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.”


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  2. Gabe, I found this very helpful when researching local bubbles for Santa Barbara County’s first ever Sparkling Wine Guide. It would be great if you’d include a link to the guide in your article; I think your readers would really like it. :)



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