a custom crush facility in the North Coast, has expanded its space and offers to make your still wine into the bubbly of your choice.

The thing about sparkling wine is that it is not all that expensive to produce at the everyday level, but it is challenging technically for the average still wine producer because it does require specialized equipment. And, of course, there is always a bit of learning curve in any new venture. Grapes have to be picked earlier, have to be fermented differently, rarely see any oak yet the aging process is typically longer than virtually any other white wine, the color of most bubbles except for the now very popular Rosé category.

Sparkling wine is a category that has chased away many trialists over the years, yet winemakers and winery owners are like the rest of us—they like the bubbly because it is perfect in so many settings. And so it is that the number of wineries participating and the range of their offerings is now expanding.

Among the reasons for this small boomlet, and the likely slow but continuing growth in sparkling wine production are two really important variables. Indeed, these variables may well be the most important of all because they are price and quality. And both happen to favor California and the West Coast (there are producers in Oregon and Washington as well) at this time and probably for the next several years or more.

Price is the more obvious factor of the two because it can be objectively measured. And virtually any and all measures will show that the popularly priced local bubblies, those in the $20 range, compare with what is called non-vintage Brut in Champagne, most of which sell for $40 and more in most stores on most days. When one is selling a comparable product for half the price of the competition, there is not much question as to who has the advantage.

But price is worthless absent quality, and that it is where the rub comes in for the French. It may be that their older, less fresh, less vibrant bottles are the more complex, but they are not, at the non-vintaged, entry level as enjoyable to our palates as the majority of the wines coming from the likes of Schramsberg (see its Mirabelle line), Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Chandon, Roederer Estate and Laetitia.

But don’t take our word for it. The San Francisco Chronicle wine judge recently had nice things to say about the local product, and he is a very hard man to please when it comes to most California offerings. You can find his recent blog on the topic over at the Chronicle’s website. And, you might also want to take a gander at the writings over on Vinography ( where Alder Yarrow has also found a lot to like in the local bottlings.

The French, bless their hearts, do make a lot of really brilliant bubbly, and you will pay upwards of $75 for the privilege. We mean to take nothing away from the top Champagnes because you will find us drinking them on a regular basis.

Still, when it comes to a decent bottle of fizz for current enjoyment, and money being an object, as it is for most of us on most days, the place to look for bubbles in clearly here in California.


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