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What makes a sparkler a standout? Experience and imagination.

That's according to Steven Urberg, Winemaker of Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards.

"Around November and December, our winemaking team sits down with approximately 60 individual wine lots which we use as our blending palette to craft eight different sparkling wines, including the blanc de noirs," Urberg said. "Base wines are very different from the finished sparkling wines they will eventually become, so I must rely on experience and imagination. While it's always a great undertaking, it's immensely rewarding to taste the final product."

Urberg is the winemaker behind our wine of the week winner — the Gloria Ferrer N.V. Carneros Blanc de Noirs, with its budget-wise price of $22.

It's a festive blanc de noirs with lively fruit flavors of strawberry and cherry, and notes of cola and vanilla. The bubbly has a nice mousse, a long finish and it's buoyed by bright acidity, making it a great match with food.

"Sparkling wine with its crisp acidity and light dosage makes it the most outstanding food-friendly wine," Urberg said. "Its crisp acidity is a great palate cleanser, allowing it to stand up to salty foods and creamy sauces."

Urberg studied chemistry in graduate school at UC Berkeley, and Wine Country beckoned. He helped with the harvest at Sonoma's Gloria Ferrer winery in 1996 and returned in 2001 as full-time member of the winemaking team.

"After working briefly in the cellar at Napa Valley's Hess Collection, I never looked back," Urberg said. "I returned to graduate school at UC Davis and decided to pursue my new passion of winemaking. ...I've always had a taste for fizz and crisp wines. After my internship working harvest at Gloria Ferrer, I was hooked, and when the opportunity arose years later, I took the opportunity to get back into sparkling."

<em>Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.</em>

<strong>Wine of the Week: Scouting for the tastiest sparklers $35 and under</strong>

Wine writer Peg Melnik had a blind tasting this week of California sparklers. Tis the season to uncork bubbly, so she searched out the best and the brightest. It was an impressive flight across the board, and our wine-of-the-week winner is the Gloria Ferrer N.V. Carneros Blanc de Noirs, with its budget-wise price of $22.

<strong>TOP PICK: Gloria Ferrer</strong>

<strong> Gloria Ferrer N.V. Carneros Blanc de Noirs,</strong> 12.2 percent alcohol, $22 **** This is a festive blanc de noirs with bright and lively fruit flavors of strawberry and cherry, and notes of cola and vanilla. Nice mousse. Long finish.

<strong>Others worth mentioning:</strong>

<strong>Domaine Carneros, 2009 Estate Brut,</strong> 12 percent, $32. *** An elegant sparkler with depth. It's floral, with notes of grapefruit, lemon and yeast. It has a creamy texture and nice length. Lovely.

<strong>Chandon NV California Brut Classic,</strong> 13 percent, $22. **** A crowd pleaser, but it doesn't have as much depth as the other contenders. That said, the creamy texture and the flavors are appealing. It's a bit toasty, with a hint of white chocolate and vanilla on the finish.

<strong>J Cuvee 20 Brut, Sonoma County,</strong> 12.5 percent, $28. **** A tasty sparkler with aromas and flavors of hazelnut, pear and lemon. Crisp acid. Citrusy finish. Impressive.

<strong>Korbel California Champagne, N.V. Brut,</strong> 12 percent, $14. *** 1/2 An appealing, bright bubbly with notes of pear and citrus Buoyed by good acidity and finishes crisp. A good value for the price.