Can California sparkling wine really compete with the world’s best bubbles?
In this episode, Contributing Editor and California wine reviewer Virginie Boone speaks with winemaker and Napa native, Paula Kornell, daughter of pioneering California sparkling winemaker Hanns Kornell. They explore California sparkling-wine production and discuss why the style has gained serious momentum of late.
The Napa-Sonoma area is home to some of the state’s best bubbles, Kornell and Boone say, and they share the best bottles to try at home.
For additional reading on the wines and topics covered in this episode, check out the following links:
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. you’re serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we tap Contributing Editor Virginie Boone to guide us through the wonders of all things sparkling in California. Have you been turned on yet to the top-notch bubblies of Napa and Sonoma? Well, get ready to discover the region’s finest, as we talk with Napa native and wine-industry vet Paula Kornell about the history of California sparkling-wine production, and why the Napa/Sonoma region is home to some of the state’s best bubbling pours. We’ll also offer suggestions for bottles to seek out and try today. So special occasion or not, get ready to pop some corks with us on this journey into the world of California sparkling wine.
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Virginie Boone 1:48
Well, Paula, I just want to say thank you so much for joining me to talk about one of my favorite subjects, I know one of your favorite subjects, sparkling wine from California. Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you specifically, and we’ll get to many of the reasons, but the first one is because you really have a long history with sparkling wine because of your dad, Hanns Kornell. And so, I wanted you to give me a little bit of background. My understanding is at one point, he was the leading producer of sparkling wines in the Napa Valley. So give me a little bit of background about about his place in California.
Paula Kornell 2:25
Well, thank you very much for having me. I’m so glad to be having a conversation with you, my dear. My father was born and raised in Germany and went to University of Geisenheim in Germany and studied winemaking. His great grandparents and his far distant uncle all were in the German sekt business in Germany, so, German sekt being German sparkling wine. He worked with his family and unfortunately in the middle of working with his family and having a good time skiing, he was captured by the Nazis and put in Dachau for 18 months. So, his time being in the wine business in Germany was short lived, ended up getting, 24 hours to get out of Germany after being in Dachau for 18 months, went to London and then quickly came to the United States with this, you know, a sundry history of stories: that the ship that he was on was bombed, getting to New York, you know, you can’t write this stuff. It’s pretty amazing. But he came to the United States and actually went from New York, straight to the Midwest to Ohio and Missouri, because at that time, that’s where the lead—was one of the leading wine growing areas of the United States. So after being there for about a year, year and a half, is when he came to California, and started in Sonoma County and started making his own sparkling wine, which was then called Hanns Kornell, third-generation Champagne. And if any of you are familiar with Sonoma, which I know you are, it was located where the Safeway store is now in the town of Sonoma, which was where his winery was.
Virginie Boone 4:16
Wow, I mean, that, you do have to write a book or a movie script or something at some point, because, because that is quite a remarkable, you know, feat to one survive, to get to America to land, you know, anywhere where somebody might be making wine and then to come now, you know, what is considered one of the premier wine regions of the United States, Sonoma. But how could he have known all that? I mean, was this 1950s, 1940s?
Paula Kornell 4:47
Yeah, I think it was the 19, it was the late 1940s. So early 1950s is when he started his winery in Sonoma, which I think was ’52. And once he was in the United States, he started learning more about California and the California wine business and that this was the sort of the land of plenty. And that’s when he showed up in Sonoma County. He showed up with, I don’t know, I think it was some broken-down car with a horse trailer. Because if you knew my father, you also knew that his biggest love other than his family and his wines, it was his animals.
Virginie Boone 5:24
Well, that’s been passed down to you, I see. [laughter] Well, but it’s interesting. So, I mean, when he’s, he comes to Sonoma, and he starts this company, this wine operation, I mean, do you, what grapes was he working with at that point?
Paula Kornell 5:42
He was using Johannesburg Riesling, Chenin Blanc, wines that were, when I was growing up, it was called dry white wine. So it was a variety of many things. He started with Riesling because that was the grape that he was the most used to and also knew that it could be very dry that we have this thought here in the United States that anytime you see Johannesburg Riesling, or Riesling, you think of something sweet. Well, that’s unfortunately not the truth. And so, he had a wine, even then, that was their trope and it was bone, bone dry and being 100% Riesling, wow. My mother’s family had homesteaded. They were Swiss-Italian. They homesteaded in Napa Valley. And he met my mother who was singing with the San Francisco Symphony at the time. And actually, they met because my grandfather, my mother’s father, was looking for some bubbles to have for one of her recitals. And the salesperson at the city of Paris store in downtown San Francisco is the one that actually had introduced the two of them.
