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It’s bubbly time

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Christmas is more than 4 months away, but it’s already bubbly season, that time of the year when, due to the lead time of print journalism, wineries send out their sparkling wines for review for the Holidaze.

So it is that during August the California bubblies have been pouring in. My top 3 sparklers so far this year have been, respectively, from Iron Horse, J and Schramsberg — all wineries that began in California. But if you’d asked me 15 or 20 years ago who would be turning out California’s top sparkling wines in the year 2008, the answer surely would have been: One of the French houses.

After all, the French had invaded California en masse back in the late 1970s and 1980s, and these maestros of Champagne intended to extend their rule to the Golden State.

Mumm begat Mumm Napa Valley, Taittinger birthed Domaine Carneros, Roederer started Roederer Estate, Moet-Hennesy launched Domaine Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck began Piper Sonoma, Deutz created Maison Deutz, and Laurent-Perrier was set for a joint venture with Iron Horse. Even the Spanish took note: Freixenet set up Gloria Ferrer, and Codorniu started Codorniu Napa.

The Frogs even set up a marketing and P.R. order, CM/CV (“Classic Method/Classic Varieties”), led by the then-esteemed wine writer, Bob Finigan. The mood was heady as a mousse. After all, coastal land prices were cheap, and the Millennium — when oceans of bubbly would be drank — was just around the corner (well, 15 or 20 years away, but that’s not long when you’re a 300-year old Champagne house). Besides, back home in Champagne, they were running out of grapegrowing space. So the business plan looked golden.

But the plan failed to take reality into account. For whatever reasons, sparkling wine consumption in the U.S. peaked in 1985 and continued to slide right through 1998, according to the New York Times. The Millennium did drive sales, but the damage had been done. Codorniu became Artesa, producer of still wines. Domaine Carneros and Roederer Estate likewise had to add still wines to their portfolios. Deutz abandoned the game completely, selling out to what is now Laetitia. Piper Sonoma sold its facilities to J Wine Co. Laurent-Perrier canceled their deal and bailed out. CM/CV faded out of existence. Roederer is the best of what remains of the French Invasion.

Maybe the Europeans were just too early. Sparkling wine is back on a roll, growing at a pace not seen in decades. The Wine Institute reported sparkling wine sales rose last year, while USA Today declared that “Bubblies are back…Not since the buying frenzy of 1999, when people bought champagne in bulk to ring in the millennium, have U.S. champagne and sparkling wine sales been so high.” And why not? When the world looks bleak, nothing brightens it more than a bottle of bubbles.

The North Coast sparkling wine harvest has begun, and looks to be light but high quality. Check out this report from the North Bay Business Journal.

P.S. Please visit my other blog at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.

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