“When you buy a bottle of Champagne, do you buy it because it comes from a certain village?Or do you buy it because you like what the brand offers in terms of the flavor? Usually, it’s the latter rather than the former,” says winemaker Arnaud Weyrich. “You like that brand, and guess what? It comes from a place. It’s a very branded experience. The wine and the house — that is what you like. But the brand is what you’re drawn to.”
Weyrich is the mastermind behind beloved local sparkler Roederer Estate. It’s his job to ensure that each bottle of Roederer has a consistent flavor that also represents its place of origin: Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Weyrich is ever mindful of Roederer’s French roots — a heritage that infuses each bottle within the estimated 105,000 cases of wine produced annually. The results are nothing short of sublime. Take one sip of Weyrich’s lovely, balanced, crisp brut, and you can’t help but wonder: What is this deliciousness, and where did it come from?
Like so many wine stories, Roederer’s is one that begins in France, specifically the town of Reims in the Champagne region. It’s where a small Champagne maker, Dubois Père & Fils, was founded in 1776. Fifty-seven years later, a man named Louis Roederer inherited the company from his uncle. A pioneer of his time, Roederer understood the importance of branding and renamed the house of bubbly after himself. He also realized that to make the best product, he’d have to control every stage of the winemaking process, from grape to glass.
This philosophy was passed down through five generations to Jean-Claude Rouzaud, who increased production four decades ago. “In France, there are regulations about how to expand your business, and it’s not very easy,” Weyrich explains. “You can’t just decide to plant a hundred acres next door. Your planting rights, operation boundaries, all of those are somewhat difficult to expand.”
Expansion outside France was the only option. “Rouzaud looked at California in the early ’80s and settled on the Anderson Valley in 1982, Weyrich says. “He bought some land and started planting vineyards in 1984. The winery was built in 1986 and the first sparkling wine under the Roederer Estate label was released in 1988.”
Although Roederer wasn’t the first Champagne house to set up shop in California, it was the first to plant vines in Mendocino and one of the few homes that make wine with only estate-grown grapes. Rouzaud chose the region precisely because he thought it would be perfect for producing the best-quality fruit for sparkling wine. While the conditions aren’t identical — “The soil profile is different, there’s no limestone in the Anderson Valley,” says Weyrich, noting that the climate is slightly warmer in Champagne — they are satisfactory, and Rouzaud was right. Today, the house, known for its fruity, acidic bubbly made in the classic méthode champenoise, is the best sparkling winemaker in Northern California.
“Roederer Estate is in a wine-growing region that benefits from the cool climate due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean,” says Anani Lawson, the wine director of Murray Circle at Cavallo Point. “The cool and foggy mornings that fade into bright and crisp days allow the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes to develop high acidity, as well as timely maturity for the production of traditional Champagne-method sparkling wines. We like to feature Roederer Estate for its crisp and fresh flavors, which makes it quite versatile for the profile of our restaurant cuisine.”
Roederer Estate’s L’Ermitage Brut 2009 is on Murray Circle’s extensive wine list. The L’Ermitage is one of four sparklers that Weyrich produces. It is the most high end, or Roederer’s Tête de Cuvée — a sparkling wine made only in exceptional years. Weyrich preselects the estate-grown biodynamic and organic grapes. The juice made from these grapes is allowed a long aging time in the bottle, five to six years.
The cask-aging program is another unique aspect of L’Ermitage and Roederer-brand sparklers. “From every vintage, about 15 percent of the wine goes into oak cask for aging on average for four years,” Weyrich says. “We are the only ones to do such an extensive reserve program in sparkling wine, in not only California but the whole United States. Nobody else does the same.” Unlike with chardonnay, the oak doesn’t flavor the wine. Instead, it adds a tactile feeling to the finish, giving the sparkler structure.
Everyone from actor Pierce Brosnan to the San Francisco Opera are fans of Roederer’s bubbles. Brosnan recently visited the winery and posted a photo on Instagram; the opera chose Roederer to serve at its annual opening gala. Many locals enjoy Roederer because it’s the most French of the California sparkling wine producers. That fuels Weyrich’s ambition to make an excellent sparkler respectful of the brand’s French history — honoring the original methods while making them his own.
“The legacy,” he says, “is to make something that looks like Champagne, tastes like Champagne, but is a sparkling wine from California.”