Tour California's sparkling wine country

Put some fizz in your trip to California wine country
Margo True

Wine tasting trip: Top California sparkling wine makers

I have an indelible memory of my first wine tour, at Moët & Chandon, in the Champagne region of France. In the gilt-and-mirrors tasting room, one beefy guy in our group grabbed his flute of Dom Pérignon around its middle.

“Sir,” said the tour guide, oozing scorn, “we do not put our big, fat fingers on the glass.” Then he pried Mr. Beefy’s hand loose and slid it down to the stem.

This would never happen in California. On a typical tour in Napa or Sonoma, your guide will introduce himself or herself by first name.

You might even get a wisecracker who says things like, “Any winemakers in the group? No? Good! Then I can make stuff up.”

Which doesn’t mean you won’t get the facts―you will, starting with why it’s called sparkling wine here and not Champagne (“Champagne” is reserved for sparklers from the French region that invented these wines).

I recently spent a weekend touring seven different sparkling wineries (I kid you not)―back-to-back, no less. Not only did I survive the experience, I loved it. I can tell you with conviction that I will never forget how sparkling wine is made.

You’ll learn all about it if you go, but here are the two main points you need to know: The key difference between still wine and sparkling is that sparkling is fermented by yeast a second time (in the bottle), and that’s what makes the bubbles; and the hallmark of a really good sparkling wine is its very, very tiny bubbles, lots of them, that rise in the glass and create a kind of mousse on the surface.

If your sparkler looks like cappuccino, you’ve probably got a good one. Plus, you’ll taste some terrific wines.

But most important, I like the fact that I saw people holding their flutes every which way―by the base, the stem, the bowl, even the rim. At Domaine Carneros, one man got up the nerve to ask about the right way to pick up a glass.

“If you hold it by the stem, you won’t warm up the wine,” said our guide, Mike. “But, hey, you can hold your glass however you want―everybody does it differently.”

Welcome to California. Enjoy your sparkling wine.