SUNDAY DECEMBER 17:
CALIFORNIA BUBBLES CALIFORNIA SPARKLING WINE and "CALIFORNIA
The average bear knows the word "Champagne" as a term denoting
"sparkling wine." But the average bear doesn't know the precise
definition of the term, its origins and that all that bubbles is not Champagne.
In most of the world outside the United States, "Champagne" is the
name of a famous sparkling wine. But only wine from the region of
Champagne is entitled to that designation, providing certain requirements in
grape variety and production method are met.
While there are many sparkling wines made in France and the rest of Europe, for
that matter, only those from Champagne are sold labeled. The little region
on the French map highlighted in blue is Champagne and not all its land can
produce sparkling wine.
In the United
States, once Prohibition came to an end, wine producers were quick to label
their products using the names of more famous, prestigious wines from
Europe. Hence there were numerous wines made in California, yet labeled as
"Chablis," "Burgundy," "Rhine,"
"Chianti" and, yes, "Champagne." These are all
geographical places in Europe. Imagine if the French start to use
the names "Napa" or "Sonoma" on wines from Bordeaux or
California winemakers would have their panties in a knot.
Over the years, as the wine market in America matured (and we're still in our
youth, kids), many vintners realized they didn't need to rely on European names
for uniquely American wines.
Some wine companies, though, continue to label their California sparkling wines
with the name "champagne" on the label, adding a bit to the confusion,
but cashing in on the name of a prestigious name.
"Fake" California "champagnes" sold in great quantities.
An old advertisement for Cook's "champagne."
Napa was, once upon a time, home to the Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars.
Here's an old sales offer sheet to stores and restaurants with a major price
reduction for the month of May...
The fact that "cellars" is misspelled indicates the distributor wasn't
any smarter in the 1950s or 1960s than they are today.
Paul Masson "champagne".
A "champagne" made in New York State...Great Western.
In the 1970s we saw a major change in sparkling wine production
in California. Possibly spurred by the change in government in France,
some French Champagne producers may have been looking for places to invest to
get their money out of their home country. In doing so, they set up
shop in various locations around the planet.
With the labeling laws being a bit loose, anything with bubbles made in
California (and New York state, for that matter) was called Champagne.
The few producers of bottle-fermented bubbly in California always made a fuss to
explain that their wine was "fermented in this bottle." The laws
were so convoluted that there was a bottle-fermented process called the
"transfer" method. The bottles were opened, the bubbly dumped
out and filtered and then re-bottled. These had labels indicating
the wine was "Fermented in the bottle." But not "this
Back in "the old days" Schramsberg called its bubbly
They finally stopped when they began selling their wine in Europe and were
obliged to change the label.
Back in the 1960s, Napa Valley was home to the Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars,
as well as the Schramsberg winery. Beaulieu Vineyards offered bottle-fermented
bubbly. Sonoma had Korbel. In Santa Clara County, the Mirassou
family made bottle-fermented bubbles. The Weibel clan was out in
"Mission San Jose," making loads of Charmat process bubbly.
Almaden and Paul Masson in Santa Clara offered bottle-fermented, transfer method
Charmat process? This was and is a technique where the wine is fermented
in a tank and put right into the bottle. It's cost-effective and easy to
produce. Gallo makes loads of "Andre" Champagne and they used to
have a fancier label called "Eden Roc." Woo hoo!
- With a long and
wonderful history, Schramsberg is just about our favorite California
sparkling wine producer. We like these because they taste like
California Sparkling wines, not Champagne.
