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By Stephen Eliot

Sparkling wine in California has had its up and downs with both spectacular success and a few notable failures, at least in the realm of business. For the most part, those producers that have managed to succeed have been fairly large, highly capitalized wineries, and, even then, capital and viability have at times been proven to be mutually exclusive.

Sparkling wine, or least good sparkling wine made by the Méthode Champenoise, takes more time and arguably a good deal more work than still wines, and it is more demanding yet of those attempting to make it on a small scale. Nonetheless, it rarely commands the same prices as its accomplished, non-sparkling cousins, and, given all that goes into making it, it ranks among the very best values in fine California wine.

Of late, there has been new interest in making small-lot sparkling wines by smaller wineries whose principal focus has been and remains on still-wine production, most notably those working with cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is hard to call what is going on a “movement,” and I am not all that sure I would even call it a trend, but there is definitely a sense that something new is afoot and worthy of watching.

I recently spent an afternoon in a round-table discussion and tasting with several small to very small Santa Barbara County producers who have chosen to add a sparkling wine or two to their repertoire. I was aware that some were “experimenting” with bubbles but was surprised to hear how many of their local cohorts were choosing to do the same. Many parts of the county do, in fact, seem ideal places in which to grow the lower brix, higher acid grapes that good bubbly bottlings require, but the limited handful of offerings to date have been pretty much off the radar to all but the most dedicated seekers of the new and esoteric. That may be about to change.

Among the many wines tasted during my week-long visit to Santa Barbara County were new releases from familiar names such as Riverbench and soon-to-debut bottlings from established producers new to the sparkling wine game like Alma Rosa. Fascinating, unfinished works in progress from Presq’uile and Scar of the Sea are still strong in my memory, and a wholly unexpected, utterly delicious sparkling Barbera from Palmina was nothing less than a revelation. When queried, Palmina winemaker Steve Clifton, who is an old sparkling-wine hand, offered a guess that there are as many as two dozen smaller Central Coast winemakers making limited lots of sparkling wines.

None with whom I spoke were trying to make ersatz Champagne. Rather, each one emphasized their aims of creating something that was unique to their place, and it was impossible to ignore the palpable excitement that the efforts from points south are starting to generate.

That excitement may remain local, but it is hopefully a precursor to a new awareness of sparkling wines here in California, and, in a time when “new” is on the minds of so many discriminating wine lovers, I suspect that we will hear a great deal more from Santa Barbara’s risk-taking vintners and their North Coast counterparts who are thinking well outside of established sparkling wine lines.


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Us too!
by Brian Loring
Posted on:10/1/2015 12:33:21 PM

I LOVE Champagne, so it followed that we had to try our hand a bubbles as well.  But I wanted to try something a bit different....

In my mind, it's not possible to get ripe fruit in California at the 19 brix required to make the 11% alcohol base wine for sparkling wine.  Champagne is so far north, that they have many more hours of daylight to ripen fruit in their shorter growing season at the lower sugar levels.  I wanted to try to address that issue.

We decided to pick fruit Cali ripe and make a 14-15% alc base wine.  We then de-alc'd it to 11% before starting the secondary in bottle.  Aside from that, we're full Method Champenoise.  We're doing a more extended bottle aging as well.  We disgorged some of our 2009s last year, and are just about to release the rest of the 2009s with an extra year on the yeast. 

We do all our own riddling and disgorging - we bought a nifty mechanical riddler that emulates hand riddling as each bottle is rotated, elevated, and shaken in its own "sleeve".  We also bought a neck freezer to help with disgorging. 

It takes a heck of a lot of work, and it's not really profitable, but we're having fun.  And we really like the results. 

-- Brian Loring

-- Loring Wine Company

Sparkling Wine
by Thomas Kruse
Posted on:10/4/2015 12:33:17 PM

I leatned the basics of the methode as a home winemaker in the sixties and ater I started the winery I continued to produce small amounts every year. I looked at this as fun and a marketing differentiator. I could not see how, as a small producer I could make money at it. I urge everyone to visit Viteff in Epernay. It is eye opening. 

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