by Fred McMillin
for September 4, 1997

The Korbel Spell

Prologue: It is 1862 in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are two developments which still affect what America drinks today.

A traveler bound for Martinez requests a refreshing cocktail from San Francisco bartender Jerry Thomas. Gin, vermouth, and bitters are shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. Jerry names his creation after the traveler's destination. The "martini" is born.

The three Czech-born Korbel brothers leave San Francisco for the Russian River Valley. After logging and farming, they turn to producing sparkling wine. They have little idea that a hundred years later it will be served at five consecutive Presidential inaugurations, Reagan in 1981 through Clinton in 1997.

The Rest of the Story: The Korbel brothers did not have a lot of competition from other American firms when they turned to making sparkling wine. The USA's first (1847) successful producer, Nicholas Longworth, had shut down, due to the ravages of powdery mildew in his Ohio vineyards. Also, the first (1855) California sparkling wine producer, Los Angeles entrepreneur Benjamin D. Wilson, had abandoned the operation, no doubt influenced by the fact that in 1857 the winery had "about fifty earthquakes in two weeks." After all, the nearby San Gabriel River was named by the Spaniards the Rio de Temblores, "the river of earthquakes."

In any case, the Russian River Valley proved much more hospitable, and today sales exceed a million cases a year of seven Korbel sparklers...one of their most popular is the Brut...they've just turned out a mere 620,000 cases of it. My classes find it particularly pleasing, partly because it is not as severe and yeasty as some competitors, and partly because it costs only $11!

Korbel Brut California Champagne
13250 River Road, Guerneville, CA
Phone—Margie Healy, (707) 869-6715
Serving—Particularly suitable for large parties where there are many types of palates to please.

Postscript: Korbel was one of the few sparkling wineries to survive prohibition. Who received the first case of Korbel after Repeal? President Franklin D. Roosevelt!

For much more about Korbel, see the April 24,1997 WineDay titled "How to Have a Sparkling Passover."

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.

Read more articles by Fred McMillin in the eGGsf

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