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Dunne on Wine: Sparkling creations from Mumm Napa

Published: December 26th, 2012 12:00 AM

This is the week during which wine columnists across the country write their annual tribute to sparkling wine. Consumers have come to expect a little helpful guidance as New Year's Eve draws near. Winemakers also appreciate the recognition, though they wish a bit more of it would appear in May or September or some other month not as closely identified with sparkling wine as December.

For years, vintners have lamented that sparkling wine is widely perceived as the beverage of choice for special occasions, the bottle to be brought out to accompany toasts to bride and groom, the christening of ships and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne."

They'd rather the tables be turned, that sparkling wine be used to make any old occasion special, rather than as an accompaniment for a happening already special. Such occasions are few and far between, but a lot of sparkling wine is in the market. Why not, muse sparkling-wine specialists, ease out that mushroom of a cork that seals in all that effervescence to see how the bubbly goes with macaroni and cheese on a weekday night in February.

Such a sales pitch has fallen flat in the United States, whose residents persist in holding on to the bottles of sparkling wine they've accumulated in their cellars for the next engagement, promotion or birth in the family.

Ludovic Dervin not only argues passionately that sparkling wines be used to bring festivity to everyday living, he sees some progress in that respect. Americans, he says, gradually are adopting more of a European attitude toward sparkling wine, which is to say they can savor a flute or two of the stuff throughout a meal rather than sipping some as an aperitif and then setting aside the glass.

Dervin has played a not-insignificant role in that turnaround.

For the past 10 years he's been the winemaker for Mumm Napa, which produces about 200,000 cases of sparkling wine annually. Dervin, a native of Champagne, took on the job after stints with the Champagne houses Charles Heidseick and G.M. Mumm, as well as with the California wineries Piper Sonoma, Hartford Court and Gary Farrell.

At Mumm Napa, he oversees an unusually extensive and varied portfolio of sparkling wines, up to 20 different interpretations at any given time. One is made only every other year, solely with the grape pinot meunier. Another, Santana, is in tribute to the musician Carlos Santana, with a portion of its revenues donated to Santana's Milagro Foundation involving education, health and arts programs for children.

But why so many kinds of sparkling wine? Several are available only to the nearly 10,000 members of Mumm Napa's wine club, which serves as both an educational arm and test market for the winery.

Dervin is eager to get feedback from club members – what they like and don't like about a particular release. If a sparkler resonates positively with that audience, production could be ramped up and distribution extended.

One wine already available outside the club is the Mumm Napa 2007 Napa Valley Blanc de Blancs, a sparkler so sophisticated and complex that if it were rolled into a blind tasting with some examples of Champagne, participants would likely have trouble pinpointing just what region it was from. It has the fruitiness identified with California – subtle notes of apple and pear – but also the creaminess, minerality, nuttiness and toastiness associated with Champagne. Its bubbles are fine, rising briskly in several thin beads. It's dry but refreshing, finishing with limey zestiness.

The wine is a blend of 90 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot gris, the latter added to bring faint suggestions of nectarine and peach into the fold. Dervin worked the wine studiously, fermenting 3 percent of the juice in oak barrels to add whiffs of coconut and toast, and putting 6 percent of the wine through malolactic fermentation to tone down the tangy acidity, thereby enhancing the creamy texture.

Not all sparkling wines carry a vintage date, but Dervin used the 2007 here as a signal to consumers that this bubbly, while ready to drink now, should continue to age handsomely over the next decade.

"This is a wine made for the long haul. It will keep for another 10 years," Dervin said.

In the Mumm Napa lineup, the 2007 Blanc de Blancs is moderately priced, and at $38 it is around half of what a Champagne of comparable character would cost. Champagne dominates the market for fine sparkling wines, though California long has produced sparklers of equal vibrancy, structure and complexity. Without the traditional stature of Champagne, however, they can't command as lofty prices.

This reality rankles winemakers such as Dervin, who nevertheless is confident that in time American consumers will come to recognize that domestic sparkling wine can be on a par with Champagne and will gladly pay the same sort of prices for it.

"Sparkling-wine drinking in America is still in its infancy. That's part of the reason I moved here, to be a part of building that history," Dervin said.

Now if only more Americans would come to recognize that sparkling wine can be as enjoyable as beer with pretzels and peanuts, a discovery he made after moving here.

Mumm Napa 2007 Napa Valley Blanc de Blancs

By the numbers: 12.5 percent alcohol, 5,334 cases, $38.

Context: Even more than pretzels and peanuts, winemaker Ludovic Dervin relishes the 2007 Blanc de Blancs with oysters. "It's most friendly with any kind of seafood, and because of its crisp acidity it goes well with salads, Asian foods and lighter fare, nothing too spicy or rich," Dervin says. Mumm Napa's website,, has a recipe for a dish fitting for the wine: oysters with Irish soda bread and Guinness stout, though in this instance the stout presumably is to be replaced with a glass of the Blanc de Blancs.

Availability: The 2007 Blanc de Blancs is stocked by Olive Drive Market in Davis and Rodney's Liquors in downtown Sacramento, and can be ordered online through the winery's website.

More information: The tasting room at Mumm Napa, 8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford, is open 10 a.m.-4:45 p.m. daily.