Piper Sonoma celebrates its 10th birthday – Champagne Report
Piper Sonoma celebrates its 10th birthday
Visitors to Piper Sonoma Cellar’s 10th anniversary celebration in August not only got to sample the best champagne this California winery could offer; they also got to meet the house’s new managing director — 35-year-old Luc Billard — and to meet a new assistant winemaker — U.C. Davis graduate Rob McNeill.
The marketing-oriented Billard, only two months on the new job, comes to Piper Sonoma from Remy Japan, an import office of the international firm of Remy Martin of Cognac. R-M acquired Piper Sonoma last November when it purchased control of Piper-Heidsieck, known as a leader in mechanization of the erstwhile labor-intensive methode champenoise.
McNeill will assist Chris Markell, vice president and co-winemaker who has been at Piper Sonoma since its beginning. Most recently winemaker at Scharffenberger Cellars in Mendocino County, McNeill earlier was at Schramsberg and Chappellet in the Napa Valley and is a 1981 graduate of U.C.-Davis.
Michel Lacroix, chef de Caves at Piper-Heidsieck, is co-winemaker with Markell and travels to California frequently from France.
A feature of the anniversary was a tasting of Piper-Sonoma “sparkling wines” (in deference to the French ownership) and Piper-Heidsieck champagnes. The French offerings included two 1979 vintages, a Brut Sauvage at $34 per bottle and a Rare at $65 that had been aged six years on the yeast. It is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot noir, from grapes grown only in the “grand cru” vineyards of the Champagne district. Against those two stars the Piper Sonoma choices were a 1982 Brut Reserve at $19.99 and an ’81 Tete De Cuvee at $29. The flagship is a 1986 Brut at $13.99.
A characteristic of Piper Sonoma has been the traditional straw color, without any hint of red although the blends may have up to 75-80% Pinot noir and one wine, the Blanc de Noirs, is 100% Pinot. This year, however, Markell plans to experiment with a pink-hued wine.
The oldest Piper Sonoma tasted was a 1980, the first harvest year. It showed extremely well, having lost none of its effervescence and displaying its “cordon,” a ring around the glass of tiny bubbles.
Of the 125,000 cases produced annually, a fraction is hand-made in magnums.
Piper-Sonoma has purchased all its fruit over its 10-year history, but 1989 will be different. It has acquired the Wohler Bridge vineyard, 40 acres of Pinot noir three miles from the winery and bordering the Russian River and Green Valley appellations. Piper Sonoma has been buying grapes from the vineyard the last five years. It fronts on Mark West Creek and has fertile bottomland soil and is influenced by coastal fog. Management said it is looking for more land or vineyard acquisitions.
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