Growing & Winemaking


Succeeding With Sparkling

February 2011
by Tim Patterson
sparkling wine
Like most larger sparkling wine producers, 10,000-case Rack & Riddle adopted a gyropalette rather than riddling by hand.
Sparkling wines are a great addition to almost any winery’s lineup of offerings for the tasting room, the wine club and beyond. But sparkling wine production is also a pain in the...

For most wineries, this last consideration is decisive. Sparkling wines—especially méthode Champenois wines—are labor-intensive, require climbing a considerable learning curve, involve a very different approach to tasting and blending, call for both new equipment (and probably new grape sources) and can spend three years aging before a single bottle is sold. For many, these are enough reasons to stay away, leave the bubbly stuff to the big boys, or perhaps get a very small amount custom-bottled with very little winery involvement other than writing checks.

But some hardy souls do make a go of it on the small-to-medium scale—including several wineries outside California, in places as scattered as New Mexico, Oregon, Florida, Michigan and the Finger Lakes. There’s a range of successful business models from sparkling-only to mixes of sparkling and table wines to custom-crush operations specializing in sparkling production. How these success stories came to be is worth a closer look.

Varied motivations
Rollin Soles, winemaker at Argyle Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which has been making both sparklers and still wines since the late 1980s, acknowledges a key motivation for him is that, “I love drinking sparkling wine. I love making it, I enjoy the heck out of it. It keeps me young.”

Argyle’s bet on high-quality sparkling wines also came in part from the still-emerging state of Willamette Valley grapegrowing at the time. While it was clear to Soles that this could be great territory for ripening grapes for sparkling production, the results weren’t all in yet for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay table wines—those came later with advances in viticulture. Argyle now turns out 12,000-14,000 cases of sparkling wines in the $30-$50 per bottle range, within an overall production of 45,000-50,000 cases annually.

Larry Mawby started growing grapes on southwestern Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula in 1973, making table wines in 1978, making sparkling wines in 1984, and converting to sparkling-only in 2000. Like Soles, he felt that the odds of getting grapes ripened properly for bubbly in his cool-climate region vintage after vintage were better than the odds for some table wine varieties. When he decided to go with an all-sparkler program, it meant junking 85% of his 2,000-case production at the time—a leap of faith that has turned out well, leading to today’s 8,000 cases of sparklers retailing for $19-$50 per 750ml bottle.

Dr. Konstantin Frank, a pioneer in Finger Lakes vinifera winemaking starting in 1962, apparently was not much of a fan of sparkling wines. According to his grandson Fred Frank, he was known to claim that Champagne got produced because the people in that region of France couldn’t make a decent table wine.

So when Dr. Frank’s son Willy, Fred’s father, decided to put his stamp on a project of his own, sparkling it was. The venture used a separate facility with a separate license and bottled under the name Chateau Frank. Today the 4,000-case premium sparkling production (mostly $20-$30) bubbles along happily next door to the 10-times-larger Vinifera Wine Cellars.

The Gruet and Himeur families earned their bubbly credentials in Champagne, and when son Laurent Gruet was ready to take on winemaking duties somewhere, the families drew a bead on the soils and climates of the mountains of New Mexico—near Truth or Consequences, honest—and moved there in 1987, releasing their first wines in 1989.

The price of land was right compared to both California and Champagne. Today this unlikely locale furnishes Gruet with grapes for 130,000 cases per year of sparklers priced between $14 and $50, plus a small amount of still table wines.

The South Coast Winery Resort and Spa in the Temecula Valley of Southern California opened in 2003. With its winemaking wrapped in a full-featured wine country tourist destination, the resort and restaurant naturally needed sparkling wine for visitors.

Winemakers Jon McPherson and Javier Flores started by having their base wines turned into Charmat-process sparklers by Weibel Family Vineyards in Mendocino, Calif., but South Coast’s owner, Jim Carter, decided they should make it themselves and increase production. So he popped for a $1 million facility that now turns out 10,000 cases of sparkling wine ($18-$28 per bottle) in an overall 50,000-case production.

Lake Ridge Winery in Clermont, Fla., wanted a sparkler for the tasting rooms at its two winemaking facilities, so the winemaker decided to put the local Muscadine grapes through the méthode Champenois process as a sideline. It now comprises about 2% of the winery’s overall 110,000-case production, and Lake Ridge can’t make enough of it. Attempting to spread the availability of the wine through the year, the winery tried raising the price, but winemaker Jeanne Burgess says that has only served to increase demand. The 1,600 cases are currently selling for $14 per bottle.

When industry veterans Bruce Lund¬quist and Rebecca Faust decided to launch a custom-crush facility in Mendocino County’s Hopland, Calif., they decided to put their experience with sparkling wine to work and offer it as a specialized service. The winery opened in 2007, and today 10 or so sparkling wine clients make up a little more than half of their business at Rack & Riddle, which offers a complete à la carte menu of options.

Grapes and winemaking
Everyone interviewed for this story emphasized that sparkling wine is different—not just because of the winemaking procedures but also due to grape sourcing. Growing or getting the right fruit, in the right condition, can be a major limiting factor for many wineries, depending on their location. “You can’t just divert bad, unripe grapes to a sparkling program,” Larry Mawby says. “You need to say, ‘We’re growing for that purpose, t hat’s all we’re doing.’”

Key members of the winemaking staff at New York’s Chateau Frank came there from California with solid experience in sparkling production. But they were surprised to discover, Fred Frank says, that in the cool-climate Finger Lakes, they no longer needed to make the substantial acid additions they were used to with California fruit.

