subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The problem with sparkling wine



Good article from Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle exploring the challenges of sparkling wine in California, particularly the question of why our State doesn’t have a burgeoning grower-producer movement, the way Champagne (in France) does.

Esther points out the principle stumbling blocks: making sparkling wine is way expensive; the risk is high; why would consumers spend $40, $50 or more on an unknown brand when they can get tried-and-true Mumm Napa or Gloria (or Korbel for that matter) far more affordably?

These are all real problems that would-be champagnistas in California have to face. I think another is simply that Americans are not [yet] a sparkling wine-drinking people. We were raised in the belief that bubbly is for weddings, New Year’s Eve and other special occasions, not an everyday table wine like Cabernet or Chardonnay. And let’s face it, the sparkling wine industry in America 50 years ago (such as it was) worked very hard to convey this very notion: that Champagne is the wine of celebration. Since most days are not celebratory ones for the average American, he or she can find little reason to drink sparkling wine on a regular basis.

Could we change that perception? Probably not anytime soon, because it’s so ingrained. But there’s another problem with sparkling wine, one that’s not talked about so much: it’s not really an everyday wine. It’s too assertive. The fizz grabs your attention so powerfully that bubbly just isn’t a drink that will play second fiddle to your food, the way most still reds, whites and rosés are. Bubbly is the diva of wine—a Mariah Carey who doesn’t like sharing the stage with anyone or anything else.

For this reason, I think I’d tire of sparkling wine on a consistent basis. As great as it can be—and it’s one of the supreme accomplishments of winemaking technique–it’s almost too much of a good thing, like too much butter or too much chocolate (yes, you can O.D. on fudge). I’d never tire of a good dry table wine. I could drink Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay every night for the rest of my days and still yearn for more. But not sparkling wine all the time. I have to be in the right mood for bubbly, and I’m not always. And I think, for most people, we get our spritz fix from beer.

Yes, I do keep a bottle in the fridge at all times. You never know when the bubbly bug will bite! And I do agree with Esther that it would be fabulously cool to see a grower-producer sparkling wine movement in California. There’s plenty of vineyard acreage out there for it, and an argument could be made to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in places where the grapes would never get ripe, like the far Marin coast, the area around Half Moon Bay and even parts of Big Sur; after all, true Champagne is made from grapes that are considered unripe for still table wine.

But who would do it? Who would invest the time and money on such a wager? American wine consumers don’t generally reward innovation. We stick with our favorite producers and varieties—we’re really very conservative in that regard. Producers such as Doug Stewart, whom Esther quotes in her article, are exactly what we need here in California: bold visionaries willing to push the boundaries so that California wine can get to the next level.

But even the most far-seeing visionary can’t do it by himself. He needs consumers willing to reward his risk with their hard-earned cash. And I agree with Doug Stewart: the market is not going to be receptive to grower-producer sparkling wines anytime soon, and not the least of the reasons is simply because sparkling wine is not an everyday drink. It might be in another America; not this one.

  1. Your employer/client Jackson Family Wines used to make Kristone sparkling wine from the Tepusquet Vineyard. (I visited their defunct facility on a Society of Wine Educators trip through the Central Coast circa 1990-1991.)


    Even Jess Jackson couldn’t get the numbers to pencil out . . . and the project was abandoned.

  2. Sparkling wine goes great with fried foods. American’s eat a lot of fried foods. (See how easy that was? It doesn’t have to be Scuppernong.)

    And yes, my tongue is at least pointed toward my cheek, if only because, no matter how great a Chard-based brut crémant pairs with hot fried chicken (and it does), it requires that you takee The Special Wine and treat it just a little bit like a beer. And, heck, why would we want to demote The Special Wine like that? It feels like gardening in your Sunday best, so I don’t do it as often as my French friend suggests I should.

