Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary

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No-Guilt Wine Grapes: Thank You, Cesar Chavez!

He’s a modern-day hero now, with schools, bridges, libraries, parks and roads named after him. But back in the ’60s and ’70s, California’s agricultural oligarchy was hardly enamored of human rights activist César Chávez. That was especially true of grape growers, targets of the 5-year boycott that made Chávez famous.

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[Photo of Chavez with a sign encouraging farm workers to “Huelga” – “Strike” – courtesy of Jay Galvin, Flickr/Creative Commons]

Ironically, although he spent his adult years trying to revolutionize the farming establishment, Chávez started life as one of them. Born in Yuma, Arizona this day in 1927, he spent his early years on the 100-acres-plus farm owned by his grandfather, Césario Chávez. But the family lost their farm in the Great Depression and went to California to labor in the fields as migrant workers.

After a wartime stint in the U.S. Navy, Chávez returned to the fields. He spent his spare hours reading and became a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of social change through non-violence. His world was ready to erupt: migrant workers often went unpaid, got no medical care or schooling in the barrios, worked all day without bathroom breaks and endured other conditions difficult to imagine in today’s first-world lifestyle.

So in his mid-30s, Chávez began the slow process of organizing farm workers for better living and working conditions, and several years later his National Farm Workers Association joined with the AFL-CIO in their strike against vineyards in Delano, California.

Chávez became the national poster boy for underserved Americans – especially those in rural communities, and especially Latinos. Public pressure and support for the boycott was so strong that most growers caved, signing agreements to upgrade conditions for field workers. Chávez became the first man ever to organize a farm workers’ union that resulted in signed contracts, and shortly after the grape boycott ended in 1970, he went after lettuce growers. It didn’t impact the industry as much as the grape protest, but that mattered little; American consumers had awakened.

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[Photo of Chávez, right, with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The woman to Kennedy’s right is Chavez’s wife, Helen. Courtesy of Korean Resource Center, Flickr/Creative Commons]

One feature of Chávez’s non-violent protest tactic was fasting. In 1968, to prevent violence during the grape strike, he went on a hunger strike for 25 days. His fast was broken at an outdoor Mass attended by 4,000 supporters, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Chávez conducted several more hunger strikes during his organizing career, and in the end it likely killed him. He died in his sleep in 1993 after fasting for several days – but while not all everything he accomplished was permanent, the most important changes – guaranteed pay for migrant workers, a 70 percent wage increase from 1964 to 1980, health care, schooling and a formal grievance policy – did endure. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chávez’s wife, fellow activist Helen Chávez, and in 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama adopted Chávez’s mantra, “Si se puede”–“Yes, we can”–as his own campaign slogan.

And I still have my “Boycott Grapes” bumper sticker.

What should we pour, then, to honor César Chávez on his birthday? It has to be a California varietal, don’t you think? A nice Cab or Merlot is the obvious choice, but they do so well with Zinfandel, I think that’s what I’ll drink tonight. And if you feel like a splurge, try a Schramsberg bubbly. Finally, Chávez would approve.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Alto Adige = Italy’s northernmost wine region. Perched at the very top of the country, Alto Adige sits in the Italian Alps (known as the Dolomites) and borders Austria and Switzerland. When you visit, you’ll drink lively whites with plenty of minerality- Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc) – but you’ll find BigSexyReds here, too.

Cheers!

Mary