Local Bubbles: Sparkling Wine Production Fizzes in Santa Barbara County

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on December 27, 2012) 

If you’ve got bubbles on the brain these days, you’re not alone.  More sparkling wine will be sold this week than during any other period of the year.  It’s tough to beat fizz in the glass to ring in a new year.

Champagne, of course, is the crowning jewel in the bubbly business; over the centuries, this region in northern France has produced some of the most storied releases in the wine industry, with titles like Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jouet and Krug.  Other regions in France, and other countries, dabble in sparkling wine, too, of course, offering the thirsty celebrant options like prosecco from Italy, cava from Spain and sekt from Germany.

And there’s California, where the quality growing regions of Napa and Sonoma, mainly, have attracted lucrative Champagne houses like Tattinger, Roederer and Moet & Chandon to make American bubbly and where regional labels like J, Gloria Ferrer and Schramsberg have been producing award-winning sparklers for decades.

But if there’s a rising star in this industry, it may well be Santa Barbara County, where more winemakers are making sparkling wine today – close to 15, according to figures from the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association – than ever before. 

“No one grows pinot noir and chardonnay better than Santa Barbara County,” says SBCVA executive director Jim Fiolek, referencing the two primary grape players in conventional sparkling wine production.  “But there are new things happening here, too, and the diversity we claim here is also expressed in the diversity of our sparkling wines.”

Indeed, the method of sparkling wine production in Santa Barbra County is as diverse as the region itself.  Some wineries produce them sporadically, on years when they feel grapes pass muster or when fruit is available to them, while others make it an annual endeavor.  Some produce it at their own, local facility while a few ship grapes picked locally to get the sparkling treatment in other counties.  Some use strict, traditional methods while a handful thrill in putting bubbles in bottle by thinking well outside the box.

Drake Whitcraft 
©Bob Dickey, winecountrypics.com
One of the earliest productions of Santa Barbara bubbles belongs to pioneer winemaker Chris Whitcraft, who sold wine at the popular Mayfare wine shop in Montecito in the mid 1970s and who made his first wines in 1978.  His first sparkling wine hit the marketplace in 1982 and he only made two more bubblies after that, in vintage years 1993 and 2000.  “There are only six bottles of the 2000 sparkling left,” says his son, Drake Whitcraft, who took over production for Whitcraft Winery when his father retired some five years ago.  The wine sold for $120.

Whitcraft Winery makes sparkling wine sporadically.  “On years when we get grapes with high acids and low sugars,” says the younger Whitcraft.  Lower sugars translate to lower alcohols, and Whitcraft puts the ideal per-volume alcohol content for sparklers at 12.5%.  The next installment in Whitcraft bubbly – the fourth in its history – is a 2009 Brut Rosé made with pinot noir grapes from the legendary Morning Dew Ranch in Anderson Valley.  It’ll be bottled in January and released (mostly to the Whitcraft wine club) in summer of 2015.

“To do sparkling wine right, it can take five or six years,” says Whitcraft, who’s crafting his sparkler entirely by hand at his downtown Santa Barbara winemaking facility.  “When you have a small production – I’m doing just two barrels, so 40 to 50 cases – then it’s easier to do it onsite.”  He’s got specialized equipment – like a crown capper and a champagne corker – at his winery.  And he adds, “Everything in small batches turns out better anyway.”

©Bob Dickey, winecountrypics.com
The men behind the celebrated Brewer-Clifton label – Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton – are part of this early history, too.  The brand’s first release in 1993, actually, was a sparkling wine; they’ve gone on to gain fame mainly for vineyard-designate pinot noir and chardonnay.  Also an intermittent endeavor, Brewer-Clifton just released its first sparkling wine in 12 years, a 2010 vintage bottling made with chardonnay grapes from the 3-D Vineyard in Santa Barbara’s Santa Rita Hills.  The acclaim came quickly: an impressive 92 points from critic Stephen Tanzer’s respected publication, the International Wine Cellar.  It sells for $64.

