Media Conversations

Bubbling under the surface: Californian sparklers

“Of all Californian wines, none defy preconceived notions more than traditional method sparkling wines. Their acidic backbone embodies the brisk freshness of coastal morning fog while brilliant afternoon sunshine is expressed in their pristine fruit.

“A small elite of traditional method sparkling wines enjoys big recognition at home – being served at the White House seems to be the badge of honour that all the producers mentioned here share – but whenever there is talk of Californian wine, fizz hardly gets a mention. Certainly, production is small and exports are (still) marginal, but the quality of the wines deserves a wider audience. While the focus is on the domestic market where cellar-door sales represent a sizeable chunk of turnover, the more generous 2012 vintage means producers have started looking beyond national borders. With both quality and price points similar to Champagne, how are they faring over here?

“By common consensus, there are four outstanding producers operating today. The oldest of those is Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, Napa Valley. At this historic property, with mountain cellars dug in the 19th century, the Davies family made their first traditional method sparkling wines in 1965. The vineyards surrounding the property no longer provide the grapes for sparkling wines; they are sourced in cooler areas: Carneros, Anderson Valley, the Sonoma Coast and Marin County. Of the 12-13 cuvées made each year, some small production lots are not commercialised: the immensely poised 2007 Brut Napa Valley, for instance, is only wheeled out for special occasions. It is prestige bottlings like these that make the name Schramsberg so memorable. Only 3% of the annual production of 65,000 nine-litre cases are exported, while a quarter is sold directly at cellar door, underlining Napa Valley’s popularity as a tourist destination. Schramsberg’s Blanc de Blancs 2007 (current release) or the prestige cuvée J. Schram 2005 are more widely distributed. Hugh Davies, CEO of Schramsberg Vineyards, says: “It has been exciting to see demand grow steadily over the years.” Since its big break in 1972 when Schramsberg was served to President Nixon, “distribution is now established in 50 states and 30 export markets”. While Davies is sanguine about the future and predicts that “global demand for fine sparkling wine will certainly continue to rise”, there are currently no expansion plans.”

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Anne Krebiehl, July 18, 2013
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Bubbling under the surface: Californian sparklers