Rollin Soles insists it’s the climate of the Willamette Valley that produces distinctive fruit and thus distinctive wines, resulting in a flavor profile different from anywhere else in the New World. Someday, he hopes, one of the major French Champagne houses will figure this out and shift their operations to Oregon, firmly putting the state on the map as a major world sparkling region.

As part of its vine-to-glass offerings, Rack & Riddle can help locate good grape sources within a winery’s AVA or geographical region; that way, those bubbly bottles in the tasting room are part of the same package as the winery’s still wine, not outliers from some unrelated area.

Most of these producers concentrate on the traditional varieties from Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, perhaps Pinot Meunier. But just as nearly every red grape on earth gets made into rosé somewhere, sparklers don’t have to be limited to those three grapes.

L. Mawby works with the usual suspects as well as with Pinot Gris, Vignoles, Seyval and Regent. Lake Ridge does Muscadine, as aromatic as grapes get. South Coast works with the traditional varieties, but also does sparkling Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Syrah. Chateau Frank does a sparkling Riesling.

In the cellar, unless your family comes from Champagne, there is bound to be a steep learning curve. It helps to navigate through all the trial and error if, like Rollin Soles, you “enjoy the heck out of it.” But the payoff Soles has noticed throughout the years is that the demands of cutting-edge sparkling winemaking have improved his white winemaking, and that in turn has improved his red winemaking.

“Sparkling wine is hugely more challenging than Pinot Noir,” Soles says. “Just one little milligram change in the dosage can utterly change the character of the wine.”

Because of the learning curve, a small sparkling wine program at a larger volume table wine producer can get overlooked. It’s possible to do both, as several of these wineries do, but it requires a lot of care and attention. Argyle is unusual in its making both still and sparkling from more or less the beginning; wineries more often start with one and then add the other (such as adding sparkling to the Frank family portfolio after two decades, or adding a small proportion of table wines to the expanding Gruet sparkling production.) Jeanne Burgess mentioned a conversation with a start-up blueberry wine producer in Georgia who was planning to begin with a sparkler; her advice was to get the still wine down first.

The technology and methods of sparkling winemaking on a small-to-medium scale are pretty much like those used by the big boys. The number of small, independent, grower-vintner producers in Champagne means that smaller-scale machinery is readily available—though sometimes without complete automation.

Jeanne Burgess says that over time they have found ways to economize on time and labor, including the use of encapsulated yeast, which basically eliminates the need for riddling.

In his years at Temecula’s Thornton Winery, Jon McPherson produced up to 40,000 cases per year of méthode Champenois sparklers. During that time he says he developed a “disdain” for tank/Charmat-fermented bubblies—an attitude he now thinks was based largely on naïveté and lack of knowledge.

When South Coast’s owner proposed doubling down on Charmat, McPherson and his crew started experimenting with what tanks could do, including everything from a year to 18 months of aging. The resulting wines not only sell well, they score well in competitions against Champenois sparklers. (L. Mawby also produces a mix of bottle- and tank-fermented wines.)

Marketing effervescence
If your goal is simply to sell some sparkling wine in your tasting room, that can be arranged rather simply: Have someone else make it, and add your labels. Many sparkling producers are willing to do custom work for other wineries. Rack & Riddle does a brisk business—10,000 cases—with its own in-house production bottled as “shiners” and snapped up by winery clients.

If your production is small enough, like Lake Ridge’s 1,600 cases, selling it at full retail through the tasting room and wine club should be straightforward. If, like South Coast, you have a restaurant-resort-spa complex on site, that can take care of half your 10,000 cases.

The L. Mawby winery gets 55% of its revenues from direct-to-consumer sales in the tasting room and through the web, but it also has distribution in eight other states. Under Michigan law, Mawby can be his own distributor in-state, a handy cost-cutter.

Chateau Frank, despite its separate building and licensing, was able to leverage the reputation of neighboring Vinifera Wine Cellars and still mainly sells through the tasting room, with some retail and interstate distribution.

But if the goal is a major national presence, more is needed. Since its founding, Gruet has expanded steadily, averaging 10% growth per year. An early break was finding an enthusiastic West Coast distributor, the Monterey Bay Wine Co., which saw the value/price potential in Gruet’s wines.

Another piece of good fortune came one day, as marketing head Sofian Himeur tells it, when Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm happened to be in the office of Michael Skurnik, a major East Coast distributor. Grahm spotted a bottle of Gruet bubbly Skurnik was ignoring (the New Mexico problem), told Skurnik he had to try this, and a fruitful relationship was born.

Now Gruet has distribution in 49 states—“and if anybody knows someone in North Dakota,” Himeur says, “let us know.”

For more than 20 years, Argyle has built up its market the old-fashioned way—sending out samples, winning over critics, getting restaurant placements, word of mouth. Even at this point, Soles admits that for a winery that aims high for both its still wines and its sparklers (and has gotten much recognition for both), the messaging can still be a little confusing.

The bottom line in the sparkling business, as everybody emphasized, is that the people involved have to have a passion for the stuff. The only advantage small producers have is their ability to pay more attention to their grapes and their wines—and being able to tell the story behind them. These producers are not trying to become the next Domaine Chandon or Mumm Napa; the model, frequently mentioned, is much more like the successful small-house Champagne grower-vintners.

Fred Frank had one more useful point, which transcends any particular business model. “Sparkling wine,” he says, “has to dispel the notion that it’s only for celebration. It deserves a place on the dinner table, especially at reasonable prices.”

Now if that idea caught on with wine consumers, a lot more wineries would figure out how to get into the business.
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