Riding the Big Wave of Sparkling Wine in Santa Barbara County, California

28th June 2023

Laura Hughes

Talking with Laura Hughes is like having coffee with a good friend. Her warm smile, open gaze, and peaceful manner puts you at ease. You can imagine her in her kitchen baking bread with her husband nearby and their dog at her feet.

But her energy and enthusiasm explode when she talks about making sparkling wine near Buellton in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country. Her passion is contagious, and you can see how easy it was for her to make a home within the local wine community.

Loubud Wines

She loves her job managing the sparkling wine program at Sanford Winery & Vineyards but don’t call it work. “We just have such a passionate team that loves being there. And so, it doesn’t feel like work.” She’s been there four days a week for 11 years, which keeps food on the table while she spends the rest of her time building her own sparkling wine business, Loubud Wines.

Laura is quick to give credit to those who’ve helped her along the way, such as the team at Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley, where she got her start. She’s grateful for the icons of Santa Barbara winemakers who share their resources and knowledge. And for the women winemakers who provide her meaningful support. “I owe everything to my community,” she said.

But Laura makes her own decisions and knew what she wanted as she developed her own style. While sparkling wines have traditionally been vineyard blends, she wanted to make vineyard specific wines, to allow the character of each vineyard to show in the wine. Many grower Champagnes follow this idea today, but it’s unusual in California.

Vineyard Specific

Because she doesn’t own any vineyards, she sources 8 tons of pinot noir and chardonnay from specific vineyards around the county. She has close relationships with the growers who know her style and what she wants from her grapes.

Cebada Vineyard

Located in western Santa Ynez Valley, the sandy loam soil here delivers the clarity and precision Laura loves in both pinot noir and chardonnay. She prefers the Pommard and 2A clones for her sparkling wines because, at lower (19) brix, they are juicy, fresh, and full of flavor. This summer, she’ll release a 2020 Brut Cuvée from these vineyards, a blend of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay.

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard

This famous vineyard is in the southern Santa Rita Hills on a northeast facing slope. The soil is clay loam with a higher rock content which adds texture and depth. She loves the Wente chardonnay clone here, known for its “hens and chicks,” both large and small berries in the same cluster. This clone brings concentration and structure to the reserve Blanc de Blanc sparkling, which ages 3 years before release. The current vintage is from 2019.

Rancho La Viña

This southern Santa Rita Hills vineyard with silty, clay loam soil ripens slowly, adding depth and color. The pinot noir clone here is 2A which has a bigger berry with good yield. The still Rosé of Pinot and the Brut Rosé (aged 1 year en tirage) contain this fruit.

Peake Ranch Vineyard

This eastern Santa Rita Hills vineyard also has clay loam soils. It’s planted to the pinot noir clone 115 which has a lighter color and an elegant texture. The fruit goes into the reserve Blanc de Noirs, which will age 3 years en tirage before disgorgement and release in the Fall of 2025. The 2022 Rosé of Pinot contained 20% Peake Ranch pinot noir.

Laura walks these vineyards herself, especially when veraison begins. She’s watching and tasting for the moment when the greenness of unripe berries drops away. Harvest won’t start before then because of the risk of astringency showing up in the wine. Harvest takes place only at night to keep the acidity needed for top-quality sparkling wine.

Bunches are whole cluster pressed and left to settle overnight in stainless steel tanks. The clear juice is racked into neutral French oak barrels for fermentation and then aged ‘sur lees’ for six months. She uses fining only for clarity and wines go into bottle en tirage to complete the second fermentation. This second fermentation in the bottle creates the bubbles and is known as the Traditional Method or Méthod Champenoise.

Intrigued with how dosage can affect the wine, Laura has been experimenting. Her wines are typically 2-4 grams/liter because she wants them to show a vibrant acidity with just a hint of softness.

The Santa Barbara Community

Excitement is what keeps Laura up at night. She’s optimistic about the future, growing her own label, opening a tasting room, and traveling and learning from other winemakers. With both older and younger winemakers joining hands, the future for Santa Barbara sparkling wine is wide open. Working with such passion and camaraderie is pure joy for her.

“With a lot more people getting into sparkling wine here, this is a big wave that we can all ride together. There’s a lot of strong support, collaboration, and people are not afraid to take risks.”

Wine lovers are discovering the world class pinot noir, chardonnay, and now sparkling wines from Santa Barbara. Laura’s wines are full of refreshing vivacious energy, making them perfect as an aperitif, for brunch, for celebrations, or to make any moment special. They are great with a wide variety of foods, from seafood to spicy dishes, from salads to popcorn.

You can find her wines at Loubud.com and at local restaurants and wine bars in Santa Barbara County.

Jeanne Savelle

After a long career as a corporate finance executive, she is now a wine writer and a life/retirement/transformation guide.