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Tiny Bubbles

Author: Judith M. Wilson
April, 2014 Issue

North Bay winemakers break new ground with fresh approaches to sparkling wine.

 

Nothing says celebration quite like a flute of crisp, clear, perfectly chilled sparkling wine. It’s a must-have for special occasions, but in the North Bay Wine Country, it’s also a tasting adventure that goes beyond the toasts, as winemakers break new ground with fresh approaches to an old favorite outside the mainstream of large-scale production.
 

On a quest

For some producers, it started simply. Chris Christensen of Bodkin Wines in Healdsburg, for example, had a yen for Sauvignon Blanc with bubbles, but his quest to find it was fruitless until he took a trip to New Zealand and unexpectedly found himself on the path to becoming the only producer in California. “I love Sauvignon Blanc; I love aromatic wines,” he says; he’s also fond of sparkling wines, but he couldn’t find an effervescent Sauvignon Blanc anywhere.
 
Then, while in New Zealand after a stint working in Adelaide Hills region of Australia for the 2011 harvest, he checked out the wine section at a grocery store and found six different releases of the wine he’d been imagining. He bought one of each brand and started to get a feel for sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. Once he’d tasted it, he knew what was possible and asked himself, “Why don’t I do it?” He broke out the pen and paper and started planning. “It came down to getting a brand going. I knew I was going to make Sauvignon Blanc,” he says. “I've always been a fan of [the varietal]. Not only can it be made to show its pretty, fruit-forward and aromatic side, but it also has a unique texture and complexity to it. After all, genetically speaking, it’s the mother of Cabernet Sauvignon.”
 
Christensen, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, never expected to find himself in the wine industry. He has a degree in communications from Stanford University, and through alumni connections, Christensen got an internship in the Gallo of Sonoma laboratory in Healdsburg in 2003, and his course was set. He’s now an enologist at Medlock Ames in Healdsburg’s Alexander Valley, and he’s learned about winemaking on the job. “My past 10 years have been an apprenticeship,” he says.
 
Bodkin Wines opened in 2011, using the facilities at Medlock Ames. Christensen says his approach to Sauvignon Blanc is far from formulaic, but he was fired up about showing how the varietal can be different and started fermenting it with skins in oak barrels, both as a way to get a feel for the varietal and to show a different side. The vineyards experienced a tough year in 2011, but Christensen found sustainably farmed grapes that had elegant and mature flavors and a low brix at Sandy Bend Vineyard in Lake County, and he purchased a ton and a half, loaded them into his truck and drove them to Healdsburg. In 2013, he and his business partner, Andrew Chambers, purchased 24 tons and made 1,100 cases of sparkling Sauvignon Blanc.
 
“I celebrate the whole process of making wine,” he says. “It’s essential to me to really understand my craft and trade. I take raw materials; I put thought, imagination, effort and skills into it and have a finished product in the end.”
 

Coming home

Bex Bishop, owner of BX of Napa, a one-woman, self-financed winery, is a Napa Valley native, but despite growing up surrounded by vineyards, she didn’t expect to become a winemaker. Instead, she migrated to Washington, D.C., and New York, where she worked as publisher for Business Traveler magazine and the Wall Street Journal and held wine events for businesses and friends. She cofounded and became managing director of the Organic Wine Journal, which led to more wine events, but then fate intervened and she returned to Northern California. “My mother’s health brought me back to Napa for what was supposed to be a few months, so I enrolled in winemaking and viticulture courses at Napa Valley College,” says Bishop. “Always being one to throw myself into whatever I do, I stayed longer and continued with courses at UC Davis and Sonoma State.”
 
She quickly became hooked and launched her own label in 2009 using Chardonnay, Syrah and ruby Cabernet grapes. “I use primarily Carneros Pinot Noir on the current releases of NV (see “Vocabulary of Sparkling Wine,”’ below), but also add a bit of Chardonnay and a touch of Mendocino Chardonnay for added complexity and minerality,” says Bishop, whose newest vintages use Oakville Pinot Noir as well. She produces about 120 cases of Blanc de Noirs Brut annually.
 
