Champagne snobs take note. This trio of
tiny bubbles gives that French stuff a run for its
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
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.