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The Methode in Mendocino

August 09, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Dance of the Forklifts at Roederer Estate is a wild show that marks the beginning of California's sparkling wine harvest. It usually opens in early August and plays every day on the tarmac outside the Anderson Valley winery. It's an industrial theater piece, a frantic yet graceful ballet danced by people and machines together.

As the just-picked grapes roll in from the vineyard, the little bins full of grape clusters are tipped into the towering press by two forklifts working in tandem, attended by a crackerjack press crew and hundreds of bees. Hour after hour the forklifts rev and peel rubber, maneuvering around each other in a kind of cyborg-like pas de deux that pauses only when the press is filled and the juice begins to flow.

The show's ringmaster is Roederer Estate wine master Michel Salgues. He choreographs it to get Chardonnay and Pinot Noir juice from vine to vat as quickly as possible, without giving oxygen, microflora and heat the slightest chance to compromise delicate aromas and flavors.

This is defensive winemaking at its most spectacular. "Sparkling wine is excessively fragile, sensitive to any small defect, so much of what we do is try to avoid problems," explains Salgues. More than that, the Dance of the Forklifts sums up at a basic level the transposition of that weirdest and most wonderful of all winemaking processes, the methode champenoise, to California.

The Champenois invented their unique contribution to Western civilization the hard way, making a virtue out of necessity by discovering a way to use underripe cool-climate fruit that was unsuitable for still wine. Dom Perignon's legend notwithstanding, Champagne as we know it is the result of an extraordinary collective effort over a long period of time. The qualities they learned to exploit in the region's Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were subtle fruit character, abundant acidity and delicate aromas and flavors that had a capacity to coalesce into something magical.

That magic, of course, is what all the Champagne emulators are after. But it doesn't take much sleuthing to find out that the essential character of Champagne wine comes from the Champagne terroir, a combination of unique chalk deposits and other natural factors that simply cannot be replicated. Even the fabled method, well-known in theory, is elusive to wine producers in other regions.

In fact, the vaunted methode champenoise is a work in progress. Champagne today is the scene of the most intensive campaign of analytic introspection and improvement the wine world has ever known. Would-be imitators are faced from the start with having to board a speeding train.

During the late '70s and early '80s the major Champagne houses were branching out, aggressively seeking affiliate or start-up projects in New World wine regions. Schramsberg's early success drew most of their attention to Napa Valley and Carneros, while some went slightly farther afield to the Russian River Valley.

Most of them launched ambitious vineyard developments, built expensive high-tech facilities, threw lavish parties, then promptly dashed inflated expectations with first releases that were the equivalent of an orchestra tuning up (several are still working to reestablish credibility).

Roederer USA took a more discreet tack. The scouts from Reims knew what they were looking for, and when they found it there were no fanfares or press conferences. After a local flurry of excitement when the company purchased its land near Philo in 1982 and a brief controversy over the possible environmental impact of its proposed winery construction, the project virtually disappeared. Over the next several years, the vineyard matured quietly and the remarkably low-profile winery became an accepted part of the storybook landscape in northern Anderson Valley.

Nearly a decade later, the first Roederer Estate wine was released. It was terrific. The next one was terrific too, and Roederer USA hasn't looked back. Year after year, the Roederer cuvees--Brut, Vintage Brut and Rose, and the te^te-de-cuvee, L'Ermitage--have shown impeccable Champagne form with a subtly distinctive Anderson Valley character expressed in minerally undertones, beautiful clarity of fruit with a little more weight and flavor than Champagne but no heaviness and a gently dynamic upper register that clearly expresses volcanic soil rather than Champagne's vaunted limestone.

Unlike other Champagne/California entities, Roederer made no pretense of working with local talent. This was simply the house of Roederer operating in a remote location. And the key man on the spot from the beginning was one of their own, Salguess.

Certainly a good California winemaker can grasp and execute the Champagne method easily. What Salgues brought to the project was a profound culture-based understanding of the goal and the requirements.

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