"Come quickly, I'm drinking stars."
A single, hurried expression blurted out two centuries ago still stands as the best description for the world's beverage of luxury. Upon sipping his first taste of what was to become Champagne, the French monk, Dom Perignon, hastily implored a fellow Benedictine, "Come quickly, I'm drinking stars."
Indeed, a properly poured crystal flute of sparkling wine does reveal a universe where stars are in a perpetual, fragile motion. This delicate, celestial state is further enhanced as these tiny bubbles foam and fizz on the palate.
Although Champagne has evolved through generations of wine makers and traveled far from its native France, the ingenious monk's first reaction captures perfectly the elegance, romance and pleasure that is so often associated with this single beverage.
In fact, there is no other drink that has attained a status synonymous with celebrations, giddiness and success.
Today, Champagne is made in many parts of the world despite the French wine industry's possessiveness that dictates that only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France can claim that revered title.
This tightly defined exclusivity was rejected by a U.S. federal judge and ever since California wine makers have freely used the term, Champagne, to refer to their sparkling products.
So, after giving the French their due, it's safe to say that these are particularly celebratory days for the California Champagne aficionado. There are more of the state's wineries adding sparkle to wine than ever before, and the variety is about to increase substantially as several new ventures come on line.
The resulting battle for shelf space in the local wine shops and supermarkets has also helped temper prices. Furthermore, a near glut of foreign Champagnes makes it likely that quality, domestic sparkling wine will be available at reasonable prices for some time to come.
This heightened competition is particularly good news in December--the biggest month of the year for Champagne sales. As a result, those consumers seeking a fine sparkler for the holidays will find the selections extensive and the styles intriguing.
"We are at our zenith," said Michele Hunter of F. Korbel & Bros. Inc., of Guerneville, Calif., the state's leading manufacturer of bottle-fermented wines. "I can't think of anyone who is not making a good Champagne."
Hunter's enthusiasm may be a touch overstated, but industry statistics underscore significant increases in both production and distribution. The Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade association, reports that California wineries sold 27.5 million gallons of sparkling wine in 1984. The total is up about 1 million gallons from the previous year and up 6.5 million gallons from the 1980 level. Correspondingly, actual production of Champagne in the state doubled between 1976 and 1983.
The strong growth over the last decade has been attributed to several factors ranging from Americans' increasing sophistication and affluence to consumers' desire to experiment with new products.
"People, to a limited extent, have moved from the white wine cocktail, which is plain, ordinary and boring to other taste sensations that are more festive and pleasing," said Jon Fredrikson, a San Francisco-based wine industry consultant. "We're also a carbonated culture with generations weaned on soft drinks (and then) . . . beer. This is a country that wants cold, carbonated beverages and sparkling wines fit right into that movement."
Other developments have also contributed to the proliferation. The invention of reclosure caps for Champagne has made it possible for a bottle of bubbly to retain its integrity for two or three days. The caps also enticed restaurant and bar operators to begin profitably serving Champagne by the glass.
Most importantly, the product itself has improved during this period of growth.
"Over the last 10 years, (California) Champagne has gotten drier in style and more sophisticated," said Korbel's Hunter. "We're now catering to a more sophisticated market."
The history of California sparkling wine dates back to the 1880s when ventures at both Korbel and Almaden Vineyards released their first bottles. However, two dates seem to loom large as the points that precipitated the state's current collection of Champagne makers.
The first was in 1965 when Jack Davies purchased the then-closed Schramsberg Winery and launched a sparkling wine program that was based on using premium varietal grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. At the time Davies assumed ownership of Schramsberg, there were only three California wineries using the classic, French methode champenoise process under which all fine sparkling wines are made.
"We initiated the specialization on sparkling wines (and made them) the only part of our business," Davies said. "We don't make anything else and that was a new twist for California. We focused attention on Champagne as a serious wine and not just bubbles."