Schramsberg was founded by a German fellow who hailed from Worms (that's a
city in Germany! We're not casting aspersions on the poor fellow's
family!!). Jacob Schram was a barber and he dragged his shears and
razors up and down the Napa Valley in the 1800s. Robert Louis
Stevenson paid Mr. Schram a visit and wrote of his impressions in The
"Mr. Schram's, on the
other hand, is the oldest vineyard in the valley, eighteen years old I
think; yet he began a penniless barber, and even after he had broken
ground up here with his black malvoisies, continued for long to tramp
the valley with his razor. Now, his place is the picture of prosperity:
stuffed birds on the verandah, cellars far dug into the hillside, and
resting on pillars like a bandit's cave: all trimness, varnish, flowers,
and sunshine, among the tangled wildwood. Stout, smiling Mrs. Schram,
who has been to Europe and apparently all about the States for pleasure,
entertained Fanny in the verandah, while I was tasting wines in the
cellar. To Mr. Schram this was a solemn office; his serious gusto warmed
my heart; prosperity had not yet wholly banished a certain neophyte and
girlish trepidation, and he followed every sip and read my face with
proud anxiety. I tasted all. I tasted every variety and shade of
Schramberger, red and white Schramberger, Burgundy Schramberger,
Schramberger Hock, Schramberger Golden Chasselas, the latter with a
notable bouquet, and I fear to think how many more. Much of it goes to
London - most, I think; and Mr. Schram has a great notion of the English
In this wild spot, I did
not feel the sacredness of ancient cultivation. It was still raw, it was
no Marathon, and no Johannesburg; yet the stirring sunlight, and the
growing vines, and the vats and bottles in the cavern, made a pleasant
music for the mind. Here, also, earth's cream was being skimmed and
garnered; and the customers can taste, such as it is, the tang of the
earth in this green valley. So local, so quintessential is a wine, that
it seems the very birds in the verandah might communicate a flavor, and
that romantic cellar influence the bottle next to be uncorked in Pimlico,
and the smile of jolly Mr. Schram might mantle in the glass."
- Jacob Schram died in 1904
and his son Herman ran the place until Prohibition. He sold it and
it became Joseph Gargano's California Champagne Company. That was in
1940. In 1951 the place came under the ownership of Douglas Pringle,
a San Francisco interior decorator. Apparently he wasn't so hot at
"decorating" the insides of the champagne bottles and he committed
suicide in 1960.
Jack Davies came into the picture around the mid-1960s. He was a
management consultant and a member of the San Francisco Wine and Food
Society. He had given some money to the famous (or notorious) Santa
Clara winemaker, Martin Ray. Mr. Ray was, apparently, a difficult
fellow to get along with and Davies parted company from that endeavor.
In 1965 he assembled a group of investors who purchased Schramsberg.
The Davies family moved in and set about making wine in 1966. The
cellars were cleaned up and progress proceeded slowly.
speeded things up from a sales and marketing standpoint took place in
1972. American President Richard Nixon traveled to "Red
China." Say what you will about Tricky Dick, but the man was a
wine lover. And the "champagne" he loved from California
was the Davies' family's Schramsberg! Thirteen (or so) cases
of sparkling wine taken to China launched the Schramsberg
"ship." And they've been sailing along nicely ever since.
We had been in contact with Davies right about that period and were lucky
to get some cases of their much in-demand bubbly. And we've been
featuring their wines ever since.
The quality continues to improve, too. A few years ago we were
invited to a blind-tasting of Champagnes with a Schramsberg bubbly in the
flight. Winemaker Hugh Davies has become so proficient at his craft,
that he's fearless in putting them to the test against France's top
HERE TO SEE OUR REPORT ON THE SCHRAMSBERG VERSUS THE WORLD TASTING
current batch of wines is terrific.
BLANC DE NOIRS, like most Schramsberg bubblies, used to be a Napa
wine. Today, though, they go far afield to assemble various lots of
base wines to make this. Fruit from Carneros, Anderson Valley in
Mendocino, as well as Sonoma and Marin are incorporated into this
excellent wine. The wine is predominantly Pinot Noir with a bit of
Chardonnay. It's mildly toasty and medium bodied. The acidity
is less bracing than many Champagnes, but it's still a really good, fine
BLANC DE BLANCS is now made entirely of Chardonnay.
They used to incorporate a bit of Pinot Blanc in this wine, but that was
ages ago. A small percentage of the juice is fermented in wood and
we like the elegance of this wine. It displays notes of Granny Smith
apples with an faintly citrusy tone. It's crisp and lively...a bit
lighter on the palate than the Blanc de Noirs.
