Drinking sparkling wine is a year-long ritual for many, yet some save it for end-of-year holidays, most obviously on New Year’s Eve. The time to sip and shop is now, and the choices of Sonoma-made bubbly are many.
Three decades ago, a handful of Sonoma County wineries mastered the time-consuming techniques for making sparklers that mirror the quality and depth of true Champagne, which relies on chardonnay and pinot noir for the base wines and a secondary fermentation in the bottle, called méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle.
In the 1980s, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards & Winery and Piper Sonoma joined Korbel Champagne Cellars (established 100 years earlier) as power players in the local sparkling wine scene, turning sunny California fruit into wines with brioche and toasty aromas and flavors, a fine bead of tiny bubbles and crackling acidity.
More recently, wines made with less-intensive methods, and/or using nontraditional grape varieties, have burst upon the scene. There are pétillant naturels, or pét-nats, which are bottled while still undergoing a first fermentation and closed with a crown cap instead of a cork. The French call this process méthode ancestral, with the yeast staying in contact with the wine until the cap is removed. Out gushes a fruity, slightly creamy and easy-to-drink sparkler that lacks the complexity of Champagne-like wines yet is crowd-pleasing for its simplicity.
Some wineries apply the charmat method to carbonate their wines in large steel tanks, adding carbon dioxide to create the bubbles. Like pét-nats, these wines are all about the fruit; they are non-fussy yet satisfying, ready to enjoy soon after bottling and typically cost half as much as méthode traditionnelle sparkling wines. Zinfandel, syrah, malbec, sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer are showing up in Sonoma-produced bubblies, thus expanding the aromas and flavors beyond the more traditional chardonnay and pinot noir.
For holiday-time fizz tasting and bubbly bottle purchases, try these Sonoma wineries. (Click through the above gallery to see the tasting rooms.)
Amista owners Mike and Vicky Farrow had their hearts set on producing sparkling wine when they bought what is now called Morningsong Vineyards in 1999. They added syrah to the chardonnay vines, purchased cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel grapes from others and released their first wines in 2005. Three years later, they launched their sparkling syrah, a relatively bold move in Sonoma yet a long-established tradition in Australia. So besotted with sparkling wines were the Farrows that they created the Amista Sparkling Friends wine club in 2014. Winemaker Ashley Herzberg bottles a wide array of méthode traditionnelle wines for this Dry Creek Valley winery, in addition to still (table) wines. The reserve tasting experience ($40) includes sparkling and still wines.
3320 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-431-9200, amistavineyards.com
Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services co-founder Rebecca Faust and her sisters, Cynthia Faust and Sharon Cohn, created Breathless Wines to honor their mother, Martha Jane Faust, who died of a rare respiratory condition — but not before teaching her daughters the joy of each breath taken. Unofficial fourth sister, Penny Gadd-Coster, is their winemaker, and her méthode traditionnelle sparklers are fresh and lively, with three new wines introduced in 2021: two single-vineyard blancs de noir from the Robledo Vineyard in Sonoma and a blanc de blancs from the McMinn Vineyard in Russian River Valley. Guests can choose from three different wine flights ($20) and add cheese and charcuterie boxes and caviar for additional costs.
499 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, 707-395-7300, breathlesswines.com
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards
Spain’s Ferrer family came to Sonoma in 1982 and established the first sparkling wine house in Carneros, in 1986. The parent company, Freixenet, was acquired by Henkell and Co. in 2018, although fine fizz continues to flow from this pioneering producer. The “Gloria” nonvintage brut, blanc de noirs and brut rosé are relatively easy to find (and good values at around $22). But head to the tasting room for the more complex, aged Royal Cuvée Brut Late Disgorged Carneros, Anniversary Cuvée and Carneros Cuvée Late Disgorged Brut, Gloria Ferrer’s top-end wines. The Classic Carneros Experience ($34-$45) features four wines, which can also include still chardonnay and pinot noir. Or splurge on the Culinary Wine Pairing ($68-$85) – a multi-course food and wine matching meal available Friday through Sunday.
23555 Highway 121, Sonoma, 707-933-1917, gloriaferrer.com
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery
Randy Pitts’ family has grown wine grapes in the Russian River Valley since 1976. In 2000, he assumed the farming responsibilities at the 9-acre ranch and began making zinfandel from the ranch. Pitts’ sparkling wine program began in 2003 with gewürztraminer, the lone white grape grown on the estate. Over the next decade, he added small lots of sparkling pinot noir rosé, chardonnay, zinfandel and gewürztraminer. Nearly all the grapes are grown on the estate on Olivet Road, where the tasting room is located. The bubbles are poured on weekends, along with still wines, in six-wine flights ($30).
2198 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 707-573-8711, harvestmoonwinery.com
Iron Horse Vineyards
The tasting room at this Sebastopol sparkling wine superstar has an east-facing view of its vineyards, the Mayacamas mountain range and Mt. St. Helena. Fog seeps into this Green Valley of Russian River Valley site morning and evening, refreshing the grapes, yet the days can be gloriously sunny for sipping Champagne-quality bubblies and taking in the visuals. As outstanding as the Sterling family’s sparkling wines are – and there are more than a dozen of them, some with charity fundraising ties – tastings ($30) are reasonably priced and outdoors, casual and non-fussy, and staged in front of a redwood barn-style building. Spitting sampled wines down the hill is not only OK, it’s encouraged for those driving, although it’s so very difficult to not swallow these elegant, refined wines. Seated tastings in a gazebo are also offered ($50).
9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol, 707-887-1507, ironhorsevineyards.com
J Vineyards & Winery
Judy Jordan and her father, Tom Jordan of Jordan Winery, founded J Wine Co. in 1986 for the express purpose of producing Champagne-style wines. Judy later took over the business and with her then-winemaker, Oded Shakked, vaulted J to the top tier of U.S. sparkling wine houses. E. & J. Gallo purchased J in 2015 and has continued to offer stylish wines and a fine visitor experience, with an emphasis on wine and food pairings. The J Bubble Room’s five-course tasting menu, matched with Nicole Hitchcock’s winery-only and older-vintage wines, is not to be missed ($150). The Legacy Tasting ($35) offers a five-wine, all-sparkler flight, and one of a mix of sparkling and still wines; add cheeses for an extra $15. The standup, Signature Bar Tasting ($25) is an affordable way to start. The Cuvee XB Extra Brut, not available in stores, is arguably J’s most food-friendly sparkler, dry and bracing.
11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 888-594-6326, jwine.com
Korbel Champagne Cellars
This is the oldest continually operating sparkling wine house in North America, established in 1882. That history gives Korbel the legal right to use the term “California Champagne” on its labels, even though the wines are not from Champagne, France. They’re produced in Guerneville, from grapes sourced from Sonoma and throughout California. The brut, rosé, blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs sparklers are ubiquitous in supermarkets, yet visits to the winery are still recommended. Not only does the staff pour winery-only reserve bubbles and still wines, the three-wine Market Tasting is complimentary, and the all-bubbles flight is just $15 for five wines. Sip a sense of history at Korbel.
13250 River Road, Guerneville, 707-824-7316, korbel.com
La Prenda Wines
Ned Hill, proprietor of La Prenda Vineyard Management, farms multiple sites within Sonoma Valley. A few years ago, he began producing wines from his clients’ grapes and selling them under the Sonoma Collection and La Prenda labels. In 2021, Ned and his wife, Erika, opened a tasting room in Sonoma, where their Sonoma Coast Brut Rosé, Carneros Pétillant-Naturel and Secco North Coast Brut are poured and sold, along with a wide range of still wines. Five-wine flights are $20.
535 First Street West, Sonoma, 707-938-7228, laprendawine.com
Fizz runs through the veins of Longboard owner and winemaker Oded Shakked. A former sparkling winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery, he founded his own business in 1998. While syrah, malbec, pinot noir, rosé and sauvignon blanc are foundation wines at Longboard, Shakked’s love of bubbles is evident in his Healdsburg tasting room (the Surf Lounge). There, methode traditionnelle brut, brut rosé and a scintillating Brut Z are likely to be poured for those seeking sensational sparklers. Tastings are just $20, and the fee is refundable when two or more bottles are purchased. Cheese and charcuterie items are available for purchase. The tasting room will be closed Dec. 24-Jan. 6 for vacation and renovation.
5 Fitch Street, Healdsburg, 707-433-3473, longboardvineyards.com