Big Trouble in the Bubble Room

Tasting a dozen sparkling wines from Sonoma Valley, we get quite drunk

On one recent Friday evening, a dozen sparkling wine producers from Sonoma Valley — about 11 more than we thought made sparkling wine in Sonoma — were untwisting cages, popping corks and pouring glasses of brut, rosé and blanc de blancs in a tent outside the Sonoma Lodge. The vintners and their wines corralled a french-fried potato station, which, served in paper cups and accompanied with any combination of sauce and seasonings you could imagine from cheese to chocolate to chipotle, made for a nice salty (and at times sweet and spicy) accompaniment to California bubbly. Also, there were actual bubbles. Like from a bubble machine.

Welcome, of course, to The Bubble Lounge.

If you have lived in Sonoma and only eaten at Sonoma restaurants your entire life, you could not be blamed for  thinking that Gloria Ferrer makes 99 percent of the world’s sparkling wine. The Spanish company is owned by Cava producer Freixnet and putting the wines in that context (rather than Champagne) will make you like them a lot more, by the way (important, if you live and eat in Sonoma). But in spite of its dominance on Sonoma Valley wine lists, Ferrer is not only not the largest producer of sparkling wine in the world, it is not even the only producer in Sonoma Valley. Obviously, we had to taste all 12 represented at Sonoma Valley’s annual VinOlivo Grand Tasting.

Most producers chose to go pretty classic varietal-wise, using some combination of chardonnay and pinot noir. But one of the producers we liked the most went a different direction indeed. Viansa winery’s “Scintillare” is made with the white Tuscan grape vernaccia, which gives it a distinct of-the-earth rather than of-the-fruit fruit flavor — more gravel and mineral than green apple. It was also incredibly lively. It felt like a good time.

The second wine we felt affection for was Robert Hunter’s 2001 “En Tirage.” With something like 10 years in the bottle with the lees (en tirage, get it?) the wine made us think dare we say it…we do: of Champagne. The richness that comes from yeast can be so much more complex than fruit richness and in this wine, that was certainly the case. Anyway, we liked it. But the vernaccia, I will admit, was better with the fries.

Speaking of, it was time for a fry refill. Thusly supplied, we headed to the corner where the young dandies of Envolve Winery were pouring a sweet and uninspired bottle of bubbles that tasted more of triage than tirage. Fortunately they were next to Breathless, whose pourers compensated for whatever was lacking in their wine by wearing flapper-era costumes! We really adored those brave ladies in their feathers and sequins and beads and their attempt to distract us from their wines, which were probably mediocre if only we could remember, totally worked. We loved them…and their wines, I guess.

Some of the most difficult wines to love across the board were wines that included any significant amount of pinot noir. The red-skinned grape can be quite… forest floor, as they say, which makes it lovable as a still wine but mushroom flavors in bubbly is downright strange. And if not pressed quickly and gently, pinot noir can contribute both color and tannin: awkward. The Larson Family rosé was downright pinot noir funk with an extra dose of horse hair. If you surprised your girlfriend with this wine for Valentine’s Day and paired it with some chocolate…oh man. We would like to see that actually. It was interesting, if nothing else. In a similar vein, the Schug 2009 Blanc de Noirs from Carneros incited the following notes from our tasting panel: WHAT THE FUCK?? Would maybe good as still wine. And, finally: This is bullshit. I don’t even want this in my mouth. Harsh! Also by this point we had tasted 10 wines and clearly not had enough cheese fries. (My not-so-eloquent companion was also finding it difficult to spit bubbles.)

The final two wines sent us out the door in better spirits. Bryter Estates “Le Stelle,” from the Sonoma Coast, was light, dry and refreshing and Buena Vista, well…Jasmine who poured it has a really nice smile, an effervescence to match the wine’s, and her sweater (sequined elbow patches!) was pretty awesome.