Peninsula wineries are tapping into California’s forgotten knack for producing quality bubbly

By Carol Maskus

“Sparkling wines are pretty versatile with food, are great aperitifs and generally make people happy — what’s not to like?” (Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

Most of us need a little nudge to open up a bottle of sparkling wine—celebratory occasions like a birthday or anniversary—but otherwise tend to dismiss it the rest of the year. In this regard, Valentine’s Day not only presents an opportunity to indulge, but to also brush up on buying bubbles as less of a novelty.

Here on the Peninsula, an increasing number of local vinters have begun to make sparkling wines, and have embraced them as a potential mainstay rather than a gimmicky party favor.

“I don’t abide by the idea that it is only for special occasions,” says winemaker Nathan Kandler, of Thomas Fogarty Winery and Vineyards. “Sparkling wines are pretty versatile with food, are great aperitifs and generally make people happy — what’s not to like?”

(Image courtesy of Thomas Fogarty Winery)

Kandler is not alone, as more and more Silicon Valley winemakers have come to share this same viewpoint of seeing sparkling’s potential to shine.

“There is something about the process of opening a bottle — the pop, the bubbles — that is uniquely romantic,” says Mary Corcoran, of Barterra Winery in Half Moon Bay.

Barterra, Thomas Fogarty and other local winemakers run the gamut in terms of their varying approaches to the making of sparkling, with some Peninsula outfits growing their own grapes, some purchasing them, and others contracting the process out entirely.

Barterra Winery, for example, works with producers from places like Napa Valley, Sonoma, Carneros, Amador, Alexander Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Lodi and Madera and then labels them under their own name. Their sparkling—made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—comes from Domaine Carneros in Carneros.

(Image courtesy of Thomas Fogarty Winery)

Russian Ridge Winery also contracts out their sparkling, working with Rack and Riddle in Healdsburg to get it made to their specifications: bottle fermented, dry, Chardonnay grapes with a touch of Pinot Meunier (a white blending grape often used in sparkling).

According to Scott Townsend, Russian Ridge isn’t the only place that gets their bubbly made at Rack and Riddle (in fact, many California wineries do the same thing), because of the difficulty smaller wineries face producing it on their own.

“It’s so labor-intensive, there’s no way we could do it in the winery,” he says. “It would be more than our technical expertise would allow.” For example, sparkling wine needs special slanted racks while it’s developing, which not all wineries have room for.

Right now, Townsend’s base wine for his sparkling is from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and not grown by Russian Ridge. However, that could change in the future.

Scott Townsend (right) and his son Spencer working out of their Russian Ridge headquarters in San Carlos. (Photo by Charles Russo)

“Some people ship [their own] base wine to them, and we may do that…but we need to grow more Chardonnay first.” Not growing enough of one’s own grapes is a common problem among urban wineries — land is expensive, and much of it is already bought up. Thus they buy grapes from growers, and see what magic they can create in the cellar, or in this case, work with someone who has all the equipment and expertise.

Thomas Fogarty Winery is able to grow its own grapes, though production is on a small scale. Their Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs is grown at the Northern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, allowing for maritime influence, a long growing season, and the coolness needed to produce acid for a good sparkling.

“It’s a niche wine, something we have been doing on a small scale over the last 30 or so years,” says Kandler. He agrees that producing it is difficult for most wineries. “It is extremely expensive, time consuming and the market for domestic sparkling wine is relatively small. You have to have a real passion and commitment to make it happen.”

One independent winemaker/owner who is succeeding in making sparkling all on his own is Scott Sisemore of Waxwing Wine Cellars. He puts out a sparkling Riesling, and also one of Pinot Noir, labeled A la Volée. Sisemore follows the pét-nat method, or pétillant-naturel, a very old method (said to predate Champagne), also riskier, of fermenting the wine in bottle to yield a more natural product.

Scott Sisemore (left) representing the latest from Waxwing Wine Cellars; Reisling grapes. (Images Courtesy of Waxwing Wine Cellars)

“It’s a more down and dirty sparkling,” says Sisemore, “more natural.”

His Riesling comes from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, and his Pinot Noir is from Salinas Valley, also in Monterey. Not many people make sparkling Riesling, so he says he saw a niche.

“It’s new to have tiny guys like me making it,” he says. “In California, it’s been huge producers (think Mumm and Schramsberg). I wanted to be on the cutting edge of what’s new.”

California has a sizable history with sparkling, but perhaps needs more of an identity, and smaller producers like these could help create more demand.

(Image courtesy of Thomas Fogarty Winery)

“We think the California wine industry would be well served to come up with a unique ‘brand’ name for California sparklings. The wines are phenomenal and absolutely beautifully elegant but lack a unique branding,” says Corcoran.

They also struggle to compete with the notoriety of Champagne.

“[California sparkling wines] are most often compared to Champagne, for better or worse — it’s a tough comparison!” says Kandler. “I think we are better off when we nod to the aesthetic of Champagne, but focus on making the best California sparkling wines and not aping the French.”

For more on the wineries featured in this article, follow the links below:

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