Virginie Boone 6:53
That is okay, that goes into the book. The movie as well. I mean, on the one hand, it seems like my simpler times. And yet, you know, not simple at all. If you think of your dad’s journey here and all the that he had to overcome, but they meet, is that sort of after the, the, you know all the bubbles that they enjoy and then they get married, is that when your dad sort of moves the wine production to Napa Valley?
Paula Kornell 7:21
Correct. When they were dating, they were, he was still in Sonoma, and then Italian-Swiss Colony had this warehouse on Larkmead Lane in right between St. Helena and Calistoga, and they pulled their dollars together, I think borrowed everything they possibly could, to purchase that building. Now, it’s on the label of Frank Family Wines, but it’s right down the road from Larkmead Vineyards. That’s where Hanns Kornell Champagne started from the third generation now to his own, really his own brand. And that’s where most everyone knew the brand for 38 years.
Virginie Boone 8:04
Yeah. And so you know, around that time, who would have been some of his contemporaries?
Paula Kornell 8:10
They’re really, oh contemporaries, there was a very small group of vintners. I mean, I remember as a kid going to Napa Valley Vintner meetings and there was probably a dozen vintners. It was, you know, there would be the Robert Mondavi, there’d be Peter Mondavi, there’d be Roy Raymond from Raymond, there would be, you know, it was such a small, there was Louis Martini. There were just all these family wineries that were trying to make it and everyone was working together. It was definitely a time when everyone did work together and they didn’t have, there was nothing that you could go out and buy the bigger the better. This was all hard work. And you just put one foot in front of the other to survive.
Virginie Boone 8:52
Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy to think that that really wasn’t that long ago and that you have these memories. And, you know, there’s, you have contemporaries of your own who have those memories, and it’s just, it’s inconceivable how young ultimately the California wine industry is.
Paula Kornell 9:10
Yeah, I think we forget. I think we forget that. I think we think that it was always this glamorous. You know, we’re basically glorified farmers. And it was a time when, yeah, all the kids, we all did every job in our wineries. And it was and it wasn’t looked at necessarily as work. It was also it was just part of the things that you did.
Virginie Boone 9:30
Yeah, it was just normal life for you. So you grew up on that on that winery?
Paula Kornell 9:34
I grew up, I didn’t grow up there… we lived on another old family property. That was my mother’s family’s property. But we spent so much time in that building that building was just like someone that sat down at your dining room table. It was, you know, a great old sort of haunted winery that you could play hide and go seek in you could do just about everything, everything. My first job was selling peacock feathers, walnuts and prunes in front of the tasting room.
Virginie Boone 10:05
Okay, that doesn’t happen anymore in the Napa Valley.
Paula Kornell 10:07
No, I know. But you know, we did, I mean, at least for me, I did every single job when, in starting my business going over to rack and riddle and looking at how the sparkling wine business has become so automated, I could say to all these guys, I did each and every one of those jobs by hand at one time, riddling bottles, getting my pigtail stuck in the labeling line, you know, to gorging the bottles, stacking bottles.
Virginie Boone 10:35
Right. So that’s a good segue to sort of get into the fact that after, after a long time in the wine industry, growing up in the wine industry, and then of course, you’ve had a career, working with Napa Valley Vintners and working with a lot of other wineries to help them, you finally launched your own sparkling wine from the Napa Valley first, as well as you have a California brut. But I mean, it must have been a complicated exercise for you, like, do you do it? Why do you do it? How do you do it? I mean, I’m sure you went through a million different iterations in your head. But what did it finally take for you to to get there to put your name on it?
Paula Kornell 11:19
I think my, I think it was always in the back of my mind after our wine reclosed in ’92, that I would hope that I could be someday making sparkling wine. You know, I love Champagne. I love California sparkling wine. And so, it’s always been in the blood. My father used to always say we have more sparkling Burgundy in our veins than we do blood. And so it was always there. And it really took some really thought-provoking and then it took the right partner. I have a very good friend Pat Roney, who came to me and said, would I do a partnership with him? And it really it was the right match at the right time. And someone that could bring a sales and marketing, or sales team, to me, coming up with this type of style of wine I wanted to produce.
