Hopland company assists winemakers who want to employ methode champenoise

In recent years, many of Wine Country's sparkling wine producers have branched out to test their mettle with still wines. It's an understandable temptation when, as in the case of J Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, you own some of the best pinot noir vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

Similar circumstances compelled Calistoga's Schramsberg Vineyards, which calls itself "America's First House of Sparkling Wine," to start making cabernet sauvignon, inspired by its soil-rich, Diamond Mountain location.

The moves made sense business-wise, too: Once you're set up for high-end, methode champenoise sparkling wine, with its need for secondary fermentation, disgorgement and all that riddling, it's not much of a stretch to make room for still wine.

But what of winemakers interested in moving in the other direction, from still to sparkling? The prospect of the huge investment required to retool an existing still-wine facility would stop most anyone cold, their hopes dissipated like so many spent bubbles in a glass.

Enter Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services, a facility in Hopland founded to help winemakers realize their methode champenoise dreams. Rack & Riddle serves some 20 California-based clients, who make anywhere from 100 cases to 100,000. Opened last year, it is the brainchild of partners Bruce Lundquist and Rebecca Faust. He is a veteran of J, she of Piper-Sonoma.

Their backgrounds speak to a dedication for making high-end sparklers using the method traditional to the Champagne region in France where fine bubbly was born. A lengthy, hands-on process using pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes, it involves very gentle handling, whereby a still wine is essentially fermented twice, first in a tank, then blended, cold-stabilized and bottled with yeast and sugar and fermented again.

"The character that comes with methode champenoise is definitely determined by how you handle the grapes in the primary fermentation and then how well you execute the second fermentation," explained Oded Shakked, Rack & Riddle's vice president of winemaking, who spent 18 years at J.

"The main thing is you try to make a lighter white wine out of both red and white grapes," he continued. "Gentle handling and not extracting too much out of the skins and the seeds of the grapes is super important. Otherwise, you get in trouble." The equipment it takes to make sparkling wine is thus very expensive and very specialized. So is the training.

"A lot of people have expertise to do still wines but are totally lost when it comes to making sparkling wine," said Shakked. "For us, making still wine is easy compared to making sparkling."

Rack & Riddle's services range from sourcing grapes to taking someone's already finished wine and turning it into a sparkler by riddling and disgorging it. Whatever the task, R&R is finding that there is a growing demand for well-made sparkling wine.

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