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CALIFORNIA BUBBLES  CALIFORNIA SPARKLING WINE and "CALIFORNIA CHAMPAGNE"

 

 

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 Burgundy!  
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 bottle."


Back in "the old days" Schramsberg called its bubbly "Champagne."
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 bubblies.

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!

 

 

 

SCHRAMSBERG VINEYARDS

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 Silverado Squatters:

 

 

"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 taste.

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 commit 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. 

What 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 Champagnes.

CLICK HERE TO SEE OUR REPORT ON THE SCHRAMSBERG VERSUS THE WORLD TASTING
 
The 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 quality bubbly.

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

 

 

 

ROEDERER ESTATE

With 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 did.  

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, ain't it?

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 toasty character.  




ROEDERER 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.  I've found it to be more fruity and a tad sweeter than the earlier vintages.  Again, I suspect they're reacting to the market and seeing wines with a bit of residual sugar are becoming increasingly popular amongst an audience which professes to like "dry" wines.


Currently in stock:  ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT  750ml  (List $31)  SALE $22.99
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  $26.99
ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT ROSE Magnums (List $68)  SALE $59.99

ROEDERER ESTATE L'ERMITAGE 750ml  $49.99
ROEDERER ESTATE L'ERMITAGE Magnums  (List $122)  SALE $105.99









GLORIA FERRER

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 discovery.  
 
 
 
 
While 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 doing.  
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 not quite as noble as their Champenoise competition.  Today, though, they offer entry-level bottlings which we feel are superior to those of Chandon, Mumm and Piper Sonoma.  

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.  It's usually 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







MUMM NAPA

Years 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 wine.  

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 places.

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 

 

 

 

 

ARGYLE

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 sparkling wines.  

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.

The basic 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.

Domaine Chandon
They began in the 1970s with great aspirations, but the wines had been continually dumbed down.  

Domaine Carneros
Customers seem to have lost interest and so did we after a stop at the winery back in 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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