Califonia Bountiful

Sales bubble for California sparkling wines

Nothing captures the moment better than sparkling wine.

Whether it's launching a ship, ringing in the New Year or raising a glass to toast a newlywed couple, many people find nothing captures the moment better than sparkling wine.

Today, a growing number of consumers has learned that they can add festiveness to any occasion by adding sparkling wine to the dinner table, whether they're serving a full meal or savoring elegant appetizers for the upcoming holiday season.

Just as all California wines have gained in popularity and reputation, sales of sparkling wines rose by about 7 percent last year. There were nearly 8 million cases of California bubbly sold in 2006, and analysts credit younger consumers as the main reason for the growth.

"Millions of new consumers are entering and moving the markets just like their parents did in the 1960s and '70s, when the boomers started with Annie Green Springs and moved on to luxurious cabernets," said Eileen Fredrickson, a partner in the wine industry consulting firm Gomberg, Fredrickson and Associates. "Certainly, the younger generation has been intrigued with sparkling wines, feeling that every day is a celebration. There's been an increase in it poured by the glass in restaurants, as more young people especially like to start out with a glass of sparkling wine."

Sparkling wine is often referred to as champagne, although champagne is, in reality, sparkling wine made in the méthode champenoise style that comes from the Champagne region of France.

Whatever name you call it, this effervescent beverage is gaining a lot of fans in America.

One place where sparkling wine demand is soaring is the Bubble Lounge in San Francisco. A sibling to the original Manhattan business, this is a place where sparkling wines from throughout the world can be sampled and enjoyed.

One of the earliest and best California sparkling wines is found at Schramsberg Winery in Calistoga, Napa County. German immigrants Jacob and Annie Schram established the winery in 1862. It closed during Prohibition and was dormant for a half century. Jack and Jamie Davies purchased it in 1965 and began making sparkling wine. Today, it's run by their enthusiastic, passionate son, Hugh Davies.

"It's pretty fantastic," Davies said. "In many ways, I'm living a bit of a dream. There aren't many people who have the opportunity to continue on with a project that their parents started."

The rustic grounds at Schramsberg are an example of living history. They are a registered national historic location and a California historical landmark. More than 100 years ago, Chinese laborers used picks and shovels to dig through volcanic rock into Diamond Mountain, creating a long series of tunnels to store wines. The wonderfully eerie caves have a constant temperature of 57 degrees and have been known to house a few bats, although they're a perfect fit for the business. They were expanded in the 1980s, and now encompass more than two miles, containing more than 2 million bottles of their precious vintage. The winery offers tours of the caves by appointment only.

Schramsberg makes sparkling wine in the Old World, labor-intensive méthode champenoise style, which requires herculean patience and pinpoint precision. This process starts when premium chardonnay and pinot noir grapes are harvested slightly earlier than if they were used for still wines. The grapes are pressed; the juice is blended and then bottled with a little yeast and sugar, which causes fermentation, bringing those trademark bubbles--an average of 250 million of them in each bottle. Next is the aging process, which usually takes two to 10 years.

Turning the bottles to ensure that the yeast gathers in the neck of the bottle is the job of Ramon Viera, Schramsberg's riddler, who has gently and precisely turned millions of bottles in his 30-plus years at the winery.

"You have to be very, very quick but with a soft touch," Viera said. "I use only the tips of my fingers."

Once Viera finishes riddling the bottles, the neck of each bottle is frozen. The next step involves popping the cap off, which shoots out all of the sediment. A dosage--a liqueur that balances the acidity of the wine--is added, then a cork goes in and it's ready for market.

"The chardonnay style is a little more crisp and tart," Davies said. "It's wonderful with shellfish, tangy cheeses, fish courses or by itself. The pinot noir style is a little more soft and creamy. You can have it with barbequed ribs, duck breast or a delicious baked salmon. The options are pretty limitless."

So whatever is on your dinner table, there's good reason to consider adding a bubbly California classic: sparkling wine.

"Sparking wine denotes a festival, an upbeat mood and happy time," Davies said. "There's really not another beverage like it."

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