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America's Great Sparkling Wines

A writer hits the road to find California's answer to Champagne

It took a century for California wines to overcome their "made in America" stigma, but now that they have, with a vengeance, it's about time that domestic sparklers got their due. California sparkling wines should be celebrated alongside their French counterparts--not just because so many of them are so good, but because we're only a couple of months away from an unprecedented frenzy of cork popping.

In anticipation of this planet-wide party, I devised a two-day loop through Napa and Sonoma to sample five of the best American sparklers--Schramsberg, Iron Horse, J, Domaine Carneros and Domaine Chandon--all of which happen to be made at wineries where women play prominent roles. This region gets its share of visitors, certainly, but my jaunt occasionally would lead off the beaten path. It would take me from the northern end of Napa, over the mountains, through Sonoma's ravishing Russian River Valley and across the broad hills of Carneros in the south--all prime real estate for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes that are the essence of sparkling wine.

I started at Schramsberg, where German émigré Jacob Schram built a boutique winery a century before the term gained, and lost, currency. In 1880 Schram served his sparklers to an early wine tourist, Robert Louis Stevenson, who described them as "bottled poetry." The place stopped producing wine after Schram's death, until it was at last rescued in the 1960s by Jamie and Jack Davies.

From Highway 29, near Calistoga, I climbed a steep, winding lane up the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Mountains to the Davies winery, a Queen Anne mansion with a redwood tasting room tucked into the entrance of caves dug by Schram. On the walls hang sepia photos of a California that long predates bicoastalism and newer photos of dignitaries like Chou En-lai, Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton holding flutes of Schramsberg.

Jamie Davies has been in charge since the death of her husband two years ago. They both believed that quality wine could be made here, and the strength of that vision is reflected in a line of rich, vibrant sparklers that can be sampled by any traveler who makes an appointment. At a tasting table made of old riddling racks, I found the tête de cuvée, J. Schram ($65), as complex as the best Champagne. Its deep color, swarms of fine bubbles and succession of subtle flavors--vanilla, roasted nuts--show what the best California terroir can produce.

Before crossing the Mayacamas into Sonoma, I passed through Calistoga, famous for its mineral water, hot mud baths and carny atmosphere. Gliders rose from a little airfield, giving fliers a condor's view of a valley corduroyed with vineyards and studded with fabulous architecture. Signs beckoned me to be herbally wrapped, but instead I veered onto a side street with a grape arbor and settled in at Wappo Bar Bistro, a lively place recommended by Davies. I chose the field greens and a Thai noodle and papaya salad from a menu that mixes Middle Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean and South American cuisines.

Then I took the Petrified Forest Road toward the sky, past fields lined with poppies and deep green conifers. As I descended the far side of the Mayacamas, Sonoma County spread out before me, less populous than Napa Valley and not yet ruled by a grape monoculture. Here a traveler can still see signs for registered holsteins and a fence made of abalone shells--things as likely in Napa as a parking space outside the Oakville Grocery.

I wended my way west on dusty roads toward Sebastopol. Elegant wooden signs at crossroads bore the names of Sonoma wineries, and a profusion of roses at the ends of vine rows announced Iron Horse Vineyards. Joy Sterling is in charge of sales and marketing at Iron Horse, maker of eight different sparklers and an array of still wines. Tastings are arranged by appointment, and I stood at an outside table under an umbrella and went through a flight of sparkling wines.

I lingered over the elegant 1991 Brut LD ($60), released for the millennium. A few decades ago such quality was considered an impossibility in the sun-drenched vineyards and fields that lead north along the Russian River through old-time rural California. Then, on a tour, I saw the usual suspects of the méthode champenoise: stainless steel tanks, crushers and automatic riddlers for concentrating the yeast in the necks of the bottles.

In Healdsburg, I stopped off at the old Piper Sonoma winery, which the J Wine Company bought in 1996 for J, its new sparkling venture. The tasting room was not yet completed, so I tried the 1994 and 1995 J ($29) at a table set up on the patio. They were austere, well balanced and delicious, and the name couldn't have been easier to spell.

I needed a rest, so I headed for the Madrona Manor, a Victorian mansion with gorgeous garden-filled grounds. I shared the pool there with a clutch of cyclists who had exchanged their Spandex for bathing suits. For dinner I ventured into the heart of Healdsburg, site of a twice-weekly farmers' market. Antiques shops front the town's main square, as does Bistro Ralph, an excellent little restaurant suggested by Joy Sterling. I dug into a warm Sonoma goat cheese salad and fettuccine with fava beans, artichoke hearts, squash and fresh basil--along with some Iron Horse Brut Rosé ($44). Afterward, I walked it all off through Healdsburg's residential streets, past Victorian and Craftsman houses.

The next morning took me south on Interstate 101. I stopped for lunch at Mistral, in Santa Rosa, and tried crisp polenta with forest mushrooms and luscious sautéed bay and sea scallops in white wine sauce. Then I angled off on State 12 and into Bennett Valley. Hay bales cast sharp shadows, and a pair of tandem cyclists smiled, as I did, at all the bucolic splendor. I took a quick side trip to Jack London State Historic Park, but I was keeping my eye on the bubble, so to speak, and it led me south, through the historic town of Sonoma and east along State 12/121.

The Carneros viticultural district, shared by Napa and Sonoma counties, is named for the sheep that once grazed here. The only grazers you're likely to see today are grape growers checking the sugar content of their fruit with refractometers. Carneros's broad slopes, cooled by the nearby San Pablo Bay, are prime ground for growing precious sparkling-wine grapes.

Back across the Napa line, I came upon Domaine Carneros, an imposing reproduction of the Louis XV-style Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne. Both the château in France and Domaine Carneros are owned by the Taittinger family. The regal foyer was hung with a portrait of Madame de Pompadour, who introduced Champagne to the French court. Eileen Crane, the winemaker, also had a hand in the interior decoration, which is sumptuous. Her Brut Rosé ($26) and Blanc de Blancs, called La Rêve ($50), are lean almost to tartness--and I mean this as a compliment.

My last stop was Domaine Chandon, in Yountville. A stunning contemporary cave set in a hillside, the winery has an impressive lineup of six sparkling wines, including a classic Brut ($15), a Cuvée 2000 ($24) for the millennium and a complex blend of prime Mount Veeder grapes called Etoile. There's also an airy four-star restaurant, where I sat out on the terrace and tried all six sparklers while enjoying a platter of fresh Vancouver oysters, the sine qua non of sparkling-wine foils, and sweetbreads in a silky sauce that had a touch of foie gras. Other visitors were sampling wine on the patio and at a tasting bar overlooking the mountains. As I looked at the tiny, ascendant bubbles in my glass, I couldn't help linking them to the fortunes of all these California sparkling wines and to the mood of those sipping them.

James Conaway is a freelance writer and the author of Napa (Avon Books).

Published October 1999
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