Bubbles on the Blind: Tasting Reveals Wide Range of Local Sparkling Wines

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/24/15

Not too long ago, a tasting like this would have been impossible.  When Flying Goat Cellars’ Norm Yost launched his sparkling wine program in 2005, he was pretty much on his own.  Other labels had dabbled in bubbles in the past, like Brewer-Clifton and Whitcraft.  But sparklers made yearly from Santa Barbara County grapes was brand new territory.

Today, the number of local producers with a regular sparkling wine program approaches,. 40.  And this year alone marks the first-ever releases of bubblies by several labels, like Alma Rosa and Potek.  So the time seemed right to pick a random sampling and taste some of Santa Barbara’s effervescence at its best.

We picked a quintessential Santa Barbara setting: the rooftop at the posh Canary Hotel, where 360-degree views on a sunny afternoon can make anyone wish for bubbles in their glass.  Along with this writer, our panel of tasters was a cross-section of some of the area’s most refined palates: wine director at the Canary’s Finch & Fork Restaurant, Tatiana Konovalov; Downey’s Restaurant wine buyer, Liz Downey; Toma Restaurant owner, Tom Dolan; Renegade Wines owner Stephen Wayne; and Champagne expert and co-publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Arthur von Wiesenberger.

Our blind tasting panel, from left: this writer, Toma Restaurant owner Tom Dolan, Renegade Wines owner Stephen Wayne, Downey's co-owner and wine buyer Liz Downey, Champagne expert and Santa Barbara News-Press co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger and wine director at Canary Hotel’s Finch & Fork Restaurant Tatiana Konovalov
Our tasting was set on the deluxe rooftop of Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel, which is usually reserved for hotel guests only and which features 360-degree views of the city's foothills, shoreline and downtown corridor
We tasted nine Santa Barbara sparkling wines blindly, concealing the bottles inside brown paper bags
We focused on brut – or dry, non-rosé – sparkling wines.  We also tasted these wines blindly, hiding bottles inside brown paper bags and numbering them randomly, thereby eliminating any influences that come from knowing the names on the labels and allowing us to focus purely on the merits of the wines in our glasses.  It should be noted that tasting wine blindly creates a different experience than drinking them openly; any of the nine sparklers we tasted would have been perfect sippers for an afternoon spent around, say, that sexy pool on the Canary rooftop.  But the heightened focus on colors, aromas and flavors allowed us to uncover interesting nuances and a wonderful diversity.  Here are our results; aside from our top three, they’re listed in random order.

Fess Parker Winery “Fesstivity” Blanc de Blancs, Sta. Rita Hills, 2013 ($37)
This bubbly by winemaker Blair Fox, and made from 100% chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills, was our clear winner.  Across the board, we found this wine to approach those classic elements that make Champagnes famous – active bubbles, mild yeastiness, lively mouth feel, refreshing finish.  One of us noted its “lovely straw colors” and the flavor descriptors included “pears” and “honeyed.”  The end showed hints of lime and spice.  Lively and slightly sweet going in, dry on the end.   

Lucas & Lewellen Brut Sparkling Wine, Santa Barbara County, 2012 ($30)
The winemakers at Rack & Riddle in Healdsburg used fruit from Lucas & Lewellen’s Los Alamos vineyards – a 50-50 blend of chardonnay and pinot noir – to make this wine.  The pinot accounted for the faintest but very pretty cerise tinge to this wine, which took second place. We liked its “warm yellow” hue.  On the tongue, this wine was “unctuous” and “rich”.  Surprisingly “supple” for a brut wine, and “mildly sweet,” but ideal for someone seeking bubbles with extra body.

Alma Rosa Blanc de Blancs, Sta. Rita Hills, 2013 ($60)
Tying for third place in our tasting was pioneering winemaker Richard Sanford’s first sparkling release under his popular Alma Rosa label.  Made from 50% chardonnay and 50% pinot blanc, the wine comes from two storied vineyards that Sanford planted himself, El Jabali and La Encantada.  Its top merits were its “vigorous bubbles” and “lots of acidity.”  There was a green quality to this wine – tasty green apple, but leaning toward herbal.  We wished for a more intense nose and a more lingering finish, but an especially fresh and bright entry.

Riverbench “Cork Jumper” Blanc de Blancs, 2012 ($40)
Our other third place finisher comes from winemaker Clarrisa Nagy, who uses estate fruit from the Santa Maria Valley.  We were also hoping for a longer finish here, but we were intrigued by the wonderful structure and the complexity of flavors: “mandarin orange,” “lychee,” “nutty.”  There was some “funkiness,” here – for many, a desirable quality in classic sparklers – as well as “floral notes” on the nose.

Flying Goat Cellars “Goat Bubbles” Brut Cuvee, Santa Barbara County, 2013 ($42)
Winemaker Norm Yost is celebrating his 10th year as a sparkling wine maker with this wine, which brings his yearly production of bubbles to five distinct bottlings.  This 80-20 blend of Rio Vista Vineyard pinot noir and Sierra Madre Vineyard chardonnay had a “lively effervescence” and “vigorous” bubbles.  The yeasty flavors reminded some of us of “baked apples,” and we touted the “honey notes” on the finish.  What stood out most, though, was its cloudiness.  When we called Mr. Yost a few days later to explain, he noted that his all-by-hand techniques “sometimes lead to a little sediment in the bottle, just like you might find in a bottle of pinot noir.”  

Potek Winery Blanc de Blancs, Sta. Rita Hills, 2012 ($65)
With this label, winemaker Dave Potter is sourcing from top vineyards.  This all-chardonnay bubbly, his very first sparkling wine, showcased wonderful yeast on the nose, as well as “almonds” and “lemon zest.”  One of us picked up “apple cider.”  It was “lively” and “bright” up front, with some minerality, though the finish escaped us too soon.  Our consensus was that this wine’s solid structure will allow it to fare better with some age.

Fiddlehead Cellars 728 Bubbles Blanc de Noirs, 2012 ($60)
Winemaker Kathy Joseph’s fourth sparkling wine release comes from famous Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  This all-pinot noir wine showcased a “nice light golden color” and flavors of “green apple,” “pineapple” and “banana,” with a “lemony finish.”  We liked its “crisp quality” but picked up an unexpected “bitter” core and we were left hoping for bubbles and flavors that didn’t taper off so quickly.  “Good with strong cheese, I think,” one restaurateur noted.

Cottonwood Canyon Blanc de Blanc, Santa Maria Valley, 2000 ($49)
This was the oldest bubbly we tasted – Cottonwood’s only bubbly, produced from estate fruit 15 years ago.  The color in our glass was a “deep yellow” and our noses picked up “butterscotch” and “a hint of must.”  This is a perfect sparkler for those seeking lots of richness and lots of body.  Flavors ranged from “honeycomb and lemon drop” to “toasted almond” and “butter.”  A couple of us were critical of a somewhat “flabby” mouth feel.

Tessa Marie Sparkling Vermentino, 2014 ($38)
This was the youngest sparkling wine we tasted, and a wine that was a real standout in more ways than one.  No cork, for one, closured instead by a bright pink crown cap.  And the only bubbly made from the non-traditional vermentino grape.  Its unique qualities, like mustiness on the nose and pale color, threw us off, admittedly.  “Could this be viognier?” one of us mused, confused.   But this wine by winemaker Tessa (Parker) Cody is a fun take on bubbles, with hints of white stone fruit and a dry finish.  Bright bubbles upfront, but they dissipated too quickly. 

In the end, it bears reinforcing: these nine sparklers all have something unique and tasty to offer and clearly represent one of the Santa Barbara wine trends to watch in 2016.


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