BRUT ROSÉ is a delight! We've been fans for so long, we
recall it was originally called "Cuvée de Gamay."
Then it changed to "Cuvée de Pinot." These days it's
simply Brut Rosé. The blend is something close to 60% Pinot
Noir and 40% Chardonnay. They capture a nice strawberry note
from the Pinot in this wine. It's reasonably crisp and fairly
dry without being heavy or having a bitter note from tannin.
CREMANT is a wonderfully original sparkling wine. This
bubbly has been in production since the early 1970s and it features a U.C.
Davis hybrid grape called Flora, a cross of Sémillon and Gewürztraminer.
Today they blend in a bit of Chardonnay to gift it some 'lift' and spine,
but the wine still retains a nice note of peach and ripe tropical
fruits. It's a "Demi Sec" wine, so it's sweet, but not
sticky sweet. Fruit desserts and light cakes (not chocolate)
are great pairings with this.
Currently in stock: BLANC DE BLANCS 750ml
(List $42) SALE $31.99
BLANC DE BLANCS 375ml (List $21) SALE $17.99
BLANC DE BLANCS Magnum (List $80) SALE $69.99
BLANC DE BLANCS 3 Liter (List $267) SALE $279.99
BLANC DE NOIRS 750ml (List $42) SALE $31.99
BRUT ROSE 750ml (List $44) SALE $39.99
CREMANT Demi Sec (List $41) SALE $34.99
Moet et Chandon having set up shop in the Napa Valley, a few other French
Champagne firms followed.
While Moet and Mumm chose the Napa Valley, despite its relatively
Mediterranean climate, Roederer looked more for a place with climatic
conditions more similar to those of the Champagne region.
Roederer is, of course, one of the handful of large firms in Champagne
with integrity and an eye towards quality. While all the French
owned firms fought to remove the term "Methode Champenoise" from
Spanish, Italian and other European sparking wines, virtually all of those
with California wineries employed that designation on their American
bubblies. Except Roederer.
The story of this California winery goes back to the 1970s.
Roederer's Champagnes were imported to California by the San
Francisco-based wine distribution company "A.L. Romano."
This firm imported some of the most "avant garde" wines of the
day: Roederer Champagne, of course. But from Italy they had
Anselmi's Soave, Biondi-Santi Brunello, Mastroberardino's Taurasi along
with a few upstarts from California, including Mirassou and wine from some
fellow named Robert Mondavi.
One of Larry Romano's collaborators was a fellow named Henry Bugatto.
Henry had worked for the Montebello Wine Company, which bottled its wines
right in San Francisco. In those days, Henry told us, there were
perhaps a half a dozen businesses in The City where you could bring a jug
or demijohn and have them "fill 'er up!" Henry had taken
the job of "winemaker" and he wondered, at the time, just why he
- We called Mr. Bugatto one day as we were composing this posting...found
him in the phone book, essentially, and he was surprised (and delighted)
by the call.
(Henry passed away in 2013.)
At one point the Rouzauds asked Mr. Romano if he and some of his
California associates might know if there was a property which might be
planted where it was suitable for sparkling wine production.
Henry Bugatto was given the task of doing the research. One of the
newcomers to the Romano portfolio was a brand new winery which sat on a
hill above Oakville. It was called Vichon. They made a wine
called "Chevrier Blanc," a sort of Bordeaux blend of Semillon
and Sauvignon Blanc. Robert Mondavi eventually bought the Vichon
winery and later the brand was used for some modest wines Mondavi was
importing from the south of France. Geez...this is complicated,
Vichon's owner was a winemaker named George Vierra. George is still
making wine for various wine brands today, in fact. Bugatto credits
George with suggesting they consider Mendocino's Anderson Valley. So
Henry went out that way and along Highway 128 in Philo where he found a
nice prospect of a property. Roederer bought more than 500 acres
there and started planting vineyards which are devoted to Chardonnay and
Pinot Noir. In fact, Roederer's vineyard plantings more than doubled
the grape production in the Anderson Valley. And they're very
devoted to cultivating their own vines, feeling this allows them to
achieve a higher quality wine.
