Food + Drinks

California's Best (Small-Batch) Sparkling Wines

In Champagne, France, millions of bottles of bubbly are produced by big wineries, called maisons (literally: houses that buy tons of juice and grapes from different vineyard owners and blend them for uniform taste). But some growers hold on to a few bunches to make their own sparklers—aptly called "growers' Champagnes"—and some of these have become tout le rage among American connoisseurs who know their bubbles. Now a few California wineries are making small-batch sparkling wines—let's call them boutique bubblies—that you can generally find only at the wineries themselves or in their online shops. Here are seven of the best out now—all single-vineyard, vintage-dated, and appropriately delicious and distinctive.


2008 Frank Family Napa Valley Blanc de Blancs ($45)
Tasting notes: Lemon-straw in color and classically made, the wine smooches you with big, crisp citrus flavors and some clearing bitters at the edges—think of it like lemon meringue without the sweetness. Ideal with dry-cured salmon and crème fraiche.

Side note: Owner Rich Frank was a media mogul in a past life, as president of the Paramount Television Group, a cofounder of the USA Network, president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for six years, and chairman of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications and syndication arm Buena Vista.

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2008 Sea Smoke "Sea Spray" Sta. Rita Hills Sparkling Wine ($80)
Tasting notes: A blanc de noir aged in the barrel, this straw-colored sparkling Pinot Noir has fruity aromas and flavors of lemons and wild strawberries, finished with a French kiss of fresh oak. Try it with a bowl of ripe strawberries and cherries or locally sourced cheeses.

Side note: It's from Santa Barbara's Santa Rita Hills, a newly developed region known for its morning fogs and classic clay soils.

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2007 Derby San Luis Obispo County Sparkling Pinot Noir ($54)
Tasting notes: Aromas of dried fruits carry over into the flavors—tart apricot, rich figs, mature oak—with a truckload of mineral notes at the finish. And somewhat tart. Take this one to the table with roasted or smoked fowl.

Side note: The vineyard is located in San Simeon next to the Hearst Estate. Perhaps they should have called the copper-colored wine "Rosebud."

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2010 Thomas George Russian River Valley Brut Rosé (about $55)
Tasting notes: Only 115 cases were made of this salmon-hued beauty, and it's more than just another pretty face. The wine has a mouth-filling mousse texture with a soft, creamy, fruity middle-body followed by a crisp, apricot finish. It's created on property once owned by Sonoma wine pioneer Davis Bynum. Lose the afternoon tea and drink this one with biscuits and sandwiches.

Side note: Visitors can book one of four guesthouses on the property, built in the 1920s and recently renovated with new hot tubs, pools, and barbecue grills.

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2009 Inman Family "Endless Crush" Russian River Brut Rosé Nature ($68)
Tasting notes: The color is beautiful apricot, the flavors suggest both tropical fruit and apples—with a quick, firm, mineral finish. No dosage (added sugar) was used to make this wine. Consider serving with creamy cheeses and a side of water biscuits.

Side note: The wine was created by the talented Kathleen Inman just for her hubby, to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and "endless crush."

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2009 Schug Carneros Rouge de Noir Brut ($30)
Tasting notes: "Rouge" is right; there's nothing pink about this robust sparkler. The color resembles a mouth-watering Manhattan. This is a big wine—dark, gamey, with marinated-fruit flavors and a crisp finish. Ideally paired with ham and other cold cuts.

Side note: It's the eponymous creation of legendary Walter Schug, who made California's first proprietary Bordeaux blend, "Insignia," for Joseph Phelps.

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2010 Clos Pepe Sta. Rita Hills Brut Rosé ($54)
Tasting notes: This brut is a tad gamey, with Pinot Noir-like aromas of cured deli meats. But it's balanced with a mineral underlay that carries yeasty, tart-fruit flavors and a long finish of crisp apple skins. Consider serving with succulent shrimp and oysters.

Side note: Steve and Cathy Pepe originally purchased the property in 1994, when it was still a 40-acre horse ranch.

—Roger Morris

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