Bishop furthered her knowledge of Pinot Noir and sparkling wines in France on a Rotary International Group Study Exchange that took her to Burgundy and Champagne. “I now hope to build my reputation on my ‘Pinot 3 Ways’: Pinot Rosé, Pinot Noir and Blanc de Noirs,” she says.
 

Effervescent innovation

For Vicky and Michael Farrow of Amista Vineyards in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley, it all started in Saratoga in 1994, when they planted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in their backyard and started making wine in their garage. They subsequently moved to New Jersey, but the lure of Wine Country was strong, and they purchased a property with vineyards in Sonoma County in 1999. Three years later, they returned to make it home.
 
When they bought the property, it was planted with Chardonnay, but the back of the vineyard wasn’t getting enough water and the grapes became stressed and diseased—so they pulled them out. They thought Syrah would grow well and would make a good crop because it was supposed to be “the next big thing,” so that’s what they planted. After several years producing still wines, Mike, a chemist, found consulting winemaker Chris Wills of Santa Rosa Junior College, and the Farrows supplied him with some Syrah so he could make a sparkling version. “It was kind of exciting. Vicky loved it,” says Mike, describing it as “joy in a bottle.”
 
As the first makers of sparkling wine in Dry Creek Valley, the Farrows keep branching out. They made their first Sparkling Syrah in 2008 and released it in 2009. In 2011, Vicky, a psychologist who now spends most of her time at the winery, and winemaker Ashley Herzberg decided to make a Blanc de Blanc. They made 214 cases of estate-grown Morningsong Vineyards Blanc de Blanc and earned a gold medal for Best of the Best (one of only three gold medals awarded) in the North Coast Wine Challenge on their very first try. Other wines are on the way. “We have some new ones in the tank,” says Vicky.
 
Among them is a sparkling rosé Grenache. “It’s just beautiful,” says Herzberg, who expects to release it in about a year. She’s also creating a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Chardonnay and plans to do a late disgorged Blanc de Blanc.
 
The Farrows grow most of their own grapes, although they do purchase those that aren’t suited for the property, such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. “We like to keep it all in Dry Creek,” says Vicky. “We like to showcase this area and the fruit it produces.” They make less than 200 cases of wines such as the Grenache and Syrah.
 

A salute to tradition

Even smaller is Artesa Winery’s Codorníu Napa Grand Reserve Late Disgorged Sparkling Wine, a limited issue of only 286 bottles. Located in Napa’s Carneros region, Artesa belongs to the Raventós family, owners of Codorníu Raventós in Catalonia in Northeastern Spain. With 450 years’ experience and ten wineries, the Raventós family was the first to introduce Cava sparkling wine; 18 generations later, the tradition continues at Artesa. Production of the exclusive Brut began with hand-harvested and hand-sorted clusters of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from Artesa’s own vineyards.
 
“The Carneros appellation is a little bit cooler than the rest of Napa,” says Marketing Director George MacDonald. “We get higher acidity, which is perfect for sparkling wines.” The exclusive Brut was aged for 10 years before its release, allowing it to develop depth and complexity.
 
“Artesa” is the Catalán word for “handcrafted,” and in keeping with the name and winemaking tradition, each step of the process is by hand, even application of the labels.
 
Artesa also produces 1,500 cases annually of Grand Reserve Sparkling Wine Carneros, but MacDonald says Artesa is better known for its still wines, and many people visiting for the first time aren’t aware of its sparkling program. “For others that I know, it’s a hidden little secret,” he continues, “but it’s part of the legacy of when we started, and we still continue the tradition today,” he says. Visitors who have signed up for a specialty tour or tasting are greeted with a glass of sparkling wine when they arrive and, “They often don’t expect it, so it’s always a surprise,” says MacDonald. “We’re delighted to offer it.” It’s also a tradition for Artesa to celebrate the harvest with sparkling wine. “We do a toast every year. It’s a blessing of the harvest,” says MacDonald.
 