In 1988 they brought their Anderson Valley Brut sparkling wine to the
market. Five years later, their more deluxe bottling, L'Ermitage
(which is vintage dated) made its appearance.
Roederer brought a French winemaker to orchestrate their sparkling wine
production. Michel Salgues began in the mid-1980s before handing
over the reins to Arnaud Weyrich, another French fellow with training at
the wine school in Montpellier.
ROEDERER ESTATE "ANDERSON VALLEY BRUT" is a
Chardonnay-dominated bubbly, typically with 40% Pinot Noir in the
blend. They don't look for the base wine to undergo a malolactic
fermentation and some of the base wines have been kept in wood. The
wine usually spends about two years on the spent yeast. I've found
the wines have become a shade sweeter over the past few years, as I
suspect they're trying to please a larger audience. We've
found the magnums and double magnums of this wine to be
different. Some say that's due to the larger format and
greater surface area of the spent yeast, which gives the wine a more
ESTATE "BRUT ROSE" is a delightful pink bubbly. It's
60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay and they add a bit of red wine to the
cuvee to get the color "just right." It, too, spends about
two years on the spent yeast and it's reasonably dry.
We like the berry and cherry notes of the Rose bubbly. Magnums are
available, typically, and these we've found to be more consistent with the
wine in the standard sized bottle.
The special bottling is called L'ERMITAGE, as it's a tip of the cap
to the Champagne house's long-standing and close relationship to the
Russian market. Of course, Cristal was created for the Russian Czar
and this wine is named after the famous museum of art and culture in St.
Petersburg (not Florida). The current bottling is close to 50/50
between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is currently a stellar example
of what California can do in making sparkling wine that can challenge the
wines from France's Champagne region.
Currently in stock: ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT 750ml (List $31) SALE
ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT 375ml $13.99
ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT Magnums (List $52) SALE $49.99
ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT Jeroboams (List $180) SALE $149.99
ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT ROSE 750ml $28.99
ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT ROSE Magnums (List $75) SALE $69.99
ROEDERER ESTATE L'ERMITAGE 750ml $49.99
ROEDERER ESTATE L'ERMITAGE Magnums (List $122) SALE $105.99
- Back in
the 1970s, Californians discovered an attractively priced alternative to
French Champagnes and it was Spanish bubbly in a black bottle. The
Freixenet brand despite its odd name, became an overnight success.
The Ferrer family had ties with the United States, as Jose Ferrer's father
ran an import company in New Jersey before World War II. Jose came
to the U.S. with the notion of starting a winery to produce sparkling
wine. He visited Napa and other viticultural areas with hopes of
visiting a prospective site in Sonoma's "cattle belt" of
Carneros, he and he son were meandering on what today is the home of the
Gloria Ferrer "Caves & Vineyards." And suddenly a
young bull decided to have a run and check out what these interlopers were
This little encierro was taken as a sign that this place must be
"the place." And so the Ferrer's bought this cattle
pasture and today it's a beautifully manicured vineyard and wine cellar.
When they started, we felt the wines were not quite as good as
some of their French-owned competitors. This was sort of appropriate as
modest Spanish "cavas" are rarely quite as noble as their Champenoise
Today, though, they offer entry-level bottlings which we feel
are easily superior to those of Chandon, Mumm and Piper Sonoma. The
quality of Gloria Ferrer has escalated over the years, thankfully and today
their bubblies represent both quality and value up and down the line-up.
GLORIA FERRER SONOMA BRUT is a Pinot Noir-dominated
sparkling wine, with less than 10% of the juice being Chardonnay. It
spends about a year and a half on the yeast, yet it seems to show more toasty,
biscuity notes than wines which are actually aged longer en tirage.
They usually add a substantial sweetening dosage to finish the wine and yet is
has a lean and crisp quality suggesting a drier wine.
sale-priced and offers good value.