    Where I think we stand a chance of an accelerated production of quality American sparkling wine is that seven states (including Illinois and Virginia) now prohibit direct shipping of un-American wines to their fair citizens. If you want to sell them bubbles, it needs to be domestic. Korbel just won’t do the job, and Tattinger’s holdings in Carneros can’t produce it all.

    So Buena Vista now has a vintage Blanc de Noir. And we have long had Domaine Carneros and Laetitia (Arroyo Grande is as perfect a Champagne-like area as one could want, IMO). And New York. And a few small central coast wineries consistently make sparkling wines (e.g., Flying Goat), though I’ve always been surprised how hard it is to find a bottle of bubbles from Sta. Rita Hills.

    There’s not much, though. And it’s expensive to make, so small wineries generally won’t lead the way on this one. But, dang, we have seven states (including sizable cities like Chicago, Richmond, and Atlanta) that celebrate New Year’s Eve and have weddings and brunch, but nobody can direct ship wine to them unless it is domestic. Seems to me there has to be a market for something other than that almond stuff they sell by the tanker-load in Temecula.

  3. “an argument could be made to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in places where the grapes would never get ripe, like the far Marin coast, the area around Half Moon Bay and even parts of Big Sur; after all, true Champagne is made from grapes that are considered unripe for still table wine.”

    BTW, I thought this was particularly good. That’s really why (more or less) nobody is making bubbles in Sta. Rita Hills.

  4. Judi Levens says:

    I see my friends drinking a lot more bubbly…there is hardly a get together which doesn’t start with bubbly now, and it extends into the evening longer. I have been thinking of cutting back on still wine and drinking more bubbly (good for you and lower alcohol generally.) Even Prosecco is more popular than in the past. So, maybe you are partly wrong. Maybe the demand is there and its just for the market to produce it. Kirkland brand from Costco provides some less expensive options for good champagne and there are quite a variety of good California sparkling wines.
    I understand I am not a professional but maybe you are interested in what a “regular person” thinks too? My friends and I are reasonably wine savvy, and run a spectrum from “regular people” to winemakers and winery owners, etc, so I think I can speak to this trend with a little experience.

  5. David weintraub says:

    My wife would drink it every day with every meal if possible

  6. Wes Hagen released a sparkling Brut Rosé while at Clos Pepe (Sta. Rita Hills).


  7. At Pinot Days hosted in Los Angeles recently, Brian Loring poured a bubbly. (Origin of grapes unknown.)


  8. Sparkling wine is the most priceworthy wine category in the United States. With front line prices of $20 for very good examples, and discounted pricing down into the mid-teens and below at the Holidays, bubbles need not be very far from the table ever if one likes the category–which we do in my family.

  9. Chateau St. Jean inaugurated a sparkling wine program back in the 1980s.

    As I recall, disgorged after six years on the lees.

    But the daunting prospect of no income/no cash flow for half a decade for each released vintage quickly put an end to their noble endeavor.


  10. This Chateau St. Jean comment is a footnote to one awaiting “moderation.”

    From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (December 27, 1990):

    “It Was a Vintage Year for American Wineries”

    By Dan Berger
    Times Wine Writer


    “Curious Idea of the Year: Chateau St. Jean, which has made a vintage-dated sparkling wine since 1980, announced that all sparkling wines from the 1990 release and thereafter would be non-vintage wines. A winery spokesman said the decision was made because marketing people said retailers and restaurants complained that having a vintage date identified the wine as to its age and ‘some people felt they didn’t want last year’s wine.'”


  11. Wow, this is a really perplexing theme, given that the “grower,” and small winery, sparkling wine category is exploding in the North Bay area. I can think of maybe a dozen right now, that were not mentioned in the article referenced; mostly using the services of Rack & Riddle, a hugely helpful service for these folks, that is also not mentioned. Lots of sparkling is coming on line right about now.

  12. Just released our first Sparkling wine and it is flying out the door. Almost all of my winery friends have a sparkling now with the help of Rack and Riddle.

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts