This year's holiday edition Swirl celebrates a small, new trend in local sparkling wine. It's North Bay wine country's equivalent of the Champagne region's grower-produced bubbles. "Farmers fizz," for fun.
This year, we're raising a glass to the little guys. These are medium to small wineries whose main business is still table wines, many of them solely farmers and winemakers by trade, who've opted to punch up their tasting-room experience with a little bubbly. Easier desired than done. Most are only able to offer this thanks to a Hopland outfit called Rack and Riddle that specializes in turning their estate-grown grapes into twinkling starlight.
"The equipment to do this properly is so very expensive that I do not know any grower-producers that are doing all of this themselves," says Kathleen Inman, who made our second-ranked sparkling wine with their help. "Many make the base wines in their own facilities and bring them up to a custom crush for bottling, but quite frankly, the facility at Rack and Riddle is like a candy shop for a small winemaker."
What better way to celebrate the signal moments of the coming year than with sparkling wine that's truly one-of-a-kind?
As is our annual custom, members of the Bohemian staff assembled to taste, rate and heatedly debate a roster of locally produced sparkling wines. The idea is to get first impressions and preferences from casual wine consumers. Blind-tasted, listed in order of the group's averaged rating, and scored more generally from one to five stars.
Ramazzotti Wine NV North Coast Frizzante Brut ($35)
As soon as somebody said "cream soda," everyone else had to jump on the bandwagon. Tinted a light pink-bronze hue, our highest-rated sparkler has rich, nutty aromas of pecan pie and cream soda. It's fairly dry, filling the pie hole with a foamy wealth of light, creamy bubbles. Chardonnay from the grower's own Mariani Ranch in Dry Creek Valley contributes 75 percent of the blend, some North Coast Pinot Noir making up the balance. We're not the only fans; since we acquired our sample, this wine has already sold out. Happily, the next release is scheduled for the very beginning of 2013. ★★★★½
Inman Family Wines 2009 'Endless Crush' Brut Rosé Nature ($68)
Long before it was revealed to have been created by Kathleen Inman to celebrate the Inman's 25th wedding anniversary, mind you, the women among our group were unanimous in their appraisal: it's a "feel-good," perfect "wedding wine" that's just "lovely." Take note, romantics. It's a pretty light, pink rose hue, with essence of cherry flavor and cranberry-cherry-muffin aroma, and a very active mousse. No dosage added, but the tart, clean finish feels balanced. The fruit is estate-grown on Olivet Road; 138 cases produced. ★★★★½
River Road Family Vineyards NV Russian River Valley Brut ($18.99)
Widely considered the most likely to fit "Champagne" expectations, this lean brut has austere, floral aromas. Impressions ranged from "cotton candy" to "traditional, stately," "white carnation" and "unripe pear." Flavor trends toward dry pear cider, and the finish is clean, fresh. Little wonder: the tasting notes date this NV brut to 2011, bottled late March 2012. River Road, which has been quietly making competitively priced Russian River Valley wine for decades, was purchased in 2011 by Republic of Tea owner Ron Rubin; 408 cases. ★★★★
Ram's Gate Winery NV North Coast Brut ($30)
Light gold color; sweet tarts, pear cotlet aromas; Gravenstein apple flavor and a lean, foamy finish. Ram's Gate is laid out more like a resort hotel lounge than tasting room, complete with fireplaces roaring in midday and sweeping views. The menu is oriented to small-plate food pairings, so it's easy to see why a house sparkling is a wise addition to their program. Forty percent estate-grown Pinot Noir; 499 cases produced.★★★★
Harvest Moon Estate 2009 Russian River Valley Sparkling Gewürztraminer ($38)
A unique, bone-dry méthode champenoise Gewürz that highlights the difference in aroma perception between individuals. Where some found fresh pine needles and sweet gardenia, others insisted on vanilla and marzipan. The creamy, nutty flavor of marzipan and orgeat, however, was both unmistakable and widely praised as remarkable. Visitors will see these old vines flanking the driveway to this industrious little family winery. Sorry, this just sold out, too; instead, check out their just-released Sparkling Pinot ($36) rosé that didn't make it into our tasting. ★★★★
Hagafen Cellars 2007 Napa Valley Brut, late disgorged ($42)
Good for an expanded roster of holidays and celebrations throughout the new year, this sparkling wine is certified kosher. Light tint of salmon-pink, with rosewater, faint raspberry aroma; the austere, raspberry beer flavor is offset by a full, creamy mousse. A crowd-pleasing bubbly. Four hundred cases. ★★★★
Hagafen Cellars 2007 Prix Napa Valley Brut ($60)
Also light, salmon pink, with strawberry and cream, pie crust aromas. Pleasant and approachable, with medium-vigorous bubbles and a dry, lingering finish. Also kosher. Ninety-two cases. ★★★½
Frank Family Vineyards 2008 Blanc de Noirs ($45)
Watermelon candy, maybe peach flavors, with brisk bubbles and scoury acidity on a steely, chalky finish. Frank Family is a Napa Valley favorite, in part because a glass of this welcomes visitors when they walk through the door. They get to call it "Napa Valley Champagne" because Hanns Kornell's efforts on this same site grandfathered in the term. ★★★½
Cline Cellars 2011 Nancy's Cuvée Sonoma Coast ($23)
Light copper color, aromas of sour beer and something "eggy." Retasted, the Cuvée did not recover from its slightly off, sulfury aroma, bitter palate and timid effervescence. One bottle tasted. ★★½
Frank Family Vineyards NV Rouge ($45)
A sparkling red wine, mostly Pinot Noir, with a dark but translucent color and a sort of Beaujolais nouveau aroma of light, new wine. This style has been done to good effect, but our tasters felt there was something lurid in the combination of smoky, meaty flavors and effervescence, and it did not win anyone over. ★★