Local winemakers get out in front of the sparkling wine boom with lots of pink and a rainbow of quirky new bubbly varieties.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
It was already fall. Days were getting shorter, nights were getting colder and the chardonnay grapes at Beauregard Vineyards’ Bald Mountain Vineyard in Bonny Doon still had not ripened. “The plants were shutting down and losing their leaves. All of the fruit was under-ripe—it was just unacceptable,” recalls winemaker Ryan Beauregard.
So Mother Nature forced his hand and Beauregard used the under-ripe grapes to make his very first Champagne-style sparkling wine—a type of wine that requires highly acidic, immature fruit. “It’s a scary investment in equipment and time, but it forced us to take the risk,” he says.
Little did Beauregard know that by the time the 2010 harvest was released six years later, the wine world would be in a full-fledged frenzy over fizz that transcends the traditional holiday season.
According to Nielsen research, sales of U.S. sparkling wines increased 8% in 2016— impressive growth, although it paled in comparison to sales of prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, which soared by 27%. Spanish cava and French Champagne also racked up strong growth.
“Everything is bubbles these days and our rosé has been huge,” says Beauregard of his bone-dry, salmon-colored 2010 Brut Rosé Nature, available only at the Beauregard tasting room in Bonny Doon.
“Sparkling wine is not a fad,” he says. “It’s going to be around for a long time, and we all have a lot of catching up to do.”
The 42-year-old winemaker taught himself to handcraft sparklers by watching how-to videos on YouTube. Just 30 cases are produced at a time using six riddling racks, where each bottle is turned by hand day after day until all the yeast and sediment collect in the neck and can be frozen and disgorged—another painstaking process—and then sealed with a hand corker. In addition to the rosé, Beauregard’s pristine 2013 Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs is also currently available in the tasting room.
“I’m not convinced there is any money to be made in sparkling wines,” he says. “We do about five times more work than with still wine and wait six to 10 years for them to be ready. But we want to make sure all our products are 100% vertically integrated, from ground to glass. We own the land, we tend the grapes, we make the wine. It’s 100% in the hands of the family.”
Scott Caraccioli, general manager of Caraccioli Cellars
While Beauregard prefers to go it alone, most of his fellow local winemakers get a helping hand with their sparkling wines from Barry Jackson of Equinox Cellars in Santa Cruz. Jackson, who started Equinox just before the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and opened his tasting room at the Swift Street Courtyard two years ago, is clearly enjoying the renaissance in sparkling wines.
“We’ve had so many ups and downs I could have called this place yo-yo cellars,” he jokes, admitting that business is booming both at the tasting room and back at the winery, where he makes custom bubbly for 16 area wineries—among them Bonny Doon, Ser, Odonata, Windy Oaks, Silvertip and Hahn. “They produce the base wine from their own or purchased grapes and send it to us to add the fizz,” he says. “We put it through the (méthode Champenoise) process and age it two to four years in the bottle.”
Out of 5,000 bonded wineries in California, only 30 to 35 have the equipment needed to make sparkling wine, and just four of those—including Equinox—handle custom work, according to Jackson.
Some of the wineries he works with have amped up production by 50% recently, and his warehouse is stacked floor to ceiling with pallets of Champagne quietly awaiting their moment to party. A commercial-grade gyropalette can turn 480 bottles at a time, and his bottling line can disgorge up to 2,000 bottles “on a good day.”
“Millennials are easily two-thirds of our customers,” says Jackson. “As a group they are a little more adventurous and looking for new things. They are enjoying sparkling wines more, especially those not made from mainstream varieties.”
Equinox’s 2013 Monterey Rosé is all the rage at the tasting room and easily outsells the crisp and toasty Blanc de Blanc Monterey Cuvee de Chardonnay. But Jackson says local winemakers are increasingly turning to unusual varietals, like the sparkling albariño first made locally by Bonny Doon Vineyards and now by Windy Oaks. Deep-red sparkling syrah, sparkling grenache and sparkling rosé of Sangiovese have all rested in his warehouse recently, perhaps making Santa Cruz the capital of quirky bubbles.
“I refuse to stop calling them Champagne, just to annoy my French friends,” he quips, in reference to the European Union law requiring anything labeled Champagne to come from the Champagne region of France.
Well-made dry sparkling wines are the ultimate food wine, according to Jackson, and go well with a wider variety of foods than any other style of wine—everything from sushi to pasta and any kind of seafood. In fact, his very favorite pairing is sparkling wine and a potato chip with a dab of caviar.
For that extra special occasion, Equinox just released a 2001 vintage Blanc de Blanc made with chardonnay from the Trout Gulch Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains and aged 15 years with yeast in the bottle. The longer the wine is in contact with the yeast, the more the taste develops, and this one is a knockout.
Equinox Cellars’ méthod Champenoise master Barry Jackson and his wife, Jennifer
Meantime, one of the most extraordinary sparkling wine houses in the U.S. is hiding in plain sight. Caraccioli Cellars—with a friendly tasting room in Carmel and the renowned Escolle Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands—is a perennial award winner.
It was founded in 2006 by grower Gary Caraccioli and winemaker Michel Salgues, a Frenchman from the Champagne region originally sent to the U.S. to oversee production of sparkling wine at Roederer Estate.