Virginie Boone 12:12
Right, okay, but you’re not working with Riesling or Chenin Blanc at this point.
Paula Kornell 12:16
No, not at all. I’m, you know, in the time our, my family’s winery closed, that also had changed drastically. We were still making a wine from Riesling, but then it had transferred to making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. So, for me, it was important that we started with that. I started with the Napa Valley appelaited wine. And so, thank goodness, Carneros is so close to us and the available, I had availability of fruit. So the Napa Valley is 98% Chard, excuse me, Pinot Noir, and the rest Chardonnay.
Virginie Boone 12:53
Right. So, I mean, and that’s an interesting other way for you to sort of make it your own. At this point, it’s it is going to be sort of your own stamp on it and reflect the times that we’re in that we grow very different types of grapes in the Napa Valley.
Paula Kornell 13:09
Absolutely. And you know, then we had such, when my family was in business, I think they had so many varietals of white wines, just as I said earlier, but, you know, now it, really, it really is gone. It’s gone much smaller of the grape varietals to choose from but also, the style I wanted to portray would be definitely much more classic, high acidity, but some nice fruit being Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Virginie Boone 13:36
Okay. So, you know, in terms of launching your own sparkling wine, you know, you’ve got the history, you’ve got the right partner, you’ve you’ve thought about this, obviously for a long time, but do you think you’re also hitting a really good moment in American appreciation and consumption for sparkling wine?
Paula Kornell 13:56
I definitely think so. You know, I grew up with it. Always being a celibratory product that you just celebrated your wedding or funeral, your divorce. My father would always say that he loved the fact when people got divorced because they sold two bottles of Champagne versus one bottle.
Virginie Boone 14:14
Paula Kornell 14:16
And so, now I believe that we’re all much more accustomed to drinking sparkling wine on a normal basis. That this isn’t something that is just for a special occasion. That it is, it goes extremely well with food and extremely well with such a huge variety of food, as well as it could be used as an aperitif. It could be for your breakfast, it could be throughout your meal or as a dessert wine, too. So it’s, it really is very, very versatile. And I think people are just using it more. Some are mixing it. Some are not. But it’s much more available.
Virginie Boone 14:55
But do you think it’s also, you know, consumer, our evolution as consumers in America? Where we’re also appreciating drier styles of wine, let’s just say, and maybe not, you know, we’re not always in the mood for big, ripe, more higher and alcohol wines? And so sparkling really fits and fits in so many places beyond occasion? It’s also just the style that we are perhaps appreciating a little bit more than we did you know, even in the your dad’s heyday.
Paula Kornell 15:27
Oh my goodness. Yes, as you know, I live and die by Napa Valley Cabernet and it is all of a sudden starting this brand and drinking much more of my own sparkling wine and go, holy heck, this is incredible with its 12% alcohol. You could drink quite a bit of this. I like it.
Virginie Boone 15:48
Yeah, I like, I like it too.
Paula Kornell 15:52
But yes, I think just in general, it’s people are realizing that it is something that has got personality. It’s got lots of flavor. It’s not something thing that you, you have to take seriously. You have to take it seriously, but there’s also a time for it just to enjoy it.
Virginie Boone 16:07
Absolutely. So, but you, you know, I want to talk about Sonoma and Napa being good regions for sparkling wine. I mean, we do have some history here starting with Hanns Kornell for sure. And then, you know, a lot of the producers that people still know and love, whether they came from Europe and established a presence here like a Mumm or a Roderer, or they were pioneers like Schramsberg or Iron Horse in Sonoma. You know, clearly we have a lot of history, and we do have areas like Carneros and cooler parts of Sonoma that can do Pinot and Chardonnay for sparkling. But they’re also perhaps challenging in terms of great pricing. Is that some of what you had to go through in terms of establishing, you know, you have a Napa Valley but then you started a California fruit?
Paula Kornell 16:59
Absolutely. That’s so, you know, back to you—there was a reason why so much of the Europeans, of the Mumms and Roderers and Chandon and so many, came to Napa and Sonoma. Because they knew that we had great, it was a great, great grape-growing area. And there was great opportunities here. So now, even if you look at so many of those brands, you’ll also see that Napa Valley or Sonoma is not necessarily on some of their lower-price wines. Everybody’s had to go somewhere different just because of the fact that the price of grapes is so incredibly high, not only here in Napa and Sonoma, but now in Anderson Valley also. We’re just blessed that we have great fruit here. For me, for the California, I think the California Brut was the hardest actually, to not only come up with a style but to also source the grapes, because you needed, I wanted something of quality. I wanted to overdeliver in the bottle, that coming up with something that was, and having a Chardonnay-based, needing it to be dry, yeasty, and still with greatest acid, it was hard to find the right place.
