The best sparkling wine in the world is unquestionably from Champagne. Although the best table wines of California can compete with the best wines made anywhere, the best sparkling wine of California is a cut below the French standard. And even that is made almost exclusively by French-influenced firms that have invested here.
The latest such Gallic effort, housed in a spectacular replica of an 18th Century French chateau, is Domaine Carneros, owned by the house of Champagne Taittinger of Reims. The first sparkling wine made by this new property (founded 1987) is a superb evocation of the French spirit in a California mode.
The woman behind the bubbles, Eileen Crane, left a career in nutrition education to make sparkling wine. In her third venture, Crane has fashioned a wine that exhibits the character of the grapes of the estate.
"I like to make delicate wine, but it should be luscious on its own," said Crane. "And it's been difficult in California, in the past, to make a very delicate wine because the grapes in so many areas ripen so quickly."
In her former positions making wine at Domaine Chandon and Gloria Ferrer, Crane used grapes from a wide number of regions. But she long felt the grapes growing in the cool Carneros region, at the southern end of the Napa Valley, were better suited for the delicate style of wine she wanted to make.
When she became managing director here, the only grapes she would use were grown on the estate. She says, "I see Carneros as a 'Champagne' region."
The word Champagne refers to a region of France and the wine made there; the French detest the use of the word when referring to sparkling wine made anywhere else. In Europe, it's illegal in most areas to use the term on a bottle for anything with bubbles that isn't made in Champagne. Crane, however, discusses her wine in terms of Champagne in order to point up the parallels and divergences.
The first wine of the property is an excellent example of blending. The aroma of the wine gives the complex, berryish components of the Pinot Noir that makes up 60% of its blend. The remainder, Chardonnay, gives the wine a rich, textured mouthfeel. A creaminess finishes off the package.
Only a small amount was made, and the wine is sold only at the winery ($18 a bottle). After the winery's grand opening (scheduled for September), the first general release of the wine will be offered.
Making great sparkling wine requires attention to endless details. Crane is a perfectionist. She uses a special machine that removes the sediment from the wine, adds a dollop of sweetness, and corks the bottle all within seconds. At other champagneries, the process takes a minute or two . Does the saved time have a significant effect in keeping the wine fresh? Crane isn't sure, but she says it certainly can't hurt the wine and may make it more consistent.
Visitors can see this commitment to quality by taking an excellent above-the-action tour of the facility. The tasting room is unlike many hereabouts, too. In place of rustic hand-made signs and jelly jar glassware, this is a civilized room filled with music and art. The interior decor, all made by local artisans, reminds you of upscale living. Guests sink into brass chairs with deep cushions and sip glasses--at $3.50 each--of the latest sparkler.
Crane and hospitality director Carol Colesworthy say they are looking to create a warm hospitable environment for guests in the sit down tasting room. The whole idea is to give the traveler a respite from traffic, train whistles and tension. About $7 million was spent on the edifice, with wine making always the prime consideration. Crane promises that the wine will go beyond being technically good.
"I'm not looking for an intellectual experience," she says. "The most important thing is, the wine has to be a sensual experience."
Others have found that Carneros lends itself to making this seductive wine. Looking north from a patio at Domaine Carneros, you face the Winery Lake Vineyard where Greg Fowler fashions Mumm Napa Valley's exceptional Winery Lake Cuvee sparkling wine.
Up the mountain, in a crevice in the rolling hills, you can spot the low-lying edifice, still uncompleted, that will be the sparkling wine facility of Codorniu of Spain.
Down the road is the rambling acreage of Domaine Chandon, one of the largest producers of bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the country (more than a half million cases). And on down the road is the acreage of Spanish-owned Gloria Ferrer.
Moreover, real estate people say there have been more recent inquiries about the Carneros from folks looking to make sparkling wine.
Most have French assistance. Guy Devaux assists Fowler at Mumm Napa Valley (G.H. Mumm et Cie's project). Dawnine Dyer has French assistance at Domaine Chandon from Edmond Maudier, Moet's chef de caves. At Maison Deutz in Arroyo Grande, Christian Roguenant is cuvee master. At Roederer's U.S. winery in Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, Michel Salgue has come over to make the wine.
And at Barry and Audrey Sterling's Iron Horse in Sonoma County, which has made marvelous sparkling wines during the last few years, Raphael Brisbois is now the wine maker for the sparkling wines, replacing Claude Thibaut, who gave life to the project.
The only French-connected Champagne house here that has essentially been run without much French influence is Piper-Sonoma; Chris Markell has been in charge from the 1980 start. But even Markell has contact with Piper-Heidsieck's Michel LaCroix.
A number of U.S. wine makers unconnected to the French have made great strides with sparkling wine in the last few years, notably Fowler followed by Alan Tenscher at Schramsberg in the Napa Valley; Pete Downs at Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma County; Curt Lorenzi at Jepson in Mendocino County, and Harold Osborne, an independent wine maker in California's central coast, who made the first Maison Deutz wine.
Wine of the Week
1989 J. Pedroncelli Dry Chenin Blanc ($5) --A new wine for this family-run winery, and a winner. The spice and melon character are beautiful, and the mid-palate is rewardingly full-flavored without the wine being too soft or clumsy. In fact, it's a superb dinner companion, matched with seafood or lighter chicken dishes. Pedroncelli, founded in 1904, is one of those marvelous old-line wineries that are easy to forget. But the wines from this Sonoma County property are almost always great values.