Like Whitcraft, the Brewer-Clifton team makes their bubbles by hand and onsite, at their Lompoc facility; their production hovers around a manageable 70 cases.  And, like Whitcraft, they employ very traditional techniques – a methode champenoise, emulating standards of practice established by the classic houses of Champagne. 

To oversimplify it: this methode starts with a blend of still wines – a cuvée of chardonnay, for example.  Yeast and sugar are added and the bottles are stoppered and laid down to rest (known as “en tirage”) while the yeast consumes the sugar and those classy carbon dioxide bubbles come to life.  As carbonated wine forms, so does a deposit of yeast.  So bottles are placed on A-frame racks – riddling racks – to move that sediment toward the neck for eventual removal; this slow and labor-intensive process can take months.  Disgorging is next, where the bottles are chilled and caps are removed in skillfully swift fashion to allow the deposit to escape – sometimes in explosive fashion – while keeping the effervescent wine inside.  The bottle is then corked; that classic mushroom shape of the Champagne cork ensures a secure seal, and, with 75 to 90 PSI of pressure within the bottle, the wire caging helps prevent a premature pop.

“They’re little bombs,” says winemaker Norm Yost, with a laugh, “so I have to be very careful.  But I’ve been pretty lucky so far.”

Norm Yost
©Bob Dickey, winecountrypics.com
These days, Mr. Yost may well be the standard for Santa Barbara sparkling wine production.  His yearly lineup of four unique sparklers, known collectively as Goat Bubbles, has attained a type of cult status, garnering the respect of professional counterparts and the acclaim of consumers.  His Club Celebrate ships two bottles of each bubbly, which range in price from $34-$38, four times a year.

Mr. Yost sources his grapes from three Santa Barbara County vineyards: Solomon Hills, Clos Pepe and Sierra Madre (he also makes private-label sparkling wines for the latter two). “More than grapes themselves, I think it’s more about which sites are better suited for sparkling wine,” he says.  “Some vineyards lend themselves to having beautiful acids and great aromatics and great flavors at lower sugars.  That’s the biggest key.”

©Bob Dickey, winecountrypics.com
All Goat Bubbles are made by hand at the Flying Goat Cellars facility in Lompoc.  Adding bubbly in 2005 to what was then a pinot noir-only venture meant investing in specialized equipment, though he managed to acquire several items – like neutral barrels to age his cuvees, crown cappers and riddling racks – locally.  He had to go well outside the area for some specialty items, like his hand corker and wire hooder.  And his disgorging equipment?  “We put that together via Home Depot,” Mr. Yost quips.

But investment and labor aside, bubbles have been good for business.  “It gives us another product to set us apart, something different, and because it’s light and fresh and fun, people like it,” says Mr. Yost, who adds that seven out of 10 of his sparkling wine customers are women.

At Riverbench Winery in Santa Maria, general manager Laura Mohseni credits Norm Yost with inspiring their portfolio’s biggest new addition: three yearly sparklers under the playfully dubbed label, Cork Jumper.  A chardonnay-based sparkler experiment in 2008 was so well-received, the winery went full-steam ahead this year with a production of two chardonnay-based and one pinot noir-based sparkling wines.  Using proprietary fruit exclusively, winemaker Clarissa Nagy begins by crafting still wine cuvees onsite.  But the blends are then trucked up north, to Napa, where 5th-generation champagne maker Gerard Ployez employs those strict traditional methods to bring them to fizzy life.  With an annual production that exceeds 500 cases, undertaking the methode champenoise locally would be “extremely expensive,” says Mrs. Mohseni, “and it would require a lot of equipment and a lot of space.”  The Cork Jumper wines cost between $32 and $45.

