There's been a lot of bubbly under the bridge since the legendary 17th-century French Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon purportedly stood in his cellar "drinking stars," that is, sampling one of the first sparkling
versions of champagne. This legend is pure froth, but it persists, aided by the famous brand name attached to it.
In truth, Dom Pérignon didn't "invent" champagne any more than Colonel Sanders invented fried chicken. He was, however, one of the first modern oenologists. His practices - selective pruning, low crop yields, and blending for complexity - would be recognized by any contemporary winemaker.
Believe it or not, before and even during the star-quaffing monk's time, most champagne was a still wine. Secondary fermentation - the process that creates the bubbles in champagne - was something that winemakers of the time mostly tried to avoid. Fortunately, for those of us with a taste for bubbly, they were often unsuccessful in their attempt to stop the fizz.
The French may still be the masters of champagne, but the trick of making the stuff became public knowledge before Dom Pérignon had even polished off his first magnum. To make a great sparkling wine is now a Holy Grail of sorts for winemakers everywhere, and California produces some of the best versions around, as these three bottles show.
SCHRAMSBERG "J. SCHRAM" 1995 ($75)
Writer Robert Louis Stevenson once praised the wines of Napa pioneer Jacob Schram, a German barber who founded his historic winery south of Calistoga in 1862. At the time of Stevenson's visit, in 1880, phylloxera was devastating the vineyards of Europe, and Stevenson rosily painted California, including Schramsberg, as the world's greatest hope for wine. Ironically, Schram's estate later succumbed to California's own phylloxera epidemic, complicated by another disease called Prohibition.