GLORIA FERRER BLANC DE NOIRS is made similarly to the
Sonoma Brut...mostly Pinot Noir with 8% Chardonnay...18 months on the spent
yeast and about 13 grams-per-liter of sugar. It has a nice red fruit note
and isn't all that sweet, though.
They make a number of other sparklers. We've enjoyed their
Carneros Cuvee on a number of occasions. It comes in a unusual bottle and
it's actually nicely yeasty and toasty thanks to being matured for close to a
decade before disgorging. We can order this for you along with their
various other sparkling and table wines.
Currently in stock: GLORIA FERRER SONOMA BRUT
(List $20) SALE $16.99
GLORIA FERRER BLANC DE NOIRS (List $20) SALE $16.99
after Mumm's competitors at Moet et Chandon had come to California, this
venerable Champagne house set up shop in the Napa Valley.
Their long-time winemaker from France, Guy Devaux, had searched various
locales for a suitable place for sparkling wine production as part of the
"Project Lafayette," a code name for their off-shore
winery. In our cynical view, we find it amusing that he chose a
fairly warm climate place instead of a cooler site. We've long
maintained that Devaux picked a good place to "sell wine," more
than he picked a place to cultivate fruit for a Champagne-like sparkling
Roederer chose Mendocino's Anderson Valley and Taittinger went to Carneros
as did the Freixenet folks from Spain. Mumm, either owned or in
partnership with the Bronfman family of Seagram's fame, built a winemaking
facility along Napa Silverado Trail near the ZD winery in
Rutherford. Ownership of the Mumm brand has changed numerous times
since the founding of this winery. Seagram's, of course, started the
place but it's been under the umbrellas of Vivendi, Diageo, Allied Domecq
and, finally, Pernod Ricard this week. Stay tuned...
The winery was completed in 1986 and they've been off and running ever
since, with most of their grape sources said to be in the Carneros
region. At least their wines have a Napa appellation. Check
bottles lof Chandon these days and you'll see their "California"
wines...and we'd read some time ago of fruit coming from really marginal
Still, most of the Mumm Napa wines don't generate much excitement for
us. We find the basic bottlings to be perfectly pleasant, but they
lack focus and precision. These strike us as having had the hands of
the marketing people in the winemaking arena.
The one bubbly which is a cut above is their DVX, as in Devaux,
bottling. We understand this to be close to a 50/50 blend of Pinot
Noir and Chardonnay. It is matured for about 5 years on the yeast,
which explains the nicely toasty notes in the wine. It's fairly dry
and medium bodied.
Currently in stock: DVX
- The Argyle
winery has been around for nearly a quarter of a century and they manage
to keep a low profile.
It's a brand founded by an Australian icon, Brian Croser, along with Cal
Knudsen (who was a partner in Knudsen Erath ages ago).
The winery farms something close to 250 acres and they're one of the
largest producers in the state of Oregon, yet here in California, it's a
brand that gets overlooked.
- The winemaker is a fellow named Rollin Soles, a fellow who's originally
from Texas. He'd studied microbiology, followed by a stint at UC
Davis with enology studies before working in wineries. He's been
with Argyle practically since its inception and they make some terrific
The bubblies are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A high
percentage of the base wines is fermented in wood and they will employ a
malolactic fermentation depending upon the acidity of the wines of a
particular vintage. Most of the sparkling wines spend a minimum of
three years on the yeast.
Brut bubbly is predominant Chardonnay with close to one-third of the blend
being Pinot Noir. It's matured for 3 years en tirage and the
wine seems quite dry on the palate owing to its high level of
acidity. It's actually right at the top of the scale for a dosage in
the "Brut" designation, but the wine sails along the palate with
a measure of austerity.
Currently in Stock: 2007 ARGYLE BRUT $26.99
NO LONGER IN STOCK
Times change and time to move on.
J Sparkling Wine
The winery was purchased by Gallo.
They began in the 1970s with great aspirations,
but the wines had been continually dumbed down.
Customers seem to have lost interest and so did we
after a stop at the winery back in 2015.
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