Breathtaking spirit

One of the newest entries into the sparkling wine scene is Breathless Wines, which made its debut in 2013 and will open a tasting room in Healdsburg this summer. Sisters Sharon Cohn, Cynthia Faust and Rebecca Faust grew up in Santa Rosa and have been involved in the wine business most of their adult lives, but they only recently launched their own label, as a tribute to their mother, who passed away five years ago. Proceeds from Breathless wine sales go to the Alpha-1 Foundation (Alpha-1 is a genetic disease that predisposes sufferers to emphysema). “We wanted to do something in her honor. It was all about our breathless moments with her,” says Cohn. “What’s most exciting is that my sisters and I work together,” says Cohn. “It’s just been a lot of fun for all of us.”
 
Breathless produced 1,000 cases of Brut, 750 of Blanc de Noirs and 700 of Brut Rosé in its first year, with Penny Gadd-Coster as winemaker. The current wines are made with Pinot Noir grapes from the Carneros region and Chardonnay grapes from Mendocino, but, says Cohn, “We’re starting to source in Sonoma.” Production is at Rack & Riddle, a custom winemaking facility in Hopland that Rebecca Faust owns with business partner Bruce Lundquist. (Rack & Riddle, which works to winemakers’ specifications and provides whichever step in the process they require, is moving to Healdsburg later this year.)
 
Breathless Wines started garnering awards from the outset. Its Blanc de Noir won the Sweepstakes award at the 2013 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. In February, it won Double Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition 2014, along with an award for Best of Class for its whimsical label. Cohn says the label, using art from a vintage 1920s poster (which Cynthia found and secured rights to), is another tribute to her mother. “We wanted it to be fun and adventurous,” she says.
 

Making bubbles

To achieve their characteristic tiny bubbles, sparkling wines require secondary fermentation to generate natural carbon dioxide. Bodkin Wines uses charmat, the Italian method, in which the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in-tank. “I thought it was the best way to lock in the varietal freshness and make a Prosecco-style wine,” says Christensen. “It really retains the character.”
 
The traditional method, however, is méthode champenoise, in which the wine goes through a slow second fermentation in bottles, and it’s the method that Amista, Artesa, Breathless and BX of Napa favor, although it’s labor-intensive and most wineries send their sparkling wine off-site for at least part of the process. Amista, for example, contracts Rack & Riddle to produce its sparkling wines, while Artesa found a specialist in Hopland to deal with one of the challenges of its limited-edition wine, which comes in 1.5-liter bottles made with a custom mold. “The bottle shape is so unique that we need to take our time to get it disgorged,” says MacDonald. Everything else—making, aging, cellaring and labeling—is done at the winery.
 
After disgorging, which removes the sediment that collects at the neck of the bottle during the second fermentation, dosage, one of the final steps, follows. “I sort of fell in love with the process,” says Vicky Farrow, who explains that dosage involves taking a little base wine, which is usually tart, and tasting it with tiny increments of sugar added until the winemaker finds the desired flavor and balance. Once the desired balance is found, it's added to each bottle. “The difference is huge. It changes the way the wine tastes and brings out different characteristics,” she says.
 

Friends and fun

In an unusual move, Amista, which means, “it makes friends,” started letting customers experience the process in December, when it introduced monthly dosage tastings. The inspiration came when a wine club customer from out of state visited, and the Farrows invited him to participate in the winery’s behind-the-scenes dosage process. They saw how much he enjoyed it and decided to make it a tasting room feature. “It puts you in the shoes of the winemaker,” says Mike.
 