Virginie Boone 18:13
Yeah, of course, of course, and, you know, and then you’re also dealing with the fact that sparkling wine takes time en tirage or, or either, you know, there’s there’s more time in the bottles before release. In some of these instances, there’s vintage dating or nonvintage dating. So how did you tackle some of those questions?
Paula Kornell 18:33
Well, I think that everyone needs to be aware that making methode Championoise, the true, traditional method of making sparkling wine or making Champagne, is so time consuming and is so intensive, hand intensive. That, it is amazing when you can see something that is under $20 or even and, you know, even under $50, that is truly a bargain because of the amount of time, energy, how many times that bottle’s hand-touched before it is able to go out into the market. So it was important for me that the Napa Valley hopefully could stay under $50. Because for then, to me, that’s the threshold of when we’re going to go from sparkling wine to possibly going to a Champagne from France, and California trying to come up with something that’s going to be reasonable that you could drink freely and not think of it back to that not being a special occasion wine, but it was, still had substance and quality to it.
Virginie Boone 19:41
Yeah, absolutely. I mean that, it’s interesting, over time, to see a lot of, you know, producers that are really focused on still wines sort of try to make a sparkling or to just sort of for fun or to greet visitors when they come to their tasting rooms or for winemaker dinners—it’s not the easiest thing to just churn out on the side as to your point.
Paula Kornell 20:05
No it’s not, and I think so many minutes, so many friends of mine, some I know friends of yours, that have all this, they’re doing exactly that. They’re making a small amount but realize how hard it is and how expensive it is to be able to do something on a regular basis.
Virginie Boone 20:22
Yeah, so let’s talk about a little bit. You know, a lot of the producers that I taste regularly and admire are more traditional sparkling-wine houses. I mean, Iron Horse in Sonoma, family owned, I’m sure you know them. While I think, you know, they are pretty much all estate fruit, they’ve been very devoted to sparkling for a long time. I think some of the, some of the wines they make, like their Wedding Cuvée, is just, year after year, is just a really well-made sparkling wine. I imagine you might have some others that you like from them.
Paula Kornell 21:00
I like all of their wines actually. And I also, what I love about what Iron Horse does is they have so many, not so many, but they do a couple of different wines that they’re giving back, too, either to animals or to wildlife or something. And so, they’ve been, they’ve been just great about that, but the wines are always stellar.
Virginie Boone 21:21
Yeah, and very classic, very dry. Very, you know, they’re relying a lot on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and I don’t think they have Pinot Meunier, that seems to be much harder to find in most California sparkling wines.
Paula Kornell 21:34
I think it is now. It used to be, used to be a bit, maybe 10 years ago, it was much more prevalent, and I don’t know if it was just the fact that it didn’t grow as well or that it was too costly to grow. I honestly don’t know. But you don’t see very much anymore.
Virginie Boone 21:51
Yeah, you just, you don’t, and maybe here it doesn’t contribute what it does in Champagne and that’s another reason as well, and you’re hedging your bets. By having more Pinot or Chardonnay that you could turn into a still wine if need be or sell to somebody to make into a still wine. I think that’s probably it. So another producer that that I’ve long liked and admired is Domaine Carneros. You know, we were talking about Carneros earlier, and another sort of lineage to France. But long time, very high and you know, classically made sparkling wines. I really like their La Rêve Blanc de Blancs.
Paula Kornell 22:31
Yeah, I love the acidity on that, especially as I’m just as we’re talking about both of these wines. I’m thinking also, they also have females behind them too, between Iron Horse and Domaine Carneros. So it’s pretty cool.
Virginie Boone 22:42
They do and you know, and I do find that there’s a lot of women involved in sparkling wine in California. Yeah, absolutely. To that point, yeah, including Jamie Davies, who, you know, was one of the founders of Schramsberg.
Paula Kornell 22:56
Virginie Boone 22:57
Yeah, so the Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs, I don’t think that they make it every year. The last vintage I had, I think was 2012. So they clearly keep it in bottle for an extended period of time. Is that something that you are looking to do? Have you put some stuff aside?