Louis Lucas
©Bob Dickey, winecountrypics.com
Lucas & Lewellen Winery exports for their sparkler, too, although they overnight grapes, not juice, in refrigerated trucks to a facility in Hopland, north of Napa, called Rack and Riddle.  “A lot of their staff came from J, so they know how to make sparkling wine,” says grape growing pioneer Louie Lucas.  But for Mr. Lucas, who tends to more than two dozen wine grape varieties throughout the county, the magic lies in the fruit.  “Our grapes here are perfect for sparkling: good acidity, low pH and great flavor,” he says.  Mr. Lucas sold Santa Barbara County grapes to sparkling wine maker Korbell as far back as the 1970s, and his own label, which he founded with business partner and retired judge Royce Lewellen, released its first sparkler in 2000.  Since then, a handful of vintages have resulted in bubbly, each to the tune of 600 cases.  But with the amazing success of their 2008 Brut Sparkling Wine – Gold Medal and Best of Class at the Orange Co. Wine Competition, Central Coast Wine Competition and California State Fair – bubbly is now an annual project, and Mr. Lucas has doubled yearly output.  The ’08 sparkler, a 50-50 blend of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes from Los Alamos, sells for $38, and only a few cases remain.

And while the Burgundian classics – pinot and chardonnay – reign supreme in Santa Barbara’s sparkling wine production, a handful of innovative producers are adding effervescent zest to other local varieties.  Steve Clifton makes a sparkling nebbiolo ($46) for his Palmina Label, Tessa Marie Parker of Tessa Marie Wines has a sparkling vermentino ($35) and Casa Dumetz Wines’ Sonja Magdevski is going on her third year putting out a sparkling syrah ($35).

Sonja Magdevski
©Bob Dickey, winecountrypics.com
“It’s been a total crowd pleaser,” says Ms. Magdesvki, whose inaugural 2010 release of 25 cases sold out in three months.  She made 75 cases in 2011, and upped production to 100 cases this year.  And while she admits that the wine is “super full-bodied and lush,” she makes its greatest asset clear: “It’s a fun, fun, yummy wine.  And just fun, fun, fun!”  Going less than traditional with such a traditional beverage was “daunting at first,” Ms. Magdevski admits.  But she was buoyed by the growing popularity of sparkling shiraz wines out of Australia and a successful local sparkling syrah project by Municipal Winemakers’ Dave Potter.  Her sparkling winemaking is less than traditional, too.

“I use encapsulated yeast beads,” says Ms. Magdevski.  “You do your fermentation, add them individually – a half-teaspoon per bottle, and they stay whole, they don’t break apart – and then adjust your sugar levels.  After four to six months, you’re done!”  The beads can be expensive, she says, but they can make fiscal sense to a small-scale production like Casa Dumetz, and they allow a creative winemaker like Ms. Magdesvki to push the envelope while creating something new.

“There are plenty of big, traditional sparklers on the market, and mine is not that,” she admits, reiterating, “It’s just fun.”

And for Mr. Fiolek, ventures like this “prove my point about diversity,” he says.  “And that’s why sparkling wine in Santa Barbara County is becoming a natural.”

No Popcorn Required: Wines To Match With Your Favorite Holiday Flick

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on December 6, 2012) 

As part of the myriad holiday events taking place in Santa Barbara wine country this month, Zaca Mesa Winery is going Hollywood.  This Saturday night, from 6-9pm, the classic Christmas movie “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, will be screened under the stars and amidst the vines.  Tickets are $10 ($8 if you’re a club member); find out more at www.zacamesa.com.

The winery will have wine for sale there, too, of course, including the many stellar Rhone creations by winemaker Eric Mohseni.  Perfect.  Sipping something like his easy-going, approachable, vibrant Z Cuvee blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache can mirror Ferrell’s imp-inspired antics quite nicely.  I find Mohseni’s aromatic roussanne to be a particularly fun sipper, too.

So this got me thinking.  As we start to sort through our DVD – maybe VHS? – collection for our favorite holiday flicks to watch this month, let’s not pop open just any bottle of wine.  Reliving a heartwarming classic may require something special in our glass.  Your taste – both in movies and wines – may differ.  But for it’s worth, here’s what my family and I will be watching, and sipping, this Christmas season.

