The following is an excerpt from the best-selling book by Pedro Vargas of Vino Vargas winery, "Stars in a Glass".
How does a high-tech guy from the Silicon Valley end up in Paso Robles and a leading resource in the field of making sparkling wine? Here's Pedro's story....
In 2008 my wife Vicky was studying to become a certified sommelier. I was employed in high-tech in Silicon Valley and while I did not have time to take the course, I tagged along whenever I could. I shadowed her to tastings and read her index card collection. I loved learning about wine, wine history and of course, tasting wine. With the knowledge I was getting indirectly from hanging out with her and the gang my confidence in wine grew tremendously. But there was always one beverage that seemed ethereal and mystical. Champagne! I got hooked on the wine thing and by 2011 had completed and graduated from UC Davis as a certified winemaker.
I retired from high-tech and started consulting as a winemaker for wineries in the Bay Area. At one large Italian winery, I learned the art of adjusting base wine to be sent to a Charmat sparkling production house in Lodi. The base wine would leave in 1,000-gallon Cherokee freight trucks and come back as pallets of brut, almond, and other flavored sparkling wines. The public loved this and snapped them up, especially around the holidays. I was impressed by the demand and knew I wanted to learn how to make sparkling wine.
In 2012 we launched our wine business and set out to create a collection of wines under the Vargas brand. As our business grew, we added new wines and expanded our offerings, but we lacked a sparkling wine. We built our winery in Paso Robles and opened in 2015 with a great collection of wines, but still no sparkling. Unfortunately, the base wine minimums at most sparkling production houses in Lodi and Napa were 500 gallons. This was way too much for us and very cost prohibitive. Plus, I did not want Charmat, and I certainly did not want to buy their bland bulk offerings. I wanted high-quality Méthode Champenoise.
During harvest of 2016 I decided to make our own Méthode Champenoise sparkling wine. I found a small grower that looked at me like a crazy man when I told him I wanted half a ton of Chardonnay picked at 18 Brix. But, he did it and I fermented my first blanc-de-blanc cuvée. Then came the scary tirage portion. Armed with zero knowledge of how to do this I started with a yeast protocol that I got from Dr. Nichola Hall at Scott Labs. This is still available from them and you can ask them for a copy. But while very important, the yeast protocol was only about 30 percent of the whole process and I had a multitude of questions. I found a very old book by UC Davis professor Maynard Amerine and in chapter 11 he talks about making sparkling wine; this was a great start and gave me a big picture of the process. Because I speak Spanish I started searching for articles on Cava, and French articles on Champagne, and with the help of Vicky who speaks German even articles on Sekt. It all started coming together, along with the realization that I really was crazy trying to do this Méthode Champenoise thing with no prior knowledge.
Through my readings I became aware of how unprepared I was to make Méthode Champenoise. I lacked all the critical equipment from tirage cages to neck freezers. Being a hacker by nature I learned how to build most of this equipment by reading articles and watching a few YouTube videos of some other experimenters. I was starting to feel more comfortable, and Vicky thought I was getting crazier. Meanwhile, we drank and tasted sparkling wine every opportunity we could. We tried them all and my palate started getting used to the profile I wanted to target. When I had most of the equipment together, I decided to give it a go and see what happened.
My first yeast protocols were a disaster. It’s easy to rehydrate yeast for a one-time still wine inoculation, but for sparkling wine, you need to grow the yeast biomass over a period of days. All this time I kept telling myself that if the beverage had been made by low-tech Dom Perignon and 1600s-era monks and winemakers, surely, I could do it, too! Michael Jones of Scott Labs shared a document from Michigan wine house MAWBY that shed some practical light on the yeast protocol growth cycles. Little by little I turned every failed yeast protocol into a learning opportunity and started to get more comfortable with making the yeast starter.
Finally, the protocol worked as expected and our first tirage bottling attempt, which included a bottling truck, went close to perfect in terms of timing. The riddling portion also went well. When it came time to disgorge, that took me a little time to figure out but eventually it all came together.
This year will be our seventh year of making in-house sparkling wine. It works great! The people love it! And I am finally fulfilled with the knowledge that I have made this ethereal and mystical beverage. I hope you will be, too. Stick to it and have fun!