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California Doesn’t Do Champagne

After decades of emulating French tradition, the state has forged a new, improvisational approach to the category. It’s now home to some of the most innovative sparkling wines anywhere.

Ever since 1892, when Burgundy expat Paul Masson released his first “California Champagne,” the prospect of producing bubbly wine in the state has entailed one thing: imitation of the French original.

That’s true of homegrown efforts from Calistoga’s Schramsberg Vineyards, which has been crafting Champagne-styled wines in the traditional method since 1965. And it’s overwhelmingly true of the major sparkling wine houses like Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon and Roederer Estate, which were founded in the 1970s and ’80s by actual Champagne companies. If these classics have been reliable from the start, it’s because they’ve faithfully followed the same grand marque (or “big brand”) model first perfected in France.

By sourcing grapes from across the state and blending multiple vintages to achieve a consistent house style, the strategy is to make a reliable product over one that might reflect place. But at a time when sparkling wine is being reconsidered globally, not as a style of wine, but as just another way to express a wine’s origins, it has often felt like California’s takes missed the memo, reflecting a status quo that even Champagne itself has since outgrown.

That is, until now. From a recent spate of site-specific bottlings inspired by Champagne’s “grower” revolution to a new crop of innovative and unorthodox pét-nat, the current generation of Golden State talent is raising a long overdue question: What would it take to create a uniquely Californian sparkling wine idiom that reflects the full depth and diversity of what California is today?

The first signs of this shift surfaced in 2014, when a single bottle rode a viral wave of acclaim to instant cult status. On paper, Michael Cruse’s Ultramarine project, which the former chemistry major operates out of his custom-built warehouse in Petaluma, might read like a modern update to California’s decades-old crush on Champagne. To that end, Cruse acknowledges the extent to which his approach has been shaped by his visits with revered growers like Jérôme Prévost, Marie-Noëlle Ledru and Alexandre Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet. “That was the thought experiment,” Cruse explains. “The idea with Ultramarine was to take this grab bag of techniques from the growers—maybe a little bit of Prévost, and a bit of Ledru or Chartogne—and adopt them in California to see what we’d get.”

It’s true that much of the initial hype surrounding Ultramarine fed off this “California-goes-grower” backstory. Like his favorite Champagnes, the wines Cruse makes under his Ultramarine label are sourced from single vineyards, fermented with ambient yeasts, vintage-dated and bottled with the addition of little, if any, dosage (added sugar). But the ultimate lesson that Cruse—along with handful of peers, including Sonoma’s Under The Wire project, Berkeley’s Blue Ox Wine Co. and Wenzlau in the Santa Rita Hills—learned from his French counterparts transcends mere imitation.

Sure, they might take certain cues from their French heroes, such as decreasing dosage levels (too much sugar, the thinking goes, risks obscuring place), bottling at lower pressures (according to some, less aggressive carbonation better highlights a wine’s underlying character) and generally following a minimally invasive agenda (insofar as that’s possible with the technically demanding Champagne method). But each of these decisions serves the same purpose: determining what, exactly, their dirt has to say. Rather than treat California as a Champagne surrogate, they’re taking the grower revolution’s main premise and applying it to their own backyards.

“If you’re looking at [the famed Aube-based grower Cédric] Bouchard and all those important guys, what defines them is that they’re trying to maximize vineyard character, rather than trying to emphasize house character,” says Morgan Twain-Peterson of Under The Wire, which first released a lineup of single-vineyard, single-vintage sparkling wines in 2014. “We’re trying to thread that same needle through the California lens.”

It’s the unregulated sense of possibility and improvisation that is perhaps the defining feature of California’s new perspective on sparkling wine.

That’s all the more evident as winemakers increasingly gravitate toward cooler, marginal growing areas that, in their view, offer the promise of more balanced, terroir-driven wines. That mission is what drove Twain-Peterson to remote sites like the Brosseau Vineyard in the Monterey appellation of Chalone, planted 1,800 feet above sea level, as well as the foggy, wind-swept Hirsch Vineyard in the far Sonoma Coast, a renowned source of intensely minerally pinot noir. It’s also what accounts for the chiseled purity and salinity of Wenzlau Vineyard’s L’Inconnu, from the family estate’s Wente Block parcel located six miles from the Pacific. And it’s what Blue Ox Wine Co.’s Joshua Hammerling has in mind when he describes the “tortured chardonnay” from the Manchester Ridge Vineyard, perched 2,000 feet up in the mountains of Mendocino, that provides what he calls the “mineral-driven, oyster-shell quality” of his Let’s Get Lost Blanc de Blancs.

As portraits of their respective sites, many of which have never been rendered in fizzy form, these wines offer a fresh perspective on California’s potential. “The idea is to push the envelope as much as possible in terms of making the kinds of wines that haven’t been seen before,” says Hammerling.

Unlike the Champenois, who are forced to operate within a strict set of regional guidelines, California’s producers have far greater license to experiment. In many cases, they’re not even sticking to the classic Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle, and are instead relying on the “ancestral method,” which involves bottling the wine before the primary fermentation is complete. Though it has existed for centuries, this method has given birth to a category—pétillant naturel, or pét-nat—that has become the wine trend du jour. Anyone who has thrown back a crown-capped bottle of the stuff knows that the wines aren’t often crafted for contemplation, and that’s part of the allure. But many of California’s producers are challenging that notion, both in theory and practice.

Consider Scar of the Sea’s Solera Methode Ancestrale chardonnay from the celebrated Bien Nacido Vineyard, a postmodern reinvention of the category that aspires to be something like the ancestral method’s answer to nonvintage Champagne. By combining the current vintage in the middle of fermentation with a percentage of multivintage reserve wine that’s been aged, like sherry, in a solera system of fractional blending, winemaker Mikey Giugni achieves layers of savory nuance that present the style in a whole new light.

“The idea is to build complexity, oxidation and weight from the solera portion of the blend, while the young wine brings the bubbles, energy and freshness,” he explains.

As a radical riff on the genre, the result is unlike any other pét-nat in the market today, French, domestic or anywhere else. And yet there’s something thrillingly contemporary and undeniably Californian in the way the technique speaks to Bien Nacido’s maritime influence, amplifying a pungent salinity that, despite plenty of marketing spin to the contrary, isn’t always apparent in other versions of the site.

Along similar lines, few have worked harder to elevate the ancestral method than Cruse, who brings the same rigor that informs Ultramarine to the range of affordable table wines he crafts under his Cruse Wine Co. label. In addition to Tradition, a Champagne-method sparkler blended from three separate cool-climate vineyards, the Cruse lineup contains a handful of pét-nats that reflect a discipline seldom associated with the technique.

Whereas classic pét-nat trades upon the “natural” part of its name, telegraphing a rusticity via cloudiness and funk, Cruse is one of a growing number of producers, including Scar of the Sea and Blue Ox, who disgorge their pét-nats, removing the deposit of yeast that has come to be seen as the style’s calling card. To him, the choice offers a way “to examine a site with greater purity,” while also challenging the conventional wisdom that has maintained the superiority of the Champagne method.

“My goal is to remove some of the differences between pét-nat and the traditional method, so that you can examine the two approaches side by side,” he explains. “One isn’t better than the other, it’s just a question of matching the right technique to the right site.”

In 2018, for example, he made a pét-nat of valdiguié, one of those long-lost California grapes that’s now making a comeback, from Napa’s Rancho Chimiles vineyard, a site Cruse has been working with since 2013. Last year, however, responding to his sense of the vintage, he opted to make a traditional-method version instead. Both wines speak to the truth of that place, he insists, just in different ways.

It’s the unregulated sense of possibility and improvisation that is perhaps the defining feature of California’s new perspective on sparkling wine. Given the variety of expressions on display, with their freestyling mix of styles, grapes and growing regions, there’s not one paradigm to be discovered, but several. After decades of comparisons to somewhere so far away, it’s all part of figuring out what “here” is supposed to taste like.

Cruse Wine Co. Tradition Sparkling Wine

Ultramarine might get all the hype, but Michael Cruse’s work under the Cruse Wine Co. label is just as essential, providing a more affordable entry point into his vision for California. A chardonnay-dominant blend from the Rorick Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, Rita’s Crown Vineyard in Santa Barbara and Mendocino’s Alder Springs Vineyard, his aptly-named Tradition bottling, made in the traditional method, presents a bigger picture view of what California looks like in bubbly form: all ripe yellow apples and lemon rind, with a savory nuttiness and a soft but persistent wash of bubbles.

  • Price: $52
  • Vintage: NV

Blue Ox Wine Co. Sunflower Sutra California Sparkling Wine

Among the most promising members of California’s sparkling renaissance, Blue Ox makes a range of single-vineyard wines that act as snapshots of one particular place. The idea for their “Sunflower Sutra” bottling, however, involves sourcing the traditional Champagne grapes (pinot meunier, pinot noir and chardonnay) from a handful of organic and dry-farmed vineyards, then channeling them into a California-wide remix of classic blended Champagne. Twelve months of pre-disgorgement bottle-aging lends this a bit of backbone, but it’s all about bright, sunny fruit, plus a wild herbal streak (think marjoram and eucalyptus) that you’d never mistake as coming from northeastern France.

  • Price: $39
  • Vintage: 2018

Wenzlau Vineyard L’Inconnu Blanc de Blancs

It was none other than their friend Cédric Bouchard, the high priest of the grower movement, who, upon tasting chardonnay grapes from Cindy and Bill Wenzlau’s organically farmed family vineyard, recognized the site’s potential for exceptional sparkling wine. That initial suggestion has since given birth to one of California’s most impressive traditional-method wines, grown just seven miles from the Pacific. “We wanted to showcase the cold, the fog, and the silty, chalky soils that are the foundation of the vineyard,” Cindy Wenzlau says, but there’s a rich waxy depth to this as well, thanks to extensive aging on its lees.

  • Price: $60
  • Vintage: 2013

Under The Wire Bedrock Vineyard Old Vine Sparkling Zinfandel

Under The Wire’s take on Morgan Twain-Peterson’s Bedrock site (planted in the 1880s) exposes a more delicate side of old-vine Sonoma zin, in the form of sparkling rosé. “The Bedrock Vineyard is always tinged by this slightly citrusy orange character,” Twain-Peterson says. “But if that quality in the still version is more like Cointreau, in the sparkling it’s all pulled back, like pure orange blossom.”

  • Price: $69
  • Vintage: 2016

Scar of the Sea Solera Methode Ancestrale Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay

According to winemaker Mikey Giugni, Scar of the Sea’s genre-bending ancestral-method expression from the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley pays homage to Bérêche’s Reflet d’Antan bottling, a nonvintage Champagne that’s produced through a similar process of solera aging. In a radical departure from standard pét-nat protocol, over half of the base material for this wine comprises a mix of vintages dating back to 2014. With its intense savoriness and umami-like complexity, it cracks the category wide open.

  • Price: $38
  • Vintage: NV

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