Paula Kornell 23:15
Well, yes. And really, you know, my dream is to be able to have something that is on the older side. I think that was why it was so important when we were doing the Napa Valley to really, some of the wine, some of the wine in there has been barrel fermented, trying to give it as much backbone as possibly we can give without having to age it for quite a long time. But yeah, so this next this harvest we’ll be producing a blanc de blancs. And hopefully we’re going to be able to age that for at least four years. We’ll see, but we’re hoping that we can get as much age as possible on it, but I love what I do, love that Domaine Carneros is that dry and that it’s very, the acidity and the yeastiness is a great blend together.
Virginie Boone 24:03
Yeah. And, you know, the other thing thinking about Schramsberg was I’ve noticed some of the ones that I’ve really liked from them most recently are actually vineyard-designated sparklers. And so, I think one of the ones that came to mind was they were working with grape vineyard Hyde Vineyard, which many people know for their Chardonnay. They made a blanc de blancs that, the last one I had, I think was 2014. But, do you think it’s interesting, the vineyard-designate sparkling? I haven’t seen as much of that. What do you think, is that interesting? Do you think that consumers are drawn to that, who maybe either maybe they don’t know the producer or maybe they have, they’re not drinking as much sparkling wine as they could and this might be a good way to reach them.
Paula Kornell 24:51
I think it’s just another designate that could help them. You’ve got the name of the winery, the name of the vineyard and then you have Napa Valley. On top of it, my concern is if it gets too complicated, that we go in a different direction, I really do want to keep it as simple as possible. However, for the Napa Valley, I don’t have Mitsuko’s Vineyard on the label, but it is 100% from one particular vineyard. So it’s, it’s doable. It’s just a matter of how much information you want to put on that label.
Virginie Boone 25:26
Well, I would have thought that part of the appeal and making sparkling is the freedom. I mean, it’s one of the few categories of wine where you don’t necessarily have to vintage date. You don’t necessarily have to specific appellate it. There’s there’s lots of freedom to some extent, and so you’re sort of locking yourself in. It’s interesting. It’s like two different worlds of sparkling.
Paula Kornell 25:49
It’s so true because you go to France, last year I was in Champagne, and you visit someone like Krug, who has, you know, hundreds of different growers that they’re dealing with, and they are making a beautiful blend of all those different wines or different styles that produce together something specific that they’re interested in. But it’s, it really, it’s the group together that is bringing together what they want. Or the style that they want.
Virginie Boone 26:22
And, and that innovation is probably so much more difficult in a place as steeped in history and tradition as Champagne but, but here in California, we do have, you know, the ability to kind of play around and innovate. One of the producers, sparkling-wine-focus producers that I’ve discovered recently, is called Carboniste, and it’s a husband and wife, very small operation based in Napa and they’re working, you know, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but they’re also doing some sparkling with Alberiño and Pinot Gris and, you know, it kind of it’s, it’s like, new and different and yet having had the talk about what your dad was working with, it’s also sort of a throwback.
Paula Kornell 27:02
That is so true! So I have not had their wines yet. But it is so funny because when I was first working on the, well both the Napa and the California [appellated-wines], someone had brought up French Colombard and now, here’s a great brand, oh, we haven’t heard about for quite a while because there’s really not much growing in Napa certainly. And I remember so clearly seeing those samples of French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, again, it was just a mixture of dry white, so we truly have gone full circle.
Virginie Boone 27:37
Wow. And I guess that, that’s just the way it goes in California. I mean, because, you’re not bound. You’re not bound to anything. And we have an entrepreneurial spirit. So I do I love seeing that. And yet you know your wines were, were such a lovely kind of classical touch to them. It’s good to have all these things
Paula Kornell 28:02
Oh my goodness. Well, yes, we love, we need variety, by all means. Absolutely.
Virginie Boone 28:08
Well, I loved talking to you about sparkling wine. I wish you continued success and exploration. And thank you so much for joining us today.
Paula Kornell 28:19
Thank you for having me.
Lauren Buzzeo 28:25
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely ready for a glass of California sparkling wine right about now. We talked about a lot of different wines today, with many recommendations worth checking out, including recently reviewed selections from Napa and Sonoma sparkling wine producers such as Domaine Carneros, Iron Horse, Schramsberg, and of course, the new wines from Paula Kornell. So be sure to visit winemag.com/podcast yo learn more about these wines and where to find them. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine living friends check us out, too. You can also drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for more wine reviews, recipes, guides, deep dives and stories. Visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @wineenthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers!