French Champagne makes inroads in Sonoma County

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At the release party for Sebastopol-based Claypool Cellars’ new Pachyderm wine this past December, guests were encouraged to wear powdered wigs and corsets, à la the Marie Antoinette and French king Louis XVI era.

As Jordan Winery gears up to debut its new Jordan Cuvée by AR Lenoble in May, the team is touting French winemaker Antoine Malassagne as much as its own Healdsburg winemaker, Rob Davis.

These are interesting marketing tactics, considering that both wineries are located in Sonoma County. But for both, their new wines are Champagne, as in the authentic bubblies, produced in France and exported for distribution here.

Over the past year, sparkling Gallic grapes have increased their presence in the heart of local Wine Country. Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery released a new French label this past summer, called La Victoire, and produced at Chateau de Bligny in Champagne.

And the tasting notes for Los Carneros-based Vivier Wines’ new Champagne release wax poetic about its “Mirabelle plum” character, referring to a fruit that comes from the Alsace Lorraine region near the border of France.

It’s all part of the race to meet increasing demand from consumers for sparkling wines. Sparkling imports to the U.S. increased 41 percent by volume from 2010 to 2015, according to the Wine Institute. California sparklings are on the rise, too, with U.S. consumption increasing 17 percent over the same time period.

Overall, sparkling wines were the biggest boom wine segment in 2015, according to Chicago-based Euromonitor International. Chalk it up to more millennials and baby boomers popping the corks for everyday sipping, instead of just more traditional events like New Year’s.

“Two of the fastest-growing segments in the wine category are sparkling wine and Pinot Noir,” said Roger Nabedian, senior vice president and general manager of Gallo’s Premium Wine Division. His company purchased Healdsburg’s J Vineyards in the spring of 2015, and reopened a greatly expanded luxury Bubble Lounge there this past November, in part to meet customer’s burgeoning demand for the fizzy quaffs. “We will be working hard to take advantage of that opportunity.”

J produces California sparkling, but there’s little doubt that the name Champagne has a certain caché.

“I make California wines, but my style is closer to the style of wines produced in France,” said Vivier Wines’ owner Stéphane Vivier. “That’s normal, since that’s where I was brought up and trained. Many of our customers are Francophiles, and yes, they appreciate a Champagne. For others, Champagne still offers more choice, overall quality and name recognition.”

The distinction between sparkling and Champagne can be confusing, particularly to people who typically reserve bubblies for special occasions. Champagne proper comes exclusively from the Champagne region of France and must be produced using the méthode champenoise; the name is actually trademarked by the European regulation known as Protected Designation of Origin.

Yet “California Champagne” can be found on many store shelves, for brands like top-selling Korbel of Guerneville. That’s because America grandfathered in the Champagne term about a decade ago, allowing U.S. producers to use the name if it had been on their pre-2006 labels.

“The Champenois terroir creates something which will always be different from what will come from American terroir,” said Vivier. “Even beyond that, there is a magic, an expertise and a history there which has not developed yet in the U.S. In the 200 years since ‘modern’ Champagne was first created, the region has lived through two world wars, phylloxera, a depression. Living through the hard times doesn’t necessarily make you stronger, but I do think hard times tend to focus a region inward, and stress test what works. As a Burgundian, I respect that.”

For Jordan Winery, introducing real Champagne is also a salute to the past. After Tom Jordan founded the Healdsburg winery in 1986, he formed a partnership with his daughter, Judy Jordan, to make sparkling wines. He hired a Champenois winemaker to work alongside head winemaker Davis, brought a traditional Coquard press from France to make sparkling wine at Jordan, and produced J sparkling from 1987 to 1993.

When J moved to its current Healdsburg winery, the partnership ended. But when Judy sold to E&J Gallo in 2015, Tom’s son, John Jordan, now CEO of Jordan Winery, decided to get back into the California sparkling business. Except he wanted a European accent.

“France has always been the inspiration for Jordan wines, anyway,” said John, noting that his chardonnay is made in Burgundian style, and his cabernet sauvignon is made in Bordeaux style. “And I liked that the Malassagnes team at AR Lenoble in Champagne is one of the region’s very rare producers that has been consistently family owned throughout its entire history of nearly 100 years and remains 100 percent independent.”

Buena Vista’s Champagne is a nod to the winery’s past, too, since the property was founded by Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy in 1857. One of Haraszthy’s sons, Arpad, spent years studying in the French region, and in 1861, became the first to introduce the méthode traditionelle sparkling wine method into California, with his Eclipse brand using local grapes.

The new, international effort seems to be paying off. When Buena Vista launched its inaugural La Victoire Champagne last June with 2,000 cases, it was quickly snapped up by restaurants and independent wine retailers in 30 states. As part of the Boisset Collection and JCB Collection group, it joined the company’s portfolio of sparkling wines from Burgundy and a few from California, noted Boisset Collection marketing and communications director Patrick Egan.

Made with pinot noir grapes from Premier Cru vineyards in Montagne de Reims, and chardonnay grapes from Grand Cru Mesnil-sur-Oger and Chouilly vineyards, the new Champagne launch also included a La Victoire Reserve-level Champagne, and a La Victoire Reserve Brut Rosé, both available only at the winery.

Claypool Cellars owners Les Claypool and Chaney Smith Claypool decided to foray into the Champagne business partly because Chaney loves to drink bubbles, she joked. Their Sebastopol-based winery has focused on Russian River Valley pinot noirs since its founding in 2007, but nearly a decade later, the Claypools were looking to expand their product line into a lighter wine.

“While we do a have a pinot rosé, it sells out at the end of every summer,” Chaney said. “We wanted to make a first course wine option for winemaker dinners or special occasions, and while a lot of local producers make chardonnay, which also grows well here, Les and I don’t drink a lot of chardonnay. We wanted to make wines that we want to drink.”

The couple was introduced to Jacky Bochet and his wife ,Valerie Lemoine, small-production grape growers in the Cormoyeaux region of France’s Marne Valley. Bochet’s family has been growing grapes in the Champagne appellation for four generations, and he crafted 200 cases of Pachyderm Champagne to be shipped to Sonoma County.

“Another reason to bring in Champagne is that our pinot noir yield has been down about 30 percent the last few years due to frost after bud break, so this was a nice way to supplement and bring us back up to our goal of 1,000 cases,” Chaney said.

Vivier, who is also winemaker for HdV Wines in Napa and Longmeadow Ranch in St. Helena, figured that a Champagne was simply a natural evolution for his pinot noir brand. He has friends and family living in the Champagne region, so in 2015, he connected with a mutual acquaintance, Anne Gaëlle, and the duo decided to launch the brand in the U.S. together. Initial release was just 50 cases.

“I do have a domestic sparkling project now, but the opportunity to partner with Anne a few years ago was too much of an adventure to pass up,” he said. “My parents pick the bottles up from her, affix the import labels, and drop it at a friend’s container warehouse in Burgundy.”

As for the bottom line, Sonoma County sparkling versus French Champagne depends on the producer.

“Pursuing a great opportunity with an incredible product is the priority,” said Vivier. “(My) wine has a great price to quality ratio, but I have high hopes for domestic sparkling wine. It is growing here in Northern California, and as more and more wineries will propose local alternatives in the next few years, it will make the Champagne choice more difficult.”

For Claypool Cellars, the money, so far, has matched the French wine’s magical reputation.

“We did look into making a custom sparkling at (Healdsburg’s custom crush sparkling wine facility) Rack & Riddle or something similar, and we would have had to charge more than the amount we are charging bringing it over,” said Chaney. “We are lucky to have a connection directly with the family in France, which is critical to being able to do something like this.”

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