A Christmas Story
We can all of relate to Ralphie Parker, the 9-year-old whose obsession with a Red Ryder BB Gun is the plot driver in this 1983 classic.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride for the poor kid, who’s admonished repeatedly for wanting the potentially dangerous toy so badly, and who hears “You’ll shoot your eye out!” more times than any kid should.  In the end, Ralphie’s wish does come true and, though he almost does in fact shoot his eye out, he’ll admit it was the best toy he ever got.  So when enjoying this film, consider splurging on a red wine that you’ve long craved; one that you’ve secretly wished someone had gifted you, or that you hadn’t put off buying so long.  Like a cult cabernet from Napa or a fancy Chateauneuf du Pape.  For me, this might be a bottle of Silver Oak or Opus One.  And if I’m going to be varietal-specific, I might drink zinfandel with this flick; much like Ralphie’s toy tale, I find that big, rich zins – Opolo out of Paso has a couple of good ones -- often don’t deliver with the first few sips; but persistence, and letting the open bottle breathe for awhile, even days, can finally bring those round, jammy, chocolaty flavors I wanted so badly.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
My wife’s family introduced me to this 1989 comedy starring Chevy Chase; it’s their venerable must-watch film each Christmas.  And let’s be honest: wine may not be the ultimate sipper while watching Clark Griswold’s sequence of misfortunes; they are often painful because they tend to be so relatable, from the underappreciated attempts at holiday decorating to the family member you really hoped would be a no-show this year.  Eggnog – the adult, spiked variety, which is readily consumed throughout the film – might be the best fit.  Or whiskey; when Clark asks his dad how he used to get through the messy holiday season, the older Griswold retorts, “I had a lot of help from Jack Daniels.”  But this film is mostly about laughs, and the wine you drink while you watch has got to be easy to drink and fun to share.  And it’s got to be inexpensive.  Like a rosé, whose hues are apropos for the season anyway.  Or any affordable red from hot spots like California, Chile, Italy or Spain.  And when you get to the scene where Bing Crosby sings “Mele Kalikimaka” as Clark gazes longingly at the pool, break for a mai tai.

Polar Express
This Tom Hanks vehicle from 2004 is magical in more ways than one.  From a movie-making standpoint, the technology – which animates characters by capturing the movements of real-life actors – is fascinating to see.  And from a story-telling perspective – including the bittersweet reminder that our ability (or is it our willingness?) to believe evaporates with age – the film tugs at the heart strings.  I am the proud father of two young boys who wholeheartedly know that Santa is real, and I have already taken time this season to sit between them on the couch and enjoy this film.  And as we watched, I relished Andrew Murray’s “Tous les Jours,” a deliciously accessible blend of syrah grapes from both Santa Ynez and Paso Robles.  Interestingly, the wine’s multi-faceted nature mirrors Hank’s performance; he plays six roles, including Santa Claus.  But more importantly, its ripe berry flavors and uncomplicated mouth feel allowed me to enjoy a great wine while still being able to fully focus on a special moment with my sons.  Anything mulled would work with this movie, too.

Miracle on 34th Street
Easily, the second greatest Christmas movie of all time.  And, again, a reminder that this is the season when leaving pragmatism aside is preferred.  By the end of the movie, I believe just as fervently as Natalie Wood’s young character that Kris Kringle (played to Oscar-winning perfection by English actor Edmund Gwenn) is, with a doubt, the real Santa Claus.  There have been several coloration attempts made on this film, but watching it in its original black and white glory is the best way to go.  Aside from being heartwarming, there’s elegance to this movie that I love.  Made in 1947, it’s a glimpse at a simpler era, when personal affectations rather than texts and pings defined human interaction.  That down-to-earth sophistication reminds me of a fine pinot noir, a wine that can display finesse in the mouth while delivering earthy, fruity, raw flavors.  Visually, with its generally lean, crimson colors, it can be beautiful – and the only tinge you need against a black and white screen.  Pinots I’ve savored lately include Gainey, Whitcraft and Hitching Post.