“It’s fun for us, because we get a lot of feedback about what people like. We get people with a wide range of wine experience who like to ask questions,” says Herzberg. She explains that guests play winemaker, with each getting four glasses, to which she’s added various amounts of sugar. She has them taste the wine, then write down their impressions and choose their favorite. It’s an individual opinion, with no right or wrong and, she says, “Even the most inexperienced taster can pick up on so many things.”
 
Sparkling wine has a special cachet that make it synonymous with special occasions, but it also has a role in friendship and drawing people together, whether it’s for a special tasting, sharing brunch with pals or toasting a beautiful view on a hike—and that’s part of its magic.
 
“We say we make wines for our friends. You just want people to take a moment and enjoy life,” says Vicky Farrow. “And what better way than with a glass of sparkling wine?”
 
 

Vocabulary of Sparkling Wine

 
Brix: Measurement of the sugar content of grapes; shows the degree of ripeness
 
Charmat: Production in which the secondary fermentation takes place in large pressurized tanks; the method used for Prosecco
 
Disgorging: A process that involves dipping the neck of the bottle into a freezing brine solution and then removing the sediment from the bottle
 
Dosage: The addition of a sugar solution to a bottle of wine after it’s been disgorged
 
En tirage: Resting of wine in contact with the lees during secondary fermentation; a step in the méthode champenoise process
 
Lees: The sediment that collects during fermentation; fine lees are yeast remnants that enhance the flavor of a wine during aging
 
Méthode champenoise: Production in which secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle; the traditional method for Champagne, it produces tiny bubbles
 
NV: Non-vintaged; made with grapes from more than one vintage
 
Riddling: A process in which bottles are gradually tilted until they're upside down so sediment will collect in the neck of the bottle; can be done by hand or machine
 
Sparkling wine: A wine that’s gone through two fermentations, one to turn the grape juice into wine and another to create natural carbon dioxide and make the base wine effervescent
 
Varietal: A wine made with a single variety of grape
 
 

Pleasing Palate and Soul

 
Every vintner has his or her own way to enjoy a glass of bubbly wine. Here are some of their favorites.
 
 
Amista Vineyards
“We pretty much drink it with everything,” says Vicky Farrow, who says Amista’s Blanc de Blanc is great with potato chips and also with blue-cheese-stuffed green olives. She adds that the sparkling Syrah was fabulous with Thanksgiving dinner, which included crown roast of pork, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce.
 
 
Artesa Winery & Vineyards
“I don’t need a reason to open a bottle. I happen to love sparkling wine,” says George MacDonald. His colleague, Melanie Pyne, marketing director, Spanish brands, finds it pairs well with saucy seafood dishes because it cuts the richness.
 
 
Bodkin Wines
Chris Christensen says his sparkling Sauvignon Blanc is “killer with truffle-salted popcorn,” and he also likes it with a bit of prosciutto and Camembert on a thin wheat wafer. He adds that it makes a great lime juice Mimosa and says, “For those who are into mixology, I’ve been told it makes a stylish margarita mix, too. ”
 
 
Breathless Wines
Sharon Cohn enjoys hiking with friends to a Sonoma County mountaintop and taking along a beautiful spread of food and a bottle of sparkling wine. “Anytime with my family and friends is a favorite,” she says.
 
 
BX of Napa
“Since I was a child and my mother first taught me to cook, I’ve always loved preparing and eating potage parisien, more easily explained as cream of potato leek soup,” says Bex Bishop. “Turns out it pairs deliciously with my bubbles.” Bishop’s mother studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and has developed recipes to go with BX of Napa, which appear on the winery’s website.
 
