In an era when most wine experts agree how difficult it is to create a truly great sparkling wine in America, McMinnville, Ore.-based Rob Stuart is making one of his personal passion projects look easy. The longtime Willamette Valley winemaker just celebrated his winery’s second release of Bubbly ($28), a 100% Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine he developed for mixing in cocktails or just drinking by itself.
“We knew what we wanted was an everyday sparkler,” says Maria Stuart, Rob’s wife and co-owner of their R. Stuart & Co. winery. “We wanted it to be affordable but to have those characteristics that make Champagne so special.”
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Developed over the course of just six months, Bubbly joins a growing roster of sparkling wines emerging from Oregon’s most celebrated vineyards.
Although Oregon has long had a handful of producers with reputable sparkling programs — Argyle Winery in Dundee and Soter Vineyards in Carlton are the most well-known — the state’s love affair with sparkling is a new thing, an idea that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s a romance that’s finally bubbling over thanks to a number of factors. For one, you have considerations of climate. Oregon’s cold climate sweet spot, very similar to France’s, has long been cited as a raison d’être for the wine industry’s existence. Located on the 45° latitude, the state has spent the last half-century establishing itself as a place where terroir, maritime weather patterns and delicate Pinot Noirs rival those of anywhere on earth.
But the barriers to entering the sparkling market are a lot steeper than with Pinot Noir.
“Sparkling is almost impossible to do unless you have the right equipment, and it’s so incredibly expensive,” says Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines in McMinnville. “Just a few years ago you could only think of five people doing it in Oregon — now there are 25 coming out.”
A sparkling industry on the move
One man has made the impossible a reality for Oregon’s small producers. His name is Andrew Davis, and his business, Radiant Sparkling Wine Company, has allowed 16 small wineries to start sparkling programs since he launched in 2013. Davis learned bubbles from the best during his seven-year stint as a winemaker at Argyle, but he wanted to do something personal on a smaller scale.
“I watched, waiting for sparkling to be a thing in Oregon, but there are just too many roadblocks for most small producers,” Davis says.
The process is far from easy. Crafting a sparkling is labor intensive. Consider this: Where a bottle of red might be handled 20 times before hitting the shelves, sparkling gets an estimated 2,000 touches by human hands before reaching the marketplace. Only the most experienced winemakers are really making a go of it. But when they do, they are trying to capture that elusive, lively, complex, refreshing and effervescent nature of France’s Champagne.
With still wine, Davis says, if something goes wrong, you can do something to correct it. But winemakers needed more technical assistance in experimenting with sparkling.
Then there are the financial barriers to entry. Even the most modest equipment for starting a sparkling program can cost more than $50,000 for just one machine.
“You can do manual rotation of the bottles, but it’s extremely tedious,” Davis says.
So Davis, seeing this need, launched a mobile business that assumes some of the more technical aspects of sparkling production, allowing winemakers to focus on crafting the right blend before bottling. Davis goes directly to the producers themselves, helping them to bottle the wine at their own site, add the yeast, crown-cap it, riddle it mechanically, returning to disgorge it when the winemaker decides the time is right.
Those 16 wineries throughout Oregon that have taken on the challenge of sparkling with Davis’ help include Ponzi Vineyards, Elk Cove, Raptor Ridge and Sokol Blosser. Some have already thrown their names into the American sparkling wine ring while others will be doing so over the next few years, with the bulk of the efforts expected to emerge in 2017.
Bubbly on the menu
R. Stuart & Co. is perhaps best known in the United States for its Big Fire Pinot Noir, which sells all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. For Rob Stuart, who has been making wine for the better part of three decades, sparkling was always on his mind. On a 1971 trip to visit his brother, who was studying in England at the time, the then-17-year-old had his first taste of Champagne, a 1961 Bollinger served on a silver tray in elegant flutes. Ever since, sparkling has been a passionate side project.
As a student, he sterilized bottles for experiments in sparkling in his bathtub. At every vineyard he worked at thereafter, he asked a lot of questions about the process, experimented, tasted and refined until he knew exactly what he wanted to make.
“I always say when I make any wine it’s like a Holy Grail project,” Stuart says. “I know what I’m looking for; it’s just about finding my way there.”
His first sparkling for his own winery, Rosé d’Or, launched in 1999, is a gorgeous rosy sparkling based on a highly complex process. It’s made according to traditional Champagne-making methods, but for one exception. As a nonvintage wine, it consists of a blend of several years’ vintages in one bottle. With each new vintage, Stuart adds the new wine to the base wine and bottles it, with each successive year including both new wine and the reserve base wine.
“It’s kind of like using a sourdough starter,” Maria Stuart says. “This is the thinking person’s sparkling — it makes true Champagne lovers swoon.”
Bubbly, first released in 2013, came to be out of a direct need. Maria Stuart, who runs the Life and Times of a Pinot Mom food website, had out-of-town friends visiting one summer and wanted to serve crème de cassis, a classic French cocktail combining black currant liqueur and sparkling wine.
“I said, ‘Rob, I really need you to just make me a good sparkling wine that pairs with cocktails,’ ” she recounts.
Within six months, the couple released their first edition of Bubbly, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes from Courting Hill Vineyard.
“When you’ve been making wine for more than 25 years you don’t have to make all of the same mistakes again,” Rob Stuart says.
The process for Bubbly is a little more straightforward, and the result is a wine the Stuarts expect to be a favorite at wedding showers, brunches and in cocktail pairings. It is just as accessible and lovely as intended, with lemon and pear flavors with Honey Crisp apple on the nose, dry and light, but with creaminess on the mid-palate. Like many sparkling wines, it pairs nicely with all types of fish and crab and smoked salmon, but the Stuarts see Bubbly as something of a social mover-and-shaker — hence the butterfly on its label.
“It’s not easy to make sparkling wine,” Rob Stuart says. “But this one isn’t really that serious — it’s simple, fresh, lively and free. It’s our party wine.”
Main photo: At the R. Stuart & Co. wine bar in McMinnville, Oregon, wine lovers gather to toast the arrival of Bubbly. Credit: Emily Grosvenor