It’s a Wonderful Life
Easily, the number one Christmas move of all time, and one of the best movies ever made.  As George Bailey, actor James Stewart takes us on an emotional ride that perhaps only the holiday can evoke – and all emotions we can all understand, from gripping pain to joyful exultation.  George, with the help of his guardian angel, goes from utter desperation to being “the richest man in town,” and reminds us that it’s the people around us, not the gifts under a tree, that matter most.  A simple message best told during this special season.  And there’s no right wine here.  As you watch, you simply sip what is special to you.  For me, it might be Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah, which I popped open that evening on the sand when my wife said, “Yes.”  Whatever it is, think of a wine that conjures emotion, or a memory that brings a smile.  And remember that in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” wine -- as part of a housewarming gift that George bestows upon a neighbor family – is believed to ensure “that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”  Very fitting.  Just make sure you break for a glass of bubbly – and raise it high – any time you hear a bell ring.

Happy viewing and Merry Christmas.

Gabe Saglie wishes his favorite actor of all time, Peter Sellers, had made a Christmas movie.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com and can be reached via email at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.

Gobble Gobble Wines: Local Chefs Suggest Holiday Feast Bottles

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 22, 2012) 

Happy Thanksgiving, and good luck.  I’m speaking to you, Thanksgiving feast host, who probably rose before this very paper was delivered this morning to—anxiously and excitedly – prep what may be the most important meal of the year.  May this thought help comfort you, however: once all your blessings are counted, the merits of any meal will pale by comparison.

And I’m speaking to you, too, guest-in-waiting.  I know your anxiety well, so good luck.  The wine you bring to dinner tonight, after all, will enjoy the attention, if not the scrutiny, worthy of a meal anticipated for months by an entire nation.

But here’s a thought that might soothe you: the Thanksgiving meal is eclectic enough, and diverse enough, that whatever you bring is bound to match at least something on the table or, perhaps more importantly, impress at least someone seated around it.  For what it’s worth, my easiest suggestion is sparkling wine; its celebratory fizz is fitting, for sure, and its merits for matching a wide range of foods are well-tested.

To offer you more noteworthy suggestions, though, I turned to three local chefs who, themselves, have plenty of reason to be thankful.  Each of these three men has recently opened a restaurant in an admittedly competitive arena, and their business is flourishing.  What’s more, their knack for pairing food with wine is renowned.

 Ron True, Arlington Tavern
I ran into Chef Ron True at the recent Bouillabaisse Festival, held at Brander Vineyard to benefit Hospice of Santa Barbara.  I was happy to be among a small group of very lucky food judges.  True was happy, too; he won first place in the Classic Bouillabaisse category.

This talented gastronome opened his Arlington Tavern along W. Victoria Street in downtown Santa Barbara just seven months ago.  But already he’s making a splash with his comfort food-done-right, with starters like crispy pork belly and heirloom tomato salad and mains that range from filet mignon to lamb shank to fried chicken.  And yes, he’s got bouillabaisse on the menu, too.

Arlington Tavern will, in fact, be open for Thanksgiving dinner today, with seatings starting at 2pm.  Aside from regular menu items, the restaurant will feature a four-course feast with wonderfully traditional foods, like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry relish.  There’s a homemade pumpkin cheesecake with spiced apples for dessert.  “As someone who’s now not only a chef but also an owner, it’s always a joy having a lot of people at the restaurant,” True tells me.

His turkey technique takes some doing.  “I cook the dark meat and white meat separately, because they cook at different times, and put brine on the turkey to give it flavor throughout and to reduce the possibility of bacteria,” True says.  He also roasts the bones to make a hearty stock base for gravy.

And his wine pick came quickly: Zaca Mesa Winery’s Z Cuvee, a grenache-mourvedre-syrah blend by winemaker Eric Mohseni.  “It’s great for Thanksgiving,” True says, “because it has a broad spectrum and is easy to drink.  There’s a fair amount of tannin structure, plus balance of fruit, so it has a good chance of pairing well with several items on the table.”

