When Norm Yost of Flying Goat Cellars in Lompoc released his first sparkling wine 10 years ago, his competition from other Santa Barbara County winemakers was nonexistent. “The first three to four years, there was nobody,” he remembers. “I could tell people were like, 'What's he doing?'”
For decades, the market for California sparkling wine has been dominated by a handful of major players: Mumm Napa, Domaine Chandon, Roederer, Schramsberg. Many were founded by French Champagne makers, who brought deep pockets and generations of knowledge to bear on one of winemaking's most complex challenges. Making sparkling wine is not for the faint-hearted; it requires special equipment and several additional steps in the production process, and the final product is taxed at a higher rate than still wine, cutting into already-thin profit margins. Even for experienced winemakers, it's an intimidating market to compete in.
“I just think us as winemakers maybe weren't ready to go down that path,” says Tyler Elwell, assistant winemaker at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, who just released his first sparkling wine under his own label, Halcyon. “I don't know if it's because you need other equipment or that it's labor-intensive. Or if we were just like, 'Shit, we're not gonna be able to make Champagne. So we might as well just buy that and make something else.'”
But over the past five years, that's started to change. More and more California winemakers are adding bubbles to their product line, often experimenting with different grapes, styles and production techniques to set themselves apart. And many of the best new sparkling wines are coming from small producers on the Central Coast, just a few hours north of Los Angeles.
Elwell, 34, is emblematic of this new wave of bubble-makers. Halcyon, the boutique winery he founded two years ago with his fiancée, Kim Schultz, focuses exclusively on cabernet franc, a red French varietal best known as a Bordeaux blending grape. Inspired by cab francs he tasted in France's Loire Valley, where the grape is used on its own to make everything from earthy yet aromatic red table wines to brightly acidic, sparkling rosés, he and Schultz decided to release their own sparkling rosé of cab franc — something virtually unheard of in the California market but, with a minuscule production run of 25 cases, an experiment Elwell felt he could afford to make.
“We've never really liked rules very much, and we don't feel like we're pigeonholed into anything,” Elwell remembers thinking. “So why not make sparkling? This could be fun.”
Like most winemakers, Elwell made his bubbles using the traditional méthode champenoise, named after the world's most famous sparkling wine region. (Even if you use the Champagne method, however, you're not allowed to call your product “Champagne”; just as all bourbon must legally be from Kentucky, all Champagne must come from the region in France after which it's named.) Rather than introducing carbonation through artificial means, méthode champenoise uses a secondary fermentation process, adding yeast to the wine after it's been bottled. That yeast, as it eats through the wine's natural sugars and converts them to alcohol, creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
Elwell, however, decided to skip the final steps of the traditional method. Rather than opening his bottles to remove the sediment, or lees, created by the yeast — a process known rather unromantically as “disgorging” — then topping off his bottles with a little sweet wine or sugar, called a dosage (sparkling wines without a dosage tend to be much dryer than their flat counterparts), Elwell left the lees in the bottle, making his final product cloudier and dryer than most sparkling wines but also imparting to it “kind of a yeasty, bread-y quality.”
One of the few places consumers can try Halcyon's limited-production wines is at the Garagiste Festival, a traveling exhibition of small-lot winemakers that comes to L.A. once a year. At its annual Santa Barbara County stop in Solvang, on Valentine's Day, Elwell and Schultz were among 57 wineries pouring tastes of their wares. With its pale peach color, aromas of strawberry and nectarine and the tiny strands of bubbles you'd expect to find in a fine Champagne, Halcyon's sparkling rosé is a standout. Not surprisingly, soon after the festival, it sold out.
Earlier in the day at Solvang's Veterans Memorial Hall, both Elwell and Yost, along with Dan Kessler of Kessler-Haak Vineyard in Lompoc, discussed their sparkling wines as part of a panel moderated by Garagiste Festival co-founder Stewart McLennan. Both Elwell and Kessler nodded in agreement when Yost described the growth of Central Coast sparkling wine as an “explosion.”
“It's exciting to see, because we have some great grapes down here,” Yost said. By his count, there are now more than 20 winemakers doing sparkling in Santa Barbara County alone, with many more in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties further north.
Many of these wineries, such as Riverbench, Sanford, Sea Smoke and Kessler-Haak, are making more traditional, Champagne-style bubblies, which are made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. But many others, like Elwell, are thinking outside the box. Palmina, a Lompoc winery specializing in Italian varietals, is making a red sparkling from the barbera grape and a white from malvasia bianca; Solminer, in Los Olivos, has experimented with a sparkling, dosage-free syrah. Even Yost, who began with pinot noir and chardonnay, added a pinot blanc bubbly to his repertoire in 2010, starting with just 75 cases and ramping up to 150 today. “I'm actually contemplating making a little bit more, because there's become a little bit of a following for this wine. Who woulda thunk?” he says with a laugh.
One thing that has made sparkling wine production easier for smaller winemakers has been the arrival of companies like Rack and Riddle, a “custom crush” production facility in Sonoma County, which will handle every step of the secondary fermentation process, from the labor-intensive task of “riddling” the bottles (painstakingly turning each bottle a few degrees every day, so that the lees all collect in the neck) to disgorging to dosage. Equipment and labor costs for all these extra steps can add up, so it's attractive to outsource them to a specialist — but the tradeoff, says Yost, can be a loss of control over your final product.
“That's why we do everything in-house,” he says. He jokingly refers to Flying Goat's warehouse production facility in Lompoc as “an homage to Home Depot,” with homemade riddling racks and other “rather rudimentary” equipment. But at the end of the day, he, like Elwell, prefers the more low-tech, hands-on approach.
“I've touched probably each one of these bottles several times,” he says during the seminar, as volunteers pour tastes of his sparkling, deliciously citrusy pinot blanc for the audience. “It's really a labor of love for us.”