Skip to main content

American Sparkling Wine Is Set To Pop This Holiday Season

Forbes Magazine
November 30, 2016
By Brian Freeman

PDF | Link to Full Article

As Americans continue to become more comfortable enjoying sparkling wine not just on its own during cocktail hour, but as a normal part of their wine-drinking lives, the market for bubbly has grown substantially. According to the Wine Institute, sparkling wine and Champagne sales in the United States in 2015 reached 21.7 million 9-liter cases, up from 19.7 million in 2014, 18.4 million in 2013, and 17.6 million in 2012. The trend lines are clear: Americans are consuming an increasing amount of bubbly.

Interestingly, as is the case with so many categories of wine, once consumers begin to better understand the classic examples of a particular style—in this case, Champagne, which by law must come from the Champagne region of France and be grown and produced following a strict series of guidelines in order to use that name—they typically follow a relatively predictable path toward exploring and purchasing other examples of that style of wine from different parts of the world. This trend seems to have helped the American sparkling wine industry tremendously: On both restaurant wine lists and retail shelves, the selection of domestic sparklers is substantial, and appears to be growing. Producers, in turn, benefit from this: Sales numbers for sparkling wine at Sonoma-based Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards, for example, are up 5% for the year.

It’s not just the most famous producers of American sparkling wine that are benefiting from this increased respect for bubbly. Indeed, some of the country’s top producers of still wines, whose reputations have been built by their reds and whites, have seen their sparkling stock rise.

Victor Gallegos, VP, GM, and director of winemaking at Sea Smoke, which crafts highly sought-after Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills AVA of California, explained in an email that, “We are not experts in the domestic sparkling market, but it seems to have experienced the same SKU proliferation as the wine market in general. With more top wineries making great domestic sparkling wines, and with these wines getting more and more positive attention, I do believe there is a growing willingness and comfort level among consumers to explore beyond their normal sparkling choices.”

American sparkling wines are gaining in popularity and prestige. These bottles, at Frank Family Vineyards, are being riddled, or turned, in order to dislodge the spent yeast from the sides of the glass, a key part of the labor-intensive process of traditional-method production.

Consumers who are willing to give Sea Smoke sparkling wine a chance are rewarded with excellent bubbly. The Sea Smoke Sea Spray Blanc de Noirs L.D. 2012 ($80) is full of the kind of biscuit-like notes that traditional-method sparkling-wine devotees enjoy, with added freshness from tart red cherry, hard peach, and distinct minerality.

Gallegos added, “One of the things that makes sparkling wines from the Sta. Rita Hills so fantastic is the region’s ability to develop substantial flavors even at the low Brix levels needed for sparkling production. This is important because the resulting fruitiness of the wine provides balance on the palate, particularly in no-dosage sparkling wines like ours.”

Other producers in California are having similar success. Kathleen Inman, who’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley have justifiably earned her a devoted following, believes that the best sparklers reflect their sense of place just as well as still wines do. “I think that sparkling wines from the Russian River Valley, like mine, are unique and differentiated simply by being made from grapes in this region—just as Pinot from Burgundy is different from Pinot from Sonoma County,” she elaborated in an email. “I am using traditional methods used in Champagne, but even with the same techniques, the real differences will be the sense of place which comes from the grapes.” Her beautifully crafted Inman Family Wines Brut Rosé 2014 ($68) is crunchy with minerality and hard apple acidity, yet softened up perfectly by hints of strawberry jam, multi-grain toast, and a sense of earthiness.

Over in the Napa Valley, Frank Family Vineyards produces standout sparkling wine, too. This makes sense, as their winemaker, Todd Graff, has significant experience with the style. “When Frank Family Vineyards was founded in 1991, their focus was on Cabernet Sauvignon from their estate vineyard in Rutherford, but the Franks also continued to make a small amount of sparkling wine as an homage to the previous owner of the historic winery, Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars,” he noted in an email. “I joined the winery as winemaker in 2003, and had previous experience in sparkling wine—both in Europe and here in the Napa Valley at Schramsberg [one of the top sparkling-wine producers in the United States]. We’ve grown our sparkling program in a very grass-roots manner—making just enough for our tasting room and in turn creating our own following. We just released our Sparkling Brut Rosé bottling in California distribution this year.”
I recently tasted their fresh, perfectly yeasty Blanc de Blancs 2012 ($55), with its excellent sense of concentration and notes of honeysuckle and fresh-squeezed lemon, and the Lady Edythe Reserve 2010 ($110), a nutty, stunning bottling that nods in the direction of apple fritters, fresh Granny Smith apples, lemon-blossom honey, and fresh-baked bread, all carried on a texture both silky and rich. Both are more than worth seeking out.

The growth in popularity of American sparkling wines will likely mean that more producers will continue to get into the game. And while the investment is substantial— the traditional method of making these wines is time-consuming and labor-intensive—the rewards are often worth it, for both the producers and their customers. Frank Family’s Graff seems to believe that this is a good time to enter the game. “The market for domestic sparkling wine has always been cyclical,” he noted. “We saw a proliferation of domestic sparkling wine labels in the 1990’s, and today’s consumers also have an open mind for California sparkling wines, which I think has contributed to the recent
resurgence of sparkling wine producers in California.”

With quality as high as it is—producers like Gloria Ferrer, J Vineyards and Winery, Roederer, and more in California, Ponzi and Sokol Blosser among others in Oregon, Gruet in New Mexico, and countless others around the country—and a market growing ever more open to them, domestic sparkling wines are worth paying serious attention to. Many top producers certainly are, even if they’ve made their name with an entirely different sort of wine.