“Michel met my dad and liked that we weren’t going to cut any corners. He had carte blanche to do everything he wanted,” says 34- year-old Scott Caraccioli, now general manager. Sadly, Michel passed away on Oct. 1 after a year-long illness. “He was my mentor in everything,” Caraccioli says. “He was a firm believer in controlling everything from the pruning to the harvest and I believe that’s how you make the best sparkling wines.” Caraccioli grapes are harvested early, for low sugar content and optimal acidity. They are picked at night using small yellow totes to protect the grapes and a gravity press is used to get only the “heart juice.”
“It’s a matter of recreating Michel’s recipe at this point,” he adds. “It’s easy to make concessions, but every detail matters. Wine will tell you what was done right and what was done wrong.”
Caraccioli says Monterey County is the perfect place to make sparkling wines because the two classic varieties used in Champagne— chardonnay and pinot noir—thrive on the region’s cool nights and marine influence, characteristics which are also present in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
His 2007 Brut Cuvee was named Best Sparkling Wine in the U.S. at the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships, and the 2010 vintage just won Best California Brut Blend. Also this year, Caraccioli’s 2012 Brut Rosé won Best of Class.
“It’s been the most popular wine we’ve ever launched,” he says. “Rosé is softer on the palate. Ripe fruit balances some of the green apple acidity of the chardonnay. It’s hard to make a balanced rosé and Michel excelled at that from the get-go.”
Caraccioli has noticed the uptick in demand for sparklers and hardly a week goes by without a winemaker calling to ask whether he does custom work. He doesn’t.
But like Beauregard, he thinks the current boom is not just a passing fad. “California is still relatively young as a wine region and making sparkling wine is a capital-intensive, lengthy process. But we’ve gotten better at it and more people are doing it,” he says. “As people have a positive experience, it is easier to open the door.”
Jim and Ryan Beauregard of Beauregard Vineyards
BEYOND THE BUZZ
No one is popping corks at Bonny Doon Vineyards. That’s because all the sparkling wines created by winemaker Randall Grahm, so far, come with easy-open bottle caps. He currently has a méthode Champenoise red sparkling pinot noir and meunier blend called Pinot Doonier available at the tasting room in Davenport and a sparkling grenache, set to be released in the spring.
“People are missing the boat about sparkling reds,” says Grahm. “There has been a kind of phobia about them, but sparkling reds are unspeakably cool.”
The project he is most excited about at the moment is a new sparkling pink French wine slated to be released before summer 2018. “I think there is a market for it and we’re even thinking about bottling [it] in cans, which is kind of wacky,” he says.
Grahm traveled to France in October to oversee the blending process for the cinsaut based project. “Pinot noir makes the most exquisite sparkling wine, but we can’t afford pinot and I think cinsaut can be quite elegant as well; it is very fragrant and smells like cherries.”
The base wine was made in the Midi region of France and is being trucked to Provence for secondary fermentation. “This won’t be bottle fermented,” he says. “We’re making a proper tank-fermented sparkling wine using the Charmat Method, which gives a good mousse and finer bubbles.”
While the name of the new pink sparkler is still under wraps, Grahm assured us the label will include his signature “flying cigars” and the words Bonny Doon Vineyard. But even for the pioneering winemaker, this project is a new adventure.
“I don’t do anything ordinary; it’s too boring and not my thing. Life is short, so why do the same thing as everybody else?” he says. Bubbles are anything but boring. They used to be synonymous with celebrations, New Year’s Eve and weddings, but increasingly are enjoyed anytime at all—in place of a cocktail, for a picnic at the beach and with dinner.
“There is something about the bubbles and the movement that make it an event,” says Grahm, adding simply, “Bubbles make me happy.”
More local sparkling wines to try
Bargetto Blanc de Noirs – Made with North Coast pinot noir, which impart a beautiful copper hue, this is a lively, toasty and tart sparkler.
Folktale NV Rosé Brut – A brilliant rose gold color, this tank-fermented Charmat Method sparkler is similar to a fun-to-drink prosecco.
Hahn Winery Selection Blanc de Blanc – a yeasty, limited edition sparkler made from chardonnay and only available at the Hahn tasting rooms in Soledad and Carmel.
Loma Prieta 2015 Sparkling Pinotage – Made from 100% Pinotage grapes, the winery’s specialty, this is fruity, tropical and fun. Like an orange creamsicle with a side of mango and passionfruit, it’s smooth and has a wonderful mousse.
McIntyre L’Homme Qui Ris –Steve McIntyre says this 100% pinot noir, a true blanc noir, is a great way to start a dinner party.
Odonata 2012 Bruzzone Blanc de Blanc – Winemaker Denis Hoey loves his bubbles and this one is a cold climate chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains or try the just released 2015 Sparkling Riesling—another cool weather grape that makes excellent bubbly.
Scheid 2011 Isabelle Sparkling – Named for Al Scheid’s mother, this classic, no-shortcuts sparkler has bright fruit, crisp acidity and toasty creaminess.
Ser 2015 Sparkling Rosé of Nebbiolo – This festive wine boasts tropical fruits and apricot and peach aromas in a pretty pink hue by winemaker Nicole Walsh.
Windy Oaks Sparkling Albariño – Jim Shultze began making this for his wife Judy when Bonny Doon Vineyards ran out of its version. She is a big fan.