At last count there were 55 producers of sparkling wine in California. I am not speaking of wine coolers and hyperthyroid white zinfandel, but of sparklers that are made from the two classic champagne grapes -- chardonnay and pinot noir -- and then put through secondary fermentation in the bottle. This is the so-called me'thode champenoise -- a process that was perfected in Champagne, France, and then transported to other climes and countries with less success, until recently.
The me'thode champenoise produces tastier, more complex and more resilient sparkling wine than does the alternative and cheaper bulk process of fermenting in tanks. But with the former, the bottles must be riddled (turned) to concentrate the sediment, disgorged, doctored with sugar and brandy, and aged -- all of which adds significantly to the bottom line.
Not all 55 California producers are selling their sparklers yet, but most are. Meanwhile, experimentation continues apace, and as the demand for good sparkling wine grows, so does the quality of California's contenders. Among the very good are those from one of Champagne's New World emissaries -- Domaine Chandon, a Napa Valley vineyard owned by Moe t-Hennessy. But the best California sparklers, I think, are made by the natives. Three vineyards that are consistently excellent are S. Anderson, Iron Horse and Schramsberg.
S. Anderson, a small family operation in the Napa Valley, now produces about 6,000 cases of sparkling wine a year. The Anderson vineyards were founded in 1971, and the early critical success of their sparkler has grown into well- deserved renown. Anderson brut, a dry blend of chardonnay and pinot noir, and Anderson blanc de noirs, made from pinot noir, both sell for about $16.
Sonoma Valley's Iron Horse Vineyards makes still wines as well as about 12,000 cases of fine sparkling wine yearly. The sparklers come in three variations: brut, blanc de noirs and blanc de blancs -- a white wine from chardonnay grapes. All three cost about $20 a bottle.
The last of the trio, Schramsberg, is one of the oldest makers of California sparkling wines and, to my mind, the most exemplary. In 1965, Jack and Jamie Davies bought some ruined vineyards and a declining Victorian mansion once owned by an itinerant barber, Jacob Schram, in the wooded hills on the western side of the Napa Valley. A century earlier, Schram had founded a winery that made still wines and achieved success as far away as London; Robert Louis Stevenson tasted them with pleasure while honeymooning in Napa. Schram's was a worthy tradition.
1965 is somewhat less than antediluvian in terms of wine development, but in 1965 in California there were only two commercial producers of sparklers by the me'thode champenoise. Neither of them used chardonnay and pinot noir, the classic champagne grapes. The Davieses were accustomed to drinking and admiring the real stuff and decided to attempt a California cuve'e that would meet the high standards of French champagne, as well as those being set by a few makers of California still wine.
"There were little flickerings of change in the California industry then," Jack Davies said when I visited him at harvest time, in the redwood-paneled splendor of what Schramsberg has become. Those flickerings became a beacon that now illuminates wine-making around the world and attracts the famous to California vineyards, among them the most prominent Champenoise.
Schram's old caves were utilized by the Davieses, and expanded, and several unusual wine-making techniques contribute to the remarkable freshness and delicacy of Schramsberg's sparklers. All grapes must be picked before 11 a.m., while it's still cool. A huge vacuum hose takes the grape bunches directly from the haulers to the presses, avoiding the stemming and crushing procedure and thereby preserving the freshness of the fruit. Ten percent of the wine is fermented in new French oak barrels to add complexity. Schramsberg is aged a minimum of two years from final bottling until release, and the more expensive wines are aged longer.
Schramsberg sparkling wine -- there is no other kind -- amounts to 50,000 cases a year. It comes in no less than five variations: blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs, cuve'e de pinot (a rose'), cre'mant demi-sec (slightly sweet) and the reserve. Prices, which vary from about $18 to about $27, are often less than those for champagnes of comparable quality.
Schramsberg is sold all over the United States and in some foreign countries, but not, ironically, in France. A few years ago, the Davieses sent 24 cases there, on request. The French are jealous of nothing as they are jealous of the reputed superiority of champagne, and the Schramsberg was allowed to sit on the docks, spoiling in the sun.
Dom Perignon still arrives regularly on these shores -- coals to Newcastle, as things are turning out. ::