California Wineries Are Beginning to Master the Taste of the Bubbly

Times Wine Writer

Time was, when an American President dined with a foreign head of state, the wine they toasted each other with would be Champagne from France. French Champagne is known worldwide as an exceptional beverage, not to mention good for smashing against bows of new boats, celebrating graduations or even cementing East-West agreements.

But things change. When you saw the picture of President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev toasting one another at the recent summit, the wine they used was a bottle of Scharffenberger Brut. This is an American wine.

Today you see more American sparkling wine (mostly from California) in the White House and at upscale social functions than ever before, and it’s not only national pride that has caused this. Quality is a major factor.


Californians are getting a handle on this difficult-to-make wine and achieving greatness, much to the chagrin of the French, who consider themselves masters of the bubbly.

The Best Single Bottle

And so they are. The best Champagnes I’ve ever had were French, including the best single bottle--Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises Blanc de Noirs. And in a list of my top 20 sparkling wines, almost all are from France; only rarely has a California sparkling wine made an impression more lasting that its effervescence.

However, things are changing in California--with some help from the French, who have invested in California and have shared their knowledge. As the excellence of California sparkling wine grows, local bubbly closes the gap on the French.

So although the best of France will probably always be better than California’s best, California has the advantage of being exciting and innovative, not to mention that price and availability are better. These days I find myself ordering more California wine than French.

The one major difference between California sparkling wine and Champagne from France is the fruit. Domestic bubbly usually has more of it. French Champagne is more likely to accent complexity.

To state which is the “best” California sparkling wine is difficult, however, because the styles of wine are so divergent. A Scharffenberger Blanc de Blanc is light and refreshing, an Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee is complex and deep, a Culbertson Natural is lean and angular.

A List of Wineries

However, people like lists, arranged ordinally, and because of that I herewith create a most personal top-10 list, but not of particular wines. Here I rank my choice of best producers, those wineries whose styles I prefer, and whose wines across a wide range of styles offer excellence, not to mention a consistency that’s a hallmark upon which you can rely.

1--Iron Horse: Situated in the coldest growing region in western Sonoma County, Iron Horse uses Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes that ripen slowly. The house fashions a Blanc de Blanc in the manner of Salon (a prototype of long-lived delicacy for a Chardonnay-based sparkling wine) and a Brut of honest richness. I’m most intrigued, however, by a Blanc de Noirs Wedding Cuvee ($16.50, and a steal at the price) with richness and depth. A newly developed 1985 Brut Rose is attractive, but a bit austere for my palate. I suspect a little more time in the bottle will make it more supple.

2--Domaine Mumm: The first three non-vintage releases from this Seagram property (now housed in a new facility on the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley) were dramatic examples of blending brilliance. Traces of France run through an essentially California-bright wine. But in the new vintage-dated wine (from 1985), Domaine Mumm has developed a richer, more intense style that appears to be getting better in the bottle. Yet to come is an intriguing Winery Lake cuvee, the first vineyard-designated sparkling wine in the state’s history.

3--Schramsberg: The trailblazers in terms of top-quality, French-method sparkling wine, Jack and Jamie Davies hit a flat spot a few years ago, but Schramsberg has rebounded with its recent releases. These wines are sincere efforts to duplicate French style, highlighting complexity more than fruit. Schramsberg is priced at the top end of the spectrum, but still not as high as most French imports. And the new 1982 Reserve, a truly great wine, is a mere $25, comparable to $50 French prestige cuvees.

4--Chateau St. Jean: After an inconsistent start with the winery’s austere 1980 wines (which later developed beautifully in the bottle), Champagne master Pete Downs has released some of the most delightful wines, especially his 1985 vintage releases. Downs, who has done lots of contract work for other wineries, has helped others make headlines. Now he’s getting the credit he deserves.

5--Scharffenberger: Located in the cold Anderson Valley, Scharffenberger has wines that can be high in acid and for that reason sometimes a bit tart to some palates. But I love the crispness when the wines are poured with food. The non-vintage Bruts are usually excellent, notably the most recent release. Some exciting things are lurking in the cellar, too.