 

The North Bay’s Sparkling Wine Producers

 
Featured Producers
 
Amista, Healdsburg; www.amistavineyards.com
 
Artesa, Napa; www.artesawinery.com
 
Bodkin, Healdsburg; www.bodkinwines.com
 
Breathless, Sonoma County; www.breathlesswines.com
 
BX of Napa, Napa; www.bexofnapa.com
 
 
More Sparkling Wine Producers
 
Marin County
 
Heidrun Meadery, Point Reyes Station; www.heidrunmeadery.com
 
Kalin Cellars, Novato; www.kalincellars.com
 
Point Reyes Vineyards, Point Reyes Station; www.ptreyesvineyardinn.com
 
 
Napa County
 
Bell Wine Cellars, Yountville; www.bellwine.com
 
Ceja Vineyards, Napa; www.cejavineyards.com
 
Domaine Carneros, Napa; www.domainecarneros.com
 
Domaine Chandon, Yountville; www.chandon.com
 
Dusinberre Cellars, Calistoga; www.winecal.com
 
Frank Family Vineyards, Calistoga; www.frankfamilyvineyards.com
 
Hagafen Cellars, Napa; www.hagafen.com
 
Inglenook (Rubicon Estate), Rutherford; www.inglenook.com
 
Monticello Vineyards, Napa; www.corleyfamilynapavalley.com
 
Mumm Napa, Napa; www.mummnapa.com
 
Richard Grant Wines, Napa Valley; www.richardgrantwine.com
 
Schramsberg Vineyards, Calistoga; www.schramsberg.com
 
Sjoeblom Winery, Napa Valley; www.sjoeblom.com
 
Sutter Home, St. Helena; www.sutterhome.com
 
V. Sattui Winery, St. Helena; www.vsattui.com
 
 
Sonoma County
 
Bryter Estate, Sonoma; www.bryter.com
 
Cline Cellars, Sonoma; www.clinecellars.com
 
Foppoli Wines, Windsor; www.foppoliwines.com
 
Geyser Peak Winery, Geyserville; www.geyserpeakwinery.com
 
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma; www.gloriaferrer.com
 
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery, Santa Rosa; www.harvestmoonwinery.com
 
HKG Estate Wines, Healdsburg; www.hkgwines.com
 
Inman Family Wines, Santa Rosa; www.inmanfamilywines.com
 
Iron Horse Vineyards, Sebastopol; www.ironhorsevineyards.com
 
J Vineyards & Winery, Healdsburg; www.jwine.com
 
JCB Wines, Santa Rosa; www.jeancharlesboisset.com
 
Keller Estate Winery, Petaluma; www.kellerestate.com
 
Kenwood Vineyards, Kenwood; www.kenwoodvineyards.com
 
Korbel Champagne Cellars, Guerneville; www.korbel.com
 
Matrix Winery, Healdsburg; www.matrixwinery.com
 
Mayo Family Winery, Glen Ellen; www.mayofamilywinery.com
 
Paradise Ridge Winery, Santa Rosa and Kenwood; www.prwinery.com
 
Piper Sonoma, Sonoma County; www.pipersonoma.com
 
Ramazzotti Wines, Geyserville; www.ramazzottiwines.com
 
Ram's Gate Winery, Sonoma; www.ramsgatewinery.com
 
River Road Family Vineyards and Winery, Sebastopol; www.riverroadvineyards.com
 
Robert Hunter, Sonoma; www.roberthunterwinery.com
 
Schug Carneros Estate Winery, Sonoma; www.schugwinery.com
 
Simon Levi Cellars, Kenwood; www.slcellars.com
 
Thomas George Estates, Healdsburg; www.thomasgeorgeestates.com
 
Trentadue, Geyserville; www.trentadue.com
 
Valley of the Moon, Glen Ellen; www.valleyofthemoonwinery.com
 
Viansa, Sonoma; www.viansa.com
 
VJB Vineyards & Cellars, Kenwood; www.vjbcellars.com
 
Wattle Creek Winery, Cloverdale (tasting room) and San Francisco; www.wattlecreek.com
 
Windsor Vineyards, Healdsburg; www.windsorvineyards.com
 
Woodenhead Vintners, Santa Rosa; www.woodenheadwine.com

 

 

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