In wine distributor circles, word has it that Arlington Tavern moves more Z Cuvee than any other restaurant in the country – up to five cases a month.  After tonight, that number may be that much easier to hit.

David Cecchini, Cecco Ristorante
Chef David Cecchini’s storied culinary past includes the Wine Cask, the popular Restaurant Nu in Santa Barbara and Nuuva in Ballard; the last two, he also owned.  He taps his Italian roots at his newest kitchen, Cecco Ristorante along First Street in Solvang, which opened its doors some 18 months ago.  But it’s been such a success – the chef credits Solvang’s burgeoning appeal as a wine destination and the city’s steady contingency of crowd-drawing weekend events – that Cecchini is already looking for a second location, probably in Santa Barbara.

Tonight, though, Cecco is closed, as the chef heads to his parents’ home in Solvang for a gathering of about 15 people.  His turkey secret echoes that of Matt Nichols: “Stuff it and roast it like a chicken,” he tells me.  And his wine insight is refreshing: “It’s not pairing wine with the food that’s all that difficult, it’s pairing it with the people that are going to be there,” he says.  To that end, there may be strength in numbers.  Cecchini adds, “You should have a few different wines on the table and that way people can pick what they want.”

I push him to pick one he’s sure to bring to Mom and Dad’s tonight, and Cecchini chooses something familiar: a sangiovese he, himself, makes under an eponymous label.  He’s made sangiovese on three vintages with the help of friend, and celebrated Palmina and Brewer-Clifton winemaker, Steve Clifton.  With the 2008 vintage still aging in bottle, he picks the 2007 wine – an 85-15 sangiovese-merlot blend made with grapes from Honea and Eleven Oaks Vineyards.  “It’s got good fruit – not a ton of fruit, but good fruit – and it’s balanced really well and has good body on it,” he says.  “It works across the board.”  And that might be all you can hope for when it comes to the very varied Thanksgiving meal.

By the way, Cecco, which is usually open seven days a week, will reopen tomorrow.

Matt Nichols, Sides Hardware and Shoes – a Brothers Restaurant
After a legendary 10-year stint hosting hungry crowds at the landmark Mattei’s Tavern, the Nichols brothers – Jeff and Matt – opened their new eatery this past April.  The quirky name is a nod to the entrepreneurs who housed the same Los Olivos building at the turn of the 20th century.  These days, the brothers’ restaurant is a destination all its own in the heart of wine country.

At Mattei’s, Thanksgiving night was traditionally one of the Nichols’ busiest of the year.  “We’d have about 400 people come in,” recalls Matt.  But this year, because of more limited space at Sides, the restaurant is closed and the siblings will be enjoying tonight’s meal separately.  “I won’t be responsible for the Thanksgiving meal for the first time in years,” rejoices Matt, who’ll be at his in-laws’ place in Santa Maria.  But his tip for novice cooks is simple: “Think of it as just cooking a big chicken.”

And, as the restaurant’s wine list keeper, his advice for Thanksgiving bottle seekers is simple, too.  “I love the pinots by Rick Longoria, like the one from his Fe Ciega Vineyard,” he says.  He quickly recommends Longoria’s “Lovely Rita” pinot, too – with fruit sourced from the celebrated Fe Ciega and Bien Nacido Vineyards – as an equally delicious yet simpler wine.  And his white of choice is winemaker Nick de Luca’s brand new personal project, Ground Effect; Sides features the 2011 “Gravity Check” – a chenin blanc, albarino, pinot gris blend – by the bottle.  De Luca’s philosophy “is what Thanksgiving is all about,” says Matt.  “Taking something produced in the ground  --  a pumpkin, a grape, whatever – and turning it into something special for a special day.”

And if all else fails, Matt’s parting thought made the most sense to me: “To help alleviate some of the stress of the day, just start drinking some of these wines a little bit earlier than everyone else.”

Gabe Saglie is still counting his blessings.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com.  You can email him at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.