6--Domaine Chandon: The first French-owned company to delve into California soil, this Napa Valley winery has recently made major strides to improve its two wines, which always have been excellent but rarely outstanding. The new Reserve in magnums is superb (though I’m not a fan of this wine when it’s poured from 750-milliliter bottles), and recently I found the Blanc de Noirs to be excellent. However, since the winery does not vintage-date or number the bottles, you have no way of knowing which lot of wine you’re getting.

7--Culbertson: This Southern California winery has won a slew of awards for its Brut Rose, Blanc de Noirs, Muscat de Frontignan, and Natural. The latter is usually more delicate in aroma and austere in the finish, making it a good match with food. Cuvee Rouge is an excellent effort in a sparkling red wine.

8--Piper-Sonoma: In the early days and until recently, these wines were clean as a whistle but lacking in much substance or character. They appeared stripped. However, latest releases have shown more body and structure and indeed the Blanc de Noirs is an excellent leap forward. I’m not yet a fan of the winery’s Tete de Cuvee, though the intention there is to do a great one.

9--Wente: A recent entrant to the bubbly sweepstakes, the winery’s two latest wines (Brut, $10, and Blanc de Noirs, $15) are crisp, interesting and show a great deal of promise.

10--Maison Deutz: Delicacy marks the style of this house located in Arroyo Grande, outside a town called Halcyon in Santa Barbara County. Three wines have been released, the first slightly better than the others, but again, without vintage dates or cuvee numbers on the bottles, so you can’t tell which bottle you’re getting. In 1986, the winery put down three vintage-dated blends, Rose, Brut and Blanc de Noirs, that will be out over the next few years.

Others wineries that might have made this list but stumbled include the following:

Korbel: Wine maker Bob Stashak has made great strides to stabilize the line, and some recent releases (notably a Blanc de Noirs that I tasted a year ago and a fresh, lively Brut Rose) have been exceptional. Alas, the line is inconsistent with some bottles showing more oxidation than others. Moreover, with no vintage dates or cuvee numbers, it’s hard for the buyer to know whether a bottle is fresh or old.

Robert Hunter: I liked the 1983 and 1984 Brut de Noirs (except for a slight bitterness in the finish), but Hunter no longer will produce sparkling wine, so it’s a brand in phase-out.

Gloria Ferrer: The first release was excellent, but it was made by Downs at St. Jean’s facility. Succeeding releases have been only fair, with some bottles better than others.

Shadow Creek: Over the years and through the 1984s, these wines have been made by Chateau St. Jean’s Downs, and they have been excellent--occasionally better than St. Jean’s own wines. Corbett Canyon was the home of the 1985 through 1987 wines. Then Domaine Chandon bought the brand, so 1988 and succeeding releases will be produced in the Napa Valley facility. But every release from now on will be non-vintage wine. This brand would have been rated in my top 10 except that so little is known about how soon-to-be-released wines will fare.

Chateau De Baun: This winery specializes in the floral, Muscat-based Symphony grape, so although its two sparkling wines (Romance and Rhapsody) are excellent, neither one is mainstream enough to be placed in this list. (Still, the wines are worth trying.)

Hanns Kornell: In the past, the dry wines, including the stylish Sehr Trocken, were based on the Riesling grape, atypical of traditional Champagne. And other efforts made from Chenin Blanc were a bit clumsy. Later wines, such as a better effort with Blanc de Blancs, were better and reports are that major upgrades are in the works.

Mirassou: The sparkling wines are much improved over the recent past, but still somewhat erratic. I have liked the Naturel better than the Blanc de Noirs and Brut, but be forewarned: all the wines are a bit austere.

Roederer Estate: Just one wine has been released, an attractive, lean, delicate offering with softness in the finish. This property has the potential to move into the top 10 soon.

Domaine Carneros: French house Taittinger’s California property, with Eileen Crane as wine master. No wines have been released yet. Potentially one of the state’s most exciting ventures, with a Carneros vineyard and a stately reputation.

Wine of the Week: 1986 Quivira Zinfandel ($9.50)--Prototype California Zinfandel, with spice and pepper, raspberry and cherry, and a silky/crisp finish that is a pure delight. Made from fruit grown in the Dry Creek Valley of northern Sonoma County, this wine defines a Zinfandel that is approachable upon release, but has the staying power to improve for years in the bottle.