A kind of Romeo and Juliet story, “the Casa Sala Freixenet brand began in 1915 following the marriage of Pedro Ferrer and Dolores Sala,” says Bertran, noting how the company later shortened its name to simply Freixenet in 1928. By the end of the 1800s, most of its production was being exported to the Spanish colonies. When Pedro died in the 1936 Spanish Civil War and the colonies fell apart, the company — then headed by Dolores, her three daughters, and son, Jose — started exploring ways to reinvigorate the Freixenet brand.
The company’s first big push to U.S. wine lovers didn’t come until 1972, when Pedro’s son Jose, who assumed control of the company in 1957, was able to secure a distribution deal for 30 cases of Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut, the exotic bubbly in the unusual matte black bottle. A decade later, Jose and his wife, Gloria, purchased 250 acres (and later another 128 acres) in the Carneros area near Sonoma to create an entirely new label, Gloria Ferrer, named in her honor.
“When the Ferrers came here, it was not to make Freixenet in California,” says Bertran, a Spaniard who moved to California as an intern when the company began in 1986. “Instead they hired a local winemaker who told them the best grapes for this land were pinot noir and chardonnay,” which now comprise 100 percent of the company’s vineyards. Today a whopping 80 percent of those grapes are used to make sparkling wines under the Gloria Ferrer label; Ferrer only added still wines in 1991.
With an annual case production of around 150,000, the Gloria Ferrer brand is not a super-sized commercial operator like Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Beringer, or Foley. But the company is not a boutique winery like La Follette either. Instead, it is one of 18 estate wineries in seven countries on four continents controlled by the Ferrer family of Freixenet, the ninth largest wine company in the world. In terms of winemaking, size does have its advantages, says Gloria Ferrer winemaker Steven Urberg, a Detroit native who studied oenology at UC Davis. “As an artisan winemaker you can live that bucolic lifestyle and hang out in the vineyards and work in the tasting room on weekends. But working with a larger family operation like Gloria Ferrer, I have a lot of resources at my disposal; I have the opportunity to call the folks in Spain, where there is an army of winemakers. All those great resources are more attractive to me than having my name on a bottle,” he says.
The family’s vast resources also play a role in what comes out of the bottle. “What we’ve done on two estate ranches is put a lot of time and energy into extensive clone trials on pinot noir to determine what are the best clones to suit our winemaking style,” adds Urberg, who says the Ferrer family’s resources and clone trials have enabled him to craft still and sparkling wines that are more fruit-driven and less winemaker-influenced. “Our challenge when making a white sparkling wine from a black grape is to get the juice out without extracting too much from the characters of the skin,” he says. “That will make it hard, edgy, or astringent. We’re looking for elegance, balance, silky texture.”
Urberg says it’s the same exercise with making still pinot noir. “You extract only as long as it takes to get that optimal silky texture and not get greedy and try to extract it too far. Like sparkling wines, working with pinot and keeping it in balance is really the key.”