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Bubbles Rising: Sparkling Trend in Santa Barbara?

An increasing number of excellent Santa Barbara area producers are trying their hand at creating delicious sparkling wines.
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L to R: Riverbank's Clarissa Nagy; Don Schroeder of Sea Smoke; Dave Potter, Municipal Winemakers; Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz; Brewer-Clifton's Greg Brewer; Blakeney Sanford

One thing I've learned from several trips to Santa Barbara County over the past year is that there's tremendous potential for making sparkling wines here. The exciting news is that an increasing number of excellent Santa Barbara area producers are trying their hand at creating delicious sparkling wines.

Like the great sparkling wine region of Champagne in France, Santa Barbara is blessed not only with a high proportion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plantings -- two of the three primary grapes used to make Champagne -- but also with cool climate sub-regions like Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley that have long, cool growing seasons, producing grapes that reach ripeness while retaining high levels of acidity.

There is, of course, a tremendous amount of extra work and time involved in making sparkling wine in a traditional style, with secondary fermentation in the bottle, as practiced in Champagne. This significantly raises the costs of making this kind of wine. It's therefore tough to sell these wines for less than about $40 and even begin to break even.

I asked Santa Barbara-based wine publicist extraordinaire Sao Anash if she might organize a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines for me. I wanted to find out both what was motivating winemakers there to try making these wines, and to learn what techniques they were using.

So this past Friday, I braved California's first massive rainfall in many months to zip down to Santa Barbara for a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines hosted by Sonja Magdevski at her Casa Dumetz tasting room in Los Alamos. On hand were Brewer-Clifton's Greg Brewer, Sea Smoke's Don Schroeder, Clarissa Nagy of Riverbench, Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers, and Blakeney Sanford, representing her father, Richard Sanford, of Alma Rosa and formerly of Sanford.

The first to make sparkling wine commercially from Santa Barbara fruit was Byron, with a 1992 Brut Reserve. Richard Sanford then made a 1994 Brut Rosé.

We tasted this 1994 Sanford bottling last Friday. Blakeney told us it was the only sparkling wine Richard Sanford ever made. It was mature, with wonderful buttery texture, good acidity and a long finish. Blakeney reported that Alma Rosa -- Richard Sanford's current winery, where Blakeney has begun working with her father--has started to make sparkling wines, both from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Fess Parker's two vintages of Blanc de Blancs made in 1996 and 1997 appear to be the next historical Santa Barbara sparkling wines. Other Santa Barbara producers followed, with one or more bottlings, including Kalyra, Cottonwood Canyon, Lucas & Lewellen and Oreana.

Norm Yost at Flying Goat produced that label's first sparkling rosé in 2005, followed by a Blanc de Blancs in 2008. Clos Pepe began making small amounts of Brut Rosé with the 2007 vintage, in conjunction with the sparkling wines Norm Yost was making from Clos Pepe fruit.

I sampled the latest 2011 Clos Pepe Brut Rosé when I visited Wes Hagen at Clos Pepe last December. It was quite good -- one of the best Santa Barbara sparklers I've tasted to date.

Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers, is a talented and resourceful winemaker who got his degree in oenology and viticulture in Australia.

Inspired by some of the ageworthy sparkling Shirazes he sampled in there, Dave has made several vintages of sparkling Shiraz, which he calls "Fizz," starting in 2007. He shared a bottle from that vintage with us last Friday that was complex and impressive. He also shared a sample of his 2012 Municipal Winemakers Blanc de Blancs, which will be disgorged this summer for a fall release.

This is a delicious, focused sparkler with exceptional precision and a long finish.

In 2008, Sea Smoke started making sparkling wine, a Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir, called Sea Spray. The 2011 is elegant, with a sense of minerality and chalk. For the 2013, Don told us all the work, including riddling and disgorgement, is being done in house at Sea Smoke.

Riverbench got into the sparkling wine business in 2008. Riverbench winemaker Clarissa Nagy reports they are making about 900 cases of sparkling wines from the 2013 vintage. The 2010 Blanc de Noirs was quite good, with complexity and a saline note.

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton, who drink a lot of Champagne and sparkling wine according to Greg, made their first sparkling wine -- a Blanc de Blancs -- in 2010.

They produced 220 cases of Blanc de Blancs in 2011, and hope to grow production to 300 cases in future vintages. They do all the work -- hand riddling, hand corking, hand cranking the cage, hand disgorging -- in house.

We sampled both the 2011 and 2010. The 2010 was hugely impressive -- definitely the best Santa Barbara sparkler I have tried to date, and one of the greatest domestic sparkling wines I've ever sampled.

The final sparkler we got to try at last Friday's comparative tasting was the 2012 edition of the Casa Dumetz Sonja's Suds, a sparkling Syrah rosé. Sonja Magdevski created the original version of this wine with the 2010 vintage.

Other red sparkling wines reportedly produced from non-traditional sparkling varieties in Santa Barbara to date include Blair Fox's "Foxy Bubbles," made from Grenache; and Palmina's sparkling Nebbiolo.

Because the wines mentioned above are made in such small quantities, there is, unfortunately, relatively little on the market at the moment. Nonetheless, Brewer-Clifton's 2011 edition is available from the winery for $68. Riverbench's 2010 Blanc de Noirs can be purchased from the winery for $45.

Flying Goat's Goat Bubbles are available from the winery and several outlets that specialize in Santa Barbara area wines for $40 or less. And a number of outlets around the country are offering Sea Smoke's 2011 Sea Spray at an average price of $94.

Since Santa Barbara has the grapes, acidity and talent to make terrific sparkling wines, I hope we'll continue to see more bubbles from this region in the coming years.

For tasting notes on the sparkling wines from Santa Barbara that I've sampled to date, see the complete version of this report on my blog here.