Northern California Sparkling Wine History

11th April 2023

Northern California Sparkling Wine History

The Northern California Russian River Valley-Sonoma’s fallow land in the nineteenth century was a gorgeous and colossal wild refuge of Redwood & Pine trees. Clearing a natural resource bounty to natural supplies for building homes, and furniture, and drove an economy that was expanding to the west coast. The cleared land was destined for growing grape vines within the cool climate Goldridge soils ideal for grape harvests producing sparkling wines. This historically was colloquially known as Sonoma Champagne, although in 2021 when the EU Courts would delimit “Champagnes” legal definitions. Still Korbel flaunts the international authority, and congenially markets Korbel as California’s Champagne.

The Korbel sparkling winery utilizes the dual fermentation bottle processes, the most time consuming and demanding Champagne method for producing fermented in bottle sparkling wine.

Francis Korbel, with Anton and Joseph (his two younger brothers), took over the 2,200-acre property (approximately 1,000 hectares) and Mill, establishing F. Korbel & Bros. in 1862 after immigrating to California from the Austrian Empire, Czech region, known as Bohemia. They had the good sense to use the Champagne department as their vineyard & grape inspiration. Once the vineyards were mature enough to yield ripe grape harvests, they christened the original wood mills property into F. Korbel & Bros. Champagne Cellars in 1882. Prior to this the grape brandy division had been the bread & butter for the Korbel operation establishing its reputation for European immigrants desired brandy excellence. But everything changed in 1896 when the Korbel Brothers hired a fellow Czech citizen Franz Hazek, who was tasked with building what is now known as the Korbel Brothers Champagne Cellars business.

By 1907, Korbel had firmly placed themselves as one of the top three producers of North American sparkling wines, shipping by Grand Pacific rail cars to 38 contiguous US state markets, and to Canada.

In 1915 these were the Halcyon days for Korbel with 1,000 hectares of vines under production, the combined brandy & sparkling wine operations contributing over 10,000,000 bottles sold a year. However, the Temperance movement was gaining credible momentum with political clout in Washington DC, and anti-alcohol foul head winds were on the North American continent’s horizon. Canada enacted a similar law restricting legal ABV beer sales, to only 2.5% low alcohol beer. Mexico was the only sovereign North American nation unaffected by the passing of the Volstead Act, aka: The 18th Amendment passed into law October 28, 1919 (Congressionally ratified on January 17, 1920). The United States henceforth, was a Dry Nation. Only physicians could legally prescribe alcohol to be obtained from a state licensed pharmaceutical chemist.

Sir Winston Churchill would be required to travel with a physician’s prescription to the pharmacies when visiting the US in order to obtain the brandy necessary for his Canada Dry soda water brand. The 18th Amendment law would be in effect for a further decade: no spirits, beer, or wines (except in the case of religious traditional ceremonies) could be publicly consumed. This was the new rise of the bootlegger (an illegal distributor of counterfeit gin, whisky, or whatever fancied the marketplace). Crime sprees (the dangerous macerating wood pulp alcohol flavoring with roots & herbs in a bathtub resulting in blindness, or illegally distilling corn (or similar grains) mash whiskey,) and illegal ethanol alcohol smuggling was a growing concern in the Roaring Twenties!

Where there is a will, there is a way: formerly abandoned storefronts hosted illicit Speakeasy’s for convivial entertainment, and bootleggers supplied the liquor for cocktails. While it was illegal to drink alcohol, it wasn’t prohibited for citizens to congregate in venues, or listen to live music entertainment.

In 1925, my grandfather was entertaining his oil drilling clients on the fourth floor suite of Tulsa’s Mayo Hotel with his wife Myrtle, and six year old daughter, Mary (eventually she would become my mother) in tow. Big Roy (as he was commonly referred to, distinguishing himself from his son Roy, Junior) was a commanding man in stature with an outsized personality knowing how to lubricate the wheels of commerce.

The three of them were ascending in the Mayo’s ornate iron elevator with a travertine fresco flooring. The base was as elaborate as the slate floor’s hardness. My grandfather, Big Roy, had requested my mother, at the time a six year old girl, to hold a bottle of Four Roses Bourbon (planned to entertain his guests in the hotel suite). As were the vagaries of manual iron elevators, those rides were jumpy. So when they passed the third floor, the elevator’s iron track rattled and bumped, naturally Mary’s immature digits on her small hands holding the bottle hidden clumsily under her coat, the Four Roses bottle smashed on the slate travertine elevator floor! Mary watched in horror, mortified she’d blown her father’s assignment, understanding fully the Gig was up!

Add another Forty-two years (35 years after the repeal of prohibition) and I was seven years old.

My grandfather had long since deceased from cancer.

