One thing I’ve learned from several trips to Santa Barbara County over the past year is that there’s tremendous potential for making sparkling wines here. The exciting news is that an increasing number of excellent Santa Barbara area producers are trying their hand at creating delicious sparkling wines.
Like the great sparkling wine region of Champagne in France, Santa Barbara is blessed not only with a high proportion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plantings—the primary grapes used to make Champagne, along with Pinot Meunier—but also with cool climate sub-regions like Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley that have long, cool growing seasons, producing grapes that reach ripeness while retaining high levels of acidity.
There is, of course, a tremendous amount of extra work and time involved in making sparkling wine in a traditional style, with secondary fermentation in the bottle, as practiced in Champagne. This significantly raises the costs of making this kind of wine, which is also subject to three times the tax levied on still wines, with no tax credit for small producers as there is for still wine. It’s therefore tough to sell these wines for less than about $40 and even begin to break even.
Until recent years, it wasn’t clear there was much of a market for these kinds of wines. Most of what has been made to date has therefore been made in tiny quantities by winemakers who love Champagne and other sparkling wines so much that they were willing to put in the work simply to have some of these wines available for their own consumption.
Market research has shown, however, that the demand for sparkling wines in this country in recent years–both domestic and imported—-has been growing even faster than for still wines.
I had noticed a few Santa Barbara based producers–Flying Goat, Riverbench and Sea Smoke– were making increasing quantities of sparkling wine. As I continued to ask around about this phenomenon, I learned that even more producers had made small quantities, or were on the verge of doing so.
I therefore asked Santa Barbara-based wine publicist extraordinaire Sao Anash if she might organize a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines for me. I wanted to find out both what was motivating winemakers there to try making these wines, and to learn what techniques they were using.
So this past Friday, I braved California’s first massive rainfall in many months to zip down to Santa Barbara for a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines hosted by Sonja Magdevski at her Casa Dumetz tasting room in Los Alamos. My deep thanks to Sao, Sonja and the other winemakers who convened there for what proved to be a very enlightening tasting. On hand were Brewer-Clifton’s Greg Brewer, Sea Smoke’s Don Schroeder, Clarissa Nagy of Riverbench, Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers, and Blakeney Sanford, representing her father, Richard Sanford, of Alma Rosa and formerly of Sanford.
Before summarizing the brief history of Santa Barbara sparkling winemaking to date, it should be noted that sparkling wine has been made nearby this region since the early 1980s.
Maison Deutz was launched in 1982 in Arroyo Grande, 12 miles north of Santa Barbara wine country, as Champagne Deutz’s California venture, in partnership with Beringer Wine Estates and a San Luis Obispo landowner. The first sparkling wine from this project was released in 1986.
Christian Roguenant, previously assistant winemaker at Champagne Deutz, became Maison Deutz’s winemaker. In 1997, however, Deutz and Beringer decided to unload their interest to Jean-Claude Tardivat, who renamed the estate after his daughter Laetitia. Shortly thereafter, he resold the enterprise. It is now owned by Selim Zilkha and his daughter Nadia Wellisz. Laetitia’s focus these days is non-sparkling Pinot Noir, although they still make about 7,000 cases of sparkling wine per year.
The first to make sparkling wine commercially from Santa Barbara fruit, as best I can tell from my research, was Byron, with a 1992 Brut Reserve, and non-vintage sparklers after that. Richard Sanford then made a 1994 Brut Rosé, with Sanford & Benedict Mount Eden clone Pinot Noir, with help from Deutz’s Roguenant.
We tasted this 1994 Sanford bottling that Blakeney brought with her last Friday. Blakeney told us it was the only sparkling wine Richard Sanford ever made. It was mature, with wonderful buttery texture, good acidity and a long finish. Blakeney reported that Alma Rosa–Richard Sanford’s current winery, where Blakeney has begun working with her father—has started to make sparkling wines, both from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 2013 will be the first vintage for these sparkling offerings.
As best I can tell, Fess Parker’s two vintages of Blanc de Blancs from Marcella’s Vineyard, made in 1996 and 1997, are the next historical Santa Barbara sparkling wines. When I met with Tim and Ashley Parker-Snider later that weekend, they explained those Blanc de Blancs had been created for millennium celebrations in 2000. They also told me their team is thinking about doing sparkling wine again—a Blanc de Noirs using the Sta. Rita Hills vineyard Rio Vista as the fruit source.
Kalyra then made a 1999 Blanc de Noir, and has continued to make a non vintage Brut. Cottonwood Canyon made a 2000 Blanc de Blancs, a 2001 sparkling rosé, and has also produced non vintage bottlings. Lucas & Lewellen also started making sparkling wines in 2000. They were followed by both Mandolina and Mosby in 2004.
Oreana commenced making sparkling wine in 2005 and Norm Yost at Flying Goat produced that label’s first sparkling rosé in 2005, followed by a Blanc de Blancs in 2008.
Clos Pepe began making small amounts of Brut Rosé with the 2007 vintage, in conjunction with the sparkling wines Norm Yost was making from Clos Pepe fruit. Evans Ranch also produced a 2007 Brut.
I had a chance to sample the latest bubbly Clos Pepe, a 2011 Brut Rosé, when I visited Wes Hagen at Clos Pepe last December. It was quite good—one of the best Santa Barbara sparklers I’ve tasted to date. Since it’s made in very small quantities, however, it’s mainly for Pepe family consumption, with perhaps a few bottles for wine club members.
Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers (and one of four partners in Goodland Wines), is a talented and resourceful winemaker who got his degree in oenology and viticulture in Australia, where he also spent several years working at Henschke and Fosters. On his return to the U.S., he was associate winemaker at Fess Parker for six years.
Inspired by some of the ageworthy sparkling Shirazes he sampled in Australia, Dave has made several vintages of sparkling Shiraz, which he calls “Fizz,” starting in 2007. He shared a bottle from that vintage with us last Friday that was complex and impressive, definitely reminding me of the better, aged, sparkling Australian Shirazes I’ve tried. He also shared with us a sample of his 2012 Municipal Winemakers Blanc de Blancs, which will be disgorged this summer for a fall release.
The fruit source for this wine was the Mormann Vineyard in northern Sta. Rita Hills. Dave picked at 20.2 brix and inhibited malolactic. He has a total of two barrels, so will make about 50 cases. This is a delicious, focused sparkler with exceptional precision and a long finish. Dave used a fino style sherry he had made to supply the dosage, and he does all the work on his sparklings in house, using a riddling rack he obtained from Laetitia. He expects to sell the 2012 Blanc de Blancs for between $40 and $50. Based on these two samples, here’s hoping Dave continues to make sparkling wines for many years to come.
In 2008, Sea Smoke made their first sparkling wine, a Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir, called Sea Spray. At our gathering last Friday, Don Schroeder explained that Victor Gallegos, who became Sea Smoke’s Director of Winemaking in 2008, after being with Sea Smoke as VP and General Manager since its 2002 launch, wanted to try a sparkling. Way back in his career, in the 1980s, he had worked as a cellar rat for Carneros sparkling producer Domaine Chandon.
Don told us he and Victor were inspired by grower Champagnes. For the 2008, they picked between 18.5 and 19 brix. They made the base wine at Sea Smoke, with complete malolactic fermentation, and it was then finished at Rack & Riddle Custom Crush in Hopland, aging 16 months on the spent yeast cells from the secondary fermentation in the bottle, a period known as “en tirage.” A dosage of 11 grams was added before bottling. They followed a similar process in 2011 and 2012, but only completing 25-30% malolactic fermentation in 2012. They made about 1,000 cases both years.
I have sampled the 2011, which was disgorged in August 2013, on a couple of occasions. It is elegant, with a sense of minerality and chalk. I also think it would benefit from another couple years of bottle age.
For the 2013, Don told us all the work, including riddling and disgorgement, is being done in house at Sea Smoke. For that vintage too, the wine spent nine months in barrel and will be 24 months en tirage. They are also adding no dosage for 2013.
Riverbench, with vineyards in Santa Maria Valley, got into the sparkling wine business in 2008 as a project of their general manager, Laura Mohseni. They made their first vintage, a Blanc de Blancs, at Fess Parker. In 2010 they made a Blanc de Noirs, with a whopping production of 350 cases.
Riverbench winemaker Clarissa Nagy, who arrived there at the end of 2011, reports they are making about 900 cases of sparkling wines, including a demi-sec, from the 2013 vintage. They currently make the base wine and then send it to sparkling wine expert Gerald Ployez in Lake County for finishing. I’m looking forward to trying the 2013s, but the 2010 Blanc de Noirs was quite good, with complexity and a saline note.
Both Fiddlehead Cellars and Saarloos & Sons made sparkling wines in 2009. While in Santa Barbara’s Funk Town district over the weekend, I also sampled a very good 2009 sparkler from Carr, a Blanc de Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills Kessler-Haak Vineyard. I’m told that Kessler-Haak also recently made their own sparkling wine, but I don’t have any further details as yet.
Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton, who drink a lot of Champagne and sparkling wine according to Greg, made their first sparkling wine—a Blanc de Blancs, inspired by “linear, Chardonnay-based Champagnes”—in 2010. Of the 150 cases they made that year, that set aside 50 for release in five or six years as a late disgorged offering.
They produced 220 cases of Blanc de Blancs in 2011, and hope to grow production to 300 cases in future vintages. They do all the work—hand riddling, hand corking, hand cranking the cage, hand disgorging—in house.
We sampled both the 2011 and one of the bottles of 2010 that is awaiting future disgorgement that Greg opened for us last Friday (an appropriate kickoff to celebrations for Greg’s birthday, which happened to be that day).
The 2010 was hugely impressive—definitely the best Santa Barbara sparkler I have tried to date, and one of the greatest domestic sparkling wines I’ve ever sampled. In 2011, they used 50% clone 76 and 50% Hyde clone from their 3-D Vineyard. Greg explained that they picked the fruit from the more sun exposed western cane of the vine’s two canes, bringing in the grapes at 21.5 to 21.8 brix. They did a cold ferment in neutral barrels, inhibiting malolactic, and used Montrachet yeast. They added no dosage, and don’t think dosage is necessary or desirable for making sparkling wines from Santa Barbara fruit, given the sugar levels achieved there with good acidity.
I’m very much looking forward to the disgorgement of the rest of those 2010 bottles some years from now.
The final sparkler we got to try at last Friday’s comparative tasting was the 2012 edition of the Casa Dumetz Sonja’s Suds, a sparkling Syrah rosé from Santa Ynez Valley fruit grown at Tierra Alta Vineyard. Sonja Magdevski created the original version of this wine with the 2010 vintage, after having received Syrah picked at 21 brix and figuring she’d be best off turning it into rosé.
At the suggestion of Tessa Marie Parker, who has been making a sparkling Vermentino under her Tessa Marie label since 2010, Sonja called Dave Potter for advice on how to make a sparkling wine from her Syrah rosé. Dave suggested using encapsulated yeast, available from Scott Laboratories, for a fast, efficient ferment in bottle. The double encapsulated yeast designed for sparkling wine secondary ferments is contained in alginate beads, made from a natural polysaccharide extracted from seaweed.
With the first vintage, Sonja disgorged the wine, to remove the beads after the fermentation. She no longer goes to that trouble, however, explaining to customers who buy the wines through Casa Dumetz’s tasting room to simply leave the beads alone to settle at the bottom of the bottle. The result is a creamy textured, tart red currant flavored sparkler with abundant bubbles that Sonja is able to sell for only $35.
Other red sparkling wines reportedly produced from non-traditional sparkling varieties in Santa Barbara to date include Blair Fox’s “Foxy Bubbles,” made from Grenache; Cass’s 2010 Grenache Brut; and Palmina’s sparkling Nebbiolo.
A final, exciting source of traditionally made sparkling wines from this region that I happened onto at the end of my trip is The Ojai Vineyard. When I met with Adam Tolmach and assistant winemaker Fabien Castel this week, I found out that they’ve been making a small amount of sparkling wine since 2006. Adam says he expects the 2006, of which there will only be 15 to 20 cases, to finally be disgorged in the next year or so. From the 2013 vintage, they have the potential of making 200 cases. Like Brewer-Clifton and Municipal Winemakers, Adam and Fabien are doing all the work on their sparkling wines in house. Also like Brewer-Clifton, Adam believes Santa Barbara fruit can be made into good sparklers with either no or very low dosage.
Since I am a big fan of other wines from this producer, I can’t wait to have the opportunity to taste The Ojai Vineyard’s first, long aged sparkling wine.
Because most of the wines mentioned above are made in such small quantities, there is, unfortunately, relatively little on the market at the moment. Nonetheless, Brewer-Clifton’s 2011 edition is available from the winery for $68. Riverbench’s 2010 Blanc de Noirs can be purchased from the winery for $45, and can be sampled at Riverbench’s tasting room in Santa Barbara’s downtown Funk Zone.
Flying Goat’s Goat Bubbles are available from the winery and several outlets that specialize in Santa Barbara area wines for $40 or less. Palmina’s sparkling Nebbiolo, called Lumina, is available from the winery for $48. Lucas & Lewellyn is offering their 2011 Brut for $30. Sierra Madre Vineyard has a 2010 sparkling wine available on their website for $29. The 2012 Tessa Marie sparkling Vermentino is available from the winery for $38. And a number of outlets around the country are offering Sea Smoke’s 2011 Sea Spray at an average price of $94.
Since Santa Barbara has the grapes, acidity and talent to make terrific sparkling wines, I hope we’ll continue to see more bubbles from this region in the coming years.
For tasting notes on the sparkling wines from Santa Barbara that I’ve sampled to date, see below:
- 2010 Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Blancs 3-D Vineyard – Sta. Rita Hills
Light lemon yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; almond, tart apple, dried white fig nose; rich, tasty, almond, mineral, tart apple, tart pear, almond pasty palate with scintillating acidity; long finish (this bottle disgorged 2/28/14 for the occasion, from a batch being held for a late disgorgement release in 3 years or so) 92+ points
- 2011 Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Blancs 3-D Vineyard – Sta. Rita Hills
Light yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; almond, saline, light honey, sesame seed nose, that changes after 20 minutes in the glass, to add floral and apricot aromas; tight, tangy, rich, tart apple, lightly oxidative, tart lemon, tart lemon drop, light honey palate; could use 2-3 years; long finish (all Chardonnay–50% clone 76 and 50% Hyde; no dosage; 13% alcohol; picked at 21.5-21.8 brix) 91+ points
- 2009 Carr Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir Kessler-Haak – Sta. Rita Hills
Light pink yellow color with abundant, speedy, very tiny bubbles; lightly yeasty, almond, tart apple nose; tasty, tart apple, mineral palate with sprightly acidity; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; aged 1 year in bottle, hand riddled; 1st vintage, 52 cases) 90+ points
- 2012 Casa Dumetz Syrah Sonja’s Suds Santa Ynez Valley
Medium dark pink color with pale meniscus and abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; reduction, tart plum, dried blood orange nose; creamy textured, tart red currant palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 86+ points
- 2011 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir Brut Rosé – Sta. Rita Hills
Very light salmon color with steady, very tiny bubbles and some large speedy bubbles; tart pear, chalk, unripe strawberry, light brown sugar, grapefruit peel, kirsch nose; delicious, poised, juicy, tart strawberry, tart pear, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (100% Pinot Noir, fermented with sparkling wine yeast UC1118) 91+ points
- 2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Blanc Crémant Goat Bubbles Sierra Madre – Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with few, medium-sized bubbles; tart apple, yeasty nose; tart green apple, lime, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 89 points
- 2012 Municipal Winemakers Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs – Sta. Rita Hills
Pre-release (to be disgorged in summer for fall 2014 release) – light lemon yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; yeasty, chalk, tart baked pear nose; tasty, focused, precise, mineral, tart pear, lightly saline palate with medium acidity; long finish (clone 76 Chardonnay from sandy sites at Moorman Vineyard; free run juice only; picked at 20.2 brix, inhibited malo) 91+ points
- 2007 Municipal Winemakers Shiraz Fizz – Santa Barbara County
Medium dark ruby color with initial abundant mousse; aromatic, tart black cherry cotton candy, tart berry, black raspberry, black cherry leather, baked plum nose; tasty, creamy textured, tart black cherry, black raspberry, baked black plum, reminiscent of some of the better sparkling Aussie Shirazes with age on them that I’ve sampled; long finish (disgorged in 2009 and kept under crown cap; 13.5% alcohol) 89 points
- 2008 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Cork Jumper Blanc de Blancs – Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; almond, safflower oil, honey, chalk nose; rich, almond, tart apple, mineral, safflower honey palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 88+ points
- 2010 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Cork Jumper Rosé Blanc de Noirs – Santa Maria Valley
Light pink color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; appealing, lifted, almond, tart red raspberry, light saline, golden raspberry nose; tasty, amond, mineral, saline, golden raspberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points
- 1994 Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley
Light medium peach yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; aromatic, oxidative, melted butter, almond butter, nutty nose; mature, oxidative, buttery textured, tart lemon, lemon cream, mineral palate with near medium acidity; long finish (made from Mount Eden clone Pinot Noir; 12.5% alcohol) 90+ points
- 2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Sea Spray – Sta. Rita Hills
Light pink yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; chalk, tart golden raspberry, very tart strawberry, light honey nose; tasty, tight, chalk, almond, mineral palate with firm, chalky tannins and medium acidity; could use 2-plus years; medium-plus finish (100% Pinot Noir; 12% alcohol; 100% malolactic, 6 months in barrel, 16 months en tirage) 91+ points