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‘Tis the season of the bubblies

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The sparkling wine is pouring in, literally. August marks the high point of my receipt of California champers, as producers hope that good reviews in October and November will lead to brisk holiday season depletions, “as the last eight weeks of the year account for one-third of annual [U.S.] sales” of sparkling wine.

You may not know it, but the sparkling wine industry has labored for years to figure out how to convince Americans to buy bubbly year-round, not just for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s not that they don’t want consumers buying it for the holidays; they just wish we’d drink as much of it between January-November as we do the last month of the year.

So why don’t we?

Well, for one, the sparkling wine industry has no one to blame but itself. For decades, it promoted bubbly as the wine of celebration: of weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, of winning a World Series or getting a promotion at the office, of buying a new home or concluding a treaty between nations, of toasting in the new year, of graduating university or launching a ship. In other words, a wine to drink just a few times a year. This is hardly a strategy designed to increase sales.

The worst offenders have been the French and the Californians. They just can’t figure out a way to persuade people to drink sparkling wine year-round, the way the Italians have with Prosecco or the Spanish have with cava. Of course, if you have an inexpensive brand like Korbel (average price: $13 for their basic brut, rosé, etc.), you’re likely to sell throughout the year (although the holidays still are peak time). But what of pricier bubblies? Schramsberg ’04 Reserve ($110), Iron Horse non-vintage Joy! ($189 the magnum), Chandon ’01 Etoile ($100), Domaine Carneros ’06 Le Rêve ($95) all are super-delicious, ageable wines I’ve recently reviewed (and scored at least 95 points), but oi, the sticker shock. Not that there’s anything exorbitant about a hundred bucks compared to Roederer ’05 Cristal ($249), Veuve Clicquot ’90 Cave Privée ($208) or Bolly ’04 Grand Année ($235), each of which my colleague Roger Voss recently scored at least 95 points; but those wines are, after all, Champagne; as Bordeaux is Bordeaux, Burgundy, Burgundy and Barolo, Barolo, the consumer is willing to get fleeced, no, make that willing to pay a premium for the privilege of knowing that he is drinking wines of great fame and historicity. But expensive California sparkling wine possesses neither.

Is this right, or fair? No. The best California sparkling wines are among the greatest of that category in the world. (I wish someone would set up a “Judgment of Paris”-type blind tasting between French Tête de Cuvée Champagne and the best of California. Count me in.) The problem is that the world doesn’t understand this. And that problem in turn goes back to the question of timing: If you’re only going to splurge on sparkling wine a couple times a year, it’s probably going to be French–even if it’s something as mediocre as Moët White Star.

Do people then drink with their palates, or their brains? All the evidence points to the latter. When we critics (some of us, anyway) taste blind, we try to eliminate the brain’s interpretive functions in such a way as to render the most objective possible judgment. Do we lose something, in the process, concerning the wine’s historicity, context and reclame–do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Probably. Blind tasting always opens itself to this critique (just as “open” tasting lends itself to the critique of bias).

But how we critics taste is less important than how consumers experience wine, which is by looking at the label and knowing what they’re drinking. If White Star lends a certain prestige to the occasion, it doesn’t really matter that it’s an 84 point wine. What the wine lacks organoleptically, it more than makes up for esthetically or intellectually: its divots, so the speak, are filled in by information: This is French Champagne, an elevating perceptual experience, as would be “I am sitting in George Clooney’s Tuscan villa and there he is, mixing me a martini, wearing a loose silk robe.” You could be drinking the exact same martini at your in-law’s, with Dad watching ESPN in his drawers, but the frisson wouldn’t be the same.

I started out talking about California sparkling wine and ended up with George Clooney in Tuscany. Somehow there must be a connection. Re-reading what I’ve written, I see that I made it sound as if California bubbly were confined to two tiers ($13 and $100) but of course that’s not true. We have a wide spectrum in the middle tier ($20-$30) that is probably superior in quality to French equivalents. (Chandon, Mumm Napa, Gloria Ferrer and Roederer Estate in particular have been impressive the last few years.)

Despite the ambiguous attitude of Americans toward sparkling wine, we’re drinking more of it than ever before: 17.7 million cases last year, according to the Wine Institute. However, that generosity does not appear to be extending to the most expensive wines: while sales of California sparkling wine last year were the highest in at least 25 years, “Moscato based sparklers [drove] the growth.” My personal feeling is that high-end California sparkling wine will never burst out of its straitjacket until consumers understand it: and they will never understand it until they’re taught to think about it in the proper way. Every reputable critic I know has been trying to elevate Americans’ view of sparkling wine for years. It’s an uphill battle.

  1. Carlos T says:

    Steve,

    in many parts of Portugal and in Galicia/ España the use of vinho verde branco over lunch or dinner is really common. I mean a big really common habit.

    These wines are somewhat sparkling. Taste great and cost 1 or 2 euros a normal bottle.

    Vinho verde is a sparkling wine for any hour of the day. You see how the cost and culture (plust marketing) play big factors as far as consumption goes…

  2. Maybe “craft” bubblies will turn the sparkling market around like craft beer has for the lagging beer market? I know of numerous labels beginning to produce boutique production levels of sparkling right now. A new trend?

  3. Dan, I don’t know if it’s a “trend” so much as small wineries just trying to make a few bucks on the side. And most of those bubblies are very difficult for the average consumer to find, since they’re produced in tiny amounts (often only for sale through the club or tasting room). A “trend” is something that impacts the general population, the way Moscato did.

  4. i can’t speak for all wineries, but the small wineries i know are losing money on their sparkling projects. its mostly just a labor of love

  5. My perception of sparkling wine changed during a wine tasting class at a local university. My thinking changed when I paired an Iron Horse sparkler with buffalo wings (highly recommend it). At that point i started thinking about the beers i liked and what i liked about them. I haven’t found a pairing that worked for beer that doesn’t work for sparkling wine.

  6. Craig C: Good point. Maybe it’s the bubbles?

  7. I think its the bubble fineness, spices, yeasty qualities. A lot of Ales and wheat beers have similar bread and spices nose/taste that can be found in sparklers. I haven’t replaced beer with sparklers completely, because sometimes you just want a beer.

    To me it would make sense to have sparkling wine booth at craft beer fair.

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