Suddenly, sparkling. Have you noticed? In just a few years, the trend in wine country's tasting rooms has gone from, "Hi, are you here for tasting?" to "Hi, may I offer you a glass of sparkling wine?" (Why, yes, you may indeed.) Unlike many other trends, however—unoaked Chardonnay, say, or chocolates with Cabernet—a single company has made much of this possible.
It was not always so, this sparkling boom. Long before the gold rush on Napa Valley vineyard real estate began, there was the Gold Rush. As in '49ers, with bags of gold, whooping it up in old Frisco. Despite the stereotype of a grizzled prospector leading a mule train past your mind's eye, when the '49ers partied, they downed enormous quantities of Champagne. Within months, savvy entrepreneurs were looking for ways to supply them from a little closer in. Buena Vista Winery's Champagne cellars are relics of this era; somewhat later on, the brothers Korbel career-shifted from lumber to liquid gold, a success that lasts to this day.
After Prohibition, Paul Masson was "fermented in the bottle," and the little old winemaker tippled Italian Swiss Colony's pink Champagne—both big brands nationally advertised on television. Besides a few determined individuals like Napa's Hanns Kornell, that's been the sparkling story hereabouts—and after Schramsberg made headlines in the early 1970s with its Blanc de Blancs, the heavies from Reims moved in.
Since then, we've seen an explosion of boutique cellars, family farmers turned winemakers, and renegade garagistes. We have Zinfandel specialists, cool-climate Rhône rangers and dabblers in Aglianico. So why leave sparkling wine to the big guys?
Because the barrier to entry is high in expensive equipment and expertise, says Mark Garaventa, vice president of business development at Rack & Riddle, a custom crush facility in Hopland that offers full-service méthode champenoise wine production. Making sparkling wine is not as easy as homebrewing a batch of beer, says Garaventa. In the past, some do-it-yourselfers took losses of up to 100 percent of their vintage, if done incorrectly.
"We would like to think we're partly responsible for wineries getting involved at a small scale," Garaventa says.
It's an understatement. "The equipment to do this properly is so very expensive that I do not know any grower-producers that are doing all of this themselves," Kathleen Inman explains. At her property in Santa Rosa, she grows the Pinot Noir for Inman Family Wines "Endless Crush" Brut Rosé Nature, and trucks the grapes up to Hopland. Clients also may bring their finished wine to Rack & Riddle, where their winemakers oversee the tirage and riddling processes.
"I believe that people like Norm at Flying Goat and Wes at Clos Pepe, myself and Thomas George are at the leading edge of a 'grower bubbles/farmers fizz' trend in California," Inman says, referring to the slang term for Champagne's small-scale bubbly phenomenon. They're quickly being followed by dozens of others.
The appeal of vintage-dated, sparkling wines from a grower's own vineyard is powerful, says Rack & Riddle's Cynthia Faust. "It makes you feel like you're a valued customer," she says, when someone at the tasting room immediately greets visitors with "May I start you with a sparkling?" If they walk out and don't buy it, there's no second chance at the supermarket.
"These clients are not competing with the mass markets and BevMos of the world," says Garaventa. "It's a hand sell." Indeed—besides traditional Champagne region grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, clients bring in oddballs like Malbec, Grenache, Syrah and Merlot—sparkling Merlot! "The Merlot turned out really nice," Faust notes. "He was really happy with it."
Cynthia Faust has started her own stylish label, Breathless, with her sisters. Rebecca Faust and Bruce Lundquist, both with experience in the sparkling wine business, co-founded Rack & Riddle in 2007. It's grown from 5,000 cases to some 75,000 in five years, not including a big contract with Piper Sonoma. The cavernous facility, formerly leased by the Fetzer brand for cold storage, is packed with tanks from 500 to 50,000 gallons, deep canyons of stacked crates, and automated ridding machines that coax the spent yeast into disgorging position.
So you wanna be your own Dom Pérignon? Serving commercial clients, Rack & Riddle isn't in the one-barrel, "vanity label" business, not yet (see sidebar). But they will sell you a bottle of their own North Coast sparkling wine, in four flavors: Brut, Rosé, Blanc de Noirs, and Blanc de Blancs, which recently won Best of Class in Sunset magazine's wine competition.
Although they're set up more as a working office than a hospitality center, they do welcome occasional visitors, who may buy a bottle or, yes, a Rack & Riddle baseball cap. Attentive fans of Trader Joe's brand of sparkling wine will note this as the source, where the price ($20) is somewhat more than at the discount market.
"It's our belief that every winery should have a sparkling wine in their portfolio," Garaventa suggests. To that end, Rack & Riddle sells "shiners," finished and bottled wines that lack only for a label. Wineries can slap on their own, and voilà! One even won a state fair gold medal with theirs. But deception is not the object. Many clients, having jump-started their sparkling program, return with their own grapes, because, why wouldn't they? "Because bubbly makes people happy," says Garaventa. "Bubbly kicks off the party."