by Fred McMillin
for May 2, 1997

Winery of the Week

Sipping at the Summit

Prologue: Sept. 13,1988. "Dear Mr. McMillin, Regarding your letter, we created our first Scharffenberger Cremant dessert sparkling wine for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Moscow last May. It was served during the dessert course. Then, after the meal it was used to toast the end of the Cold War"...from John Scharffenberger

The Rest of the Story: John Scharffenberger wanted to be a farmer. At U.C.-Berkeley he carved out his own major in "biogeography" and environmental design. Soon he was happily growing grapes on his own land in Mendocino County. He sold his first harvest in 1978. But after his third harvest, he was bitten by Bacchus...he was going to make wine. It wasn't going to be just any wine, but the goal would be to produce the U.S.A.'s best sparkling wine.

Having already taken wine science courses at U.C.-Davis, he was off to France's Champagne District for some on-site training. Back in California, he looked for similarities and settled on the Anderson Valley, only 10 miles from the rugged Mendocino Coast. The annnal average temperature was a cool 54 degrees. Grapes would mature a month later than in Napa or Sonoma. Risky. John became the FIRST sparkling wine producer to try to use only Anderson Valley grapes. That was 1981. He had little idea then that seven years later the White House wine steward would order his wine for what some say was the most important summit meeting of the decade. That put Scharffenberger in the spotlight, and they're still there.

Just the Facts

Name Scharffenberger Cellars
Location Near Philo, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, CA
Winemaker   Willis "Tex" Sawyer, born in San Antonio, U.C.-Davis graduate school in Food Science & Enology, became winemaker in 1989. Size—Has grown from a rented warehouse in Ukiah to a glistening 35,OOO-sq.-ft. facility near Philo.
Capacity 30,000 case range
Vineyards 58 acres in Anderson Valley, half Chardonnay, half Pinot Noir, plus a few sprigs of Pinot Meunier Recommended
Wines There's a Brut, a Rose(roh-zay), a 100% Chardonnay, and the only one with a hint of sugar, the Cremant. All four have won at times in my tastings; start with the 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs.

Postscript: About the debut af Scharffenberger Cremant in Moscow on May 31,1988: It was quite a party. Dave Brubeck led off with a number well-known to the Russians, Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train." Dinner included lobster bisque, supreme of chicken with truffle sauce, carrot souffle, chocolate mousse with vanilla sauce and Brie. I'll drink to that!

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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