When I was catching up on the latest AM newspaper funny cartoons, I also had read two obituaries that caught my interest. The first was my school mate Mark Wheeler’s father’s sudden death at the tony Southern Hills local country club. Mr Wheeler was murdered by an assassin after a round of golf while sitting in his car in the country club parking lot. The second article was the death of Cleo Epps, an infamous bootlegger who supplied my grandfather liquor. As the newspaper story recounted “Ms Epps 45, was discovered in North Tulsa having been stabbed, shot, and deposited in a culvert ditch. The Tulsa Police Department reported they suspect foul play.” That was the day I discovered my morbid sense of humor, I could find humor in anything! I laughed all the way to primary school, remembering that I must be respectful of the tragedy Mark must be facing.

After October 1919, Federal law prohibited the manufacture, shipping, and sales of ANY alcohol, although the law had no restrictions on consumption of grape must, or grape juices shipped to American citizens clearly labeled warning the hazards of adding yeast cultures resulting in grape alcohol fermentation.

The blocks of crushed grapes in wooden crates, barrels, or Bakelite containers would be shipped in refrigerated rail cars to urban destinations, and labeled: BEWARE – Raw pressed grapes, Do Not add yeast to the grape must, or alcohol fermentations will result! This required stealthy fermentation tactics and planning in the home by thirsty citizens.

Yet why this odd quirky homemade consumption law loophole was made available for raw grape juice for potentially homemade wines?!

Modern plastics, that were lightweight and easily stored, would be decades away as convenient fermentation vessels. As the country was recovering from the stupor of Prohibition, nearly simultaneously an international economic downturn was occurring to destroy all the world’s nations’ economies that would last for another decade. Now you could lick your wounds with freedom drinking alcohol products but you couldn’t afford to buy it because Nobody had a job to frivolously spend on a beer or a cocktail much less sparkling wine!

My initial impression of Korbel was in 1982, on my first legal adulthood vacation to California with culinary experiences in the San Francisco Bay of Northern California. My first tour in the wine country was at Korbel Winery, at an idyllic location along Sonoma’s beautiful Russian River. It was fantastic to witness the western half of the Russian River’s rural, peaceful life. Where mid century popular thespians like Raymond Burr retired to live as a Gentleman Farmer on his estate, selling his grapes to the estimable neighboring Pedroncelli family winery. The Korbel tour was historical, and filled me with more interest than my vacationing mates, who desperately wished to get down the Guerneville Road, the main roadway artery for fun in western Sonoma! There were inflatable rubber canoes for Russian River rafting, local sport clubs engaging in softball, (soccer) football, and bocce ball for the modest athletically inclined, or rural gay resorts designed for clandestine trysts.

The Korbel Brut Sonoma non vintage reminded me of a commercially well-made, but indifferently blended sparkling wine produced for weddings and such celebrations in 1982. A patriotic American wine with nothing to offend your guests, reliably easygoing, and to understand and drink. Korbel is a big operation filling a segment for America’s sparkling wine Mimosa drinking population. Some two decades later the famous Wine Spectator would award Korbel top honors in 2009 for the Brut cuvée, beating scores of French Champagne; Merde et Sacrè Bleu?!

I realized I was beginning to understand the discernible quality differences in wine brands. Currently Korbel has a full roster of various sparkling categories and sized vessels to enjoy Korbel sparkling wine.

Jacob Schram

Jacob Schram established his vineyards on Diamond Mountain Napa Valley in 1862 / re-established modern Schramsberg in 1965 by the Davies family.

Mr Schram built his Diamond Mountain Victorian winery high above Calistoga in Northern Napa Valley. This property was planted to grapevines and encompassed 200 acres (approximately 90 hectares) in this verdant paradise. In 1870 Chinese laborers planted 30,000 grape vines, and dug a hillside wine cellar. The Chinese were the backbone of California’s ascendancy groundwork for railroad travel and agribusiness.

The winery originally produced Zinfandel, Sauvignon Vert, Burgundy, Hock, Sauternes, and Riesling grape wines.

The author Robert Louis Stevenson visited Schram’s mountain vineyard in 1880, he chronicled his adventures in the Silverado Squatters novel he penned. In the coming decade, the original Schramsberg wine cellars were expanded to include a second hillside branch, with wine production selling over one million bottles by 1891. Jacob Schram died in 1905, and his son Hermann inherited the Napa Valley estate. By 1912 the winery ceased operation and the property was eventually sold, post-Prohibition, to the Pringle family.

Schramsberg (as is recognized today) was purchased by the Jack and Jamie Davies family, escaping Los Angeles drudgery of automobile parts in 1965.

They began refurbishing the cellars, and the vineyards to include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producing America’s first Blanc de Noirs vintage sparkling wine; the inaugural Blanc de Noirs release was in 1967. Jack Davies helped spearhead the creation of The Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve in 1968. His political savvy would be apparent throughout the 1970’s when Schramsberg was the first American wine producer to grace the White House’s luminary social functions, beginning with hosting China’s premier Zhou En-lai “Toast for Peace” White House state dinner summit.

In 1980, Schramsberg unveiled the Reserve labeled sparkling wine bottle, a vintage dated standard Brut bottling with 4 years added on the aged lees before disgorging, and release to the public. It was remarkable, the enhanced flavors developed from the yeasts extra sojourn in the bottles.

While my first taste of Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 1969 vintage sparkling wine was on my fifteenth birthday in 1975, the effect it had on me was profound. I tasted a sense of place, an original boutique wine that was enticing catnip to a young wine imbiber, and with the cachet of Napa Valley provenance!. The mouthfeel was richly textured, familiar and well crafted, but with an enticing dry fruitiness. The wine experience I was tasting was singularly original, and delicious!

In 1981 to celebrate my 21st birthday at The Razor Clam restaurant, I ordered the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 1976 vintage (a Chardonnay foundation base), but with experimental cool climate Northern California vineyards added to reinforce the Napa vintage blend’s acid and fruit profile. These grapes were supplied from the cooler extreme Sonoma and elevated Mendocino vineyards. The wine was nervy, with riveting acidity, and richly flavored, with pearlescent bubbles that were almost frothing in the flute!

Only a few years after Schramsberg daring blending, the state Alcohol tax board approved only Napa Valley grapes would be approved for wines labeled MADE FROM NAPA VALLEY GRAPES. A lot of wineries needed to figure out what to do by not buying & blending grapes, maintain their wines flavors from vineyards grown as far as 1,000 miles from Napa Valley?!

Iron Horse Vineyards began in 1976

Laying sparkling wine traditions in the Russian Rivers subregion of Green Valley. The Sterling family combined their efforts to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir as well as diversify the sparkling and still wine portfolio.

As Audrey, the matriarch explained to a group one afternoon in 1988: “Our choice to name the estate Iron Horse was Barry (her husband) while strolling in the evening twilight mood stubbed his toe on the decorative lawn sculpture, exclaiming ‘Damn that Iron Horse!’” As painful as the experience was, the surreptitiously named winery was embraced by all.

Audrey and Barry Sterling are polyglot linguists and international travelers who enjoy dining and the Arts in all forms.

Joy (their daughter), is a communications major who understands the winery’s marketing and sales tasks.

Laurence (their son) assumed the role of Operations Manager, the fiduciary financial taskmaster.

Forrest Tanzer took the opening role of vineyard viticulturist and winemaker. It was an ambitious project the four founders had undertaken! Immediately Iron Horse Vineyard Brut Cuvée became a media darling with savvy marketing backed up with seriously delicious sparkling wines.

The winery became the Sonoma county’s rustic-chic poster child for elegant rural entertaining, and damned well they did PR, too; with charming sparkling wines and photography of Audrey’s entertaining layouts! When Forrest and Joy decided to become betrothed, the Brut was rechristened ‘Wedding Cuvée’. I’ve known of the estate since 1987, and personally followed the Sterling’s since 1990. All the winery’s events planned by Audrey and Joy seemed to have an effortless Provençal elegance that put me in mind of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” literary novel and the Madeleine cookies he fondly recalled. When I’d be driving back to my San Francisco apartment home, the happiness I would feel was augmented with a wistful longing to return to that special place and moment in the afternoon sunshine of Iron Horse’s Green Valley vineyards.

It was Joy who privately shared with me, as a culinary hospitality professional: it is not why you serve guests, but how you make your guests feel that firmly establishes the Iron Horse sparkling wine bond. Always innovators in the vineyard and the cellar, Iron Horse Vineyards developed a private label custom cuvée for high profile restaurants and chefs.

Most recently Iron Horse Vineyards has been aging sparkling wine bottles in cages in the Pacific Ocean for the past seven vintages. The oceans’ even 4 degree Celsius temperature, and gentle rocking motion supplied by the Pacific currents ensure the Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine yeasts autolysis and consistent zesty finish finesse.

The latest vintage offering is the Iron Horse Vineyard 2019 Ocean Reserve, a special, limited production, vintage Blanc de Blancs. This is a giving wine: a portion of every bottle sold goes to help protect our ocean. The Pacific ocean is the engine of Green Valley’s micro climate, which allows Iron Horse Vineyards to make Sparkling Wine on this level of finesse. The recipient changes with the vintage, this year’s beneficiary is the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA.


Image Credit: AmericaCalifornia

Peter Birmingham

Restaurant General Manager, Corporate Beverage Director, & Hospitality Consultant, with these qualities he represents a Triple Threat: a culinary tableside historian, an accomplished wine taster with the casual ability to make flavor relationships and beverage quality value accessible.