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Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week

Korbel Champagne Cellars

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: "Hey, I know that place!" yells Aunt Mabel, rounding a bend halfway to Guerneville. According to the tasting-room staff, Aunt Mabel, Uncle Jim and Grandpa Gus, along with most of the rest of the country, know the name Korbel. Synonymous with anything that involves a rented limo--proms, engagements, weddings and 50th anniversaries--Korbel produces some 1.5 million cases each year, making it one of the largest wineries in the country. That's a lot of bubbly good times.

Vibe: The winery, off River Road about 12 miles from Santa Rosa, features a huge tasting bar with a friendly, jovial staff ready to pour from their considerable menu. The idyllic, ivy-covered winery is a favorite of the walker and stroller sets, with educational tours running every hour and tours of the gardens twice daily. There's an on-site restaurant for those post-bubbly hungries.


Mouth value: If you're wondering about the whole Champagne vs. sparkling wine thing . . . fuhgeddaboutit. Korbel calls its wines "California Champagne," or simply Champagne, casting aside the brouhaha over whether sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region of France can actually be called that. Like other wines, Champagne can be either sweet or dry (not sweet), and we tried both, most of which are only available in the tasting room. The driest, the Korbel Vintage Reserve 1998 Blanc de Noir ($14.99), is made only from Pinot Noir grapes and has a puckery crisp flavor with hints of raspberry. The Korbel Le Premier 1997 ($24.99) is aged six years, with a yeastier, nuttier flavor that pairs well with cheese. The Pinot Gris Champagne ($19.99) is the spiciest of the wines we tried, with flavors of green apple and citrus. If you want to taste the most traditional of champagnes, try the Korbel Sec ($9.99), made the same way for more than 100 years and just slightly sweet. The most candylike are the Blanc de Noirs ($9.99) or the Moscato Frizzante ($19.99), with lots of flowery-sweet bubbles.

Don't miss: Sneak in a lovers stroll among the redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods, just down the road. With all that bubbly going to your head, who knows what daring romantic gestures await you in the wilds of the forest?

Five-second snob: How many twists does it take to get the "cage" (that wire contraption that keeps the lid on) off the bottle? Tasting-room staff say that's one of the most popular questions and, in fact, it turned up on Jeopardy a few years ago. The answer: just a few more than the number of licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. It's six half turns, to be exact. After removing the cage and foil, gently twist off the cork--don't launch it off Hollywood-style. You'll end up with less to clean up off the floor later. And that strawberry you romantics like to stick in the bottom of the glass? It usually just makes a big fizzy mess when you pour in the bubbly and doesn't add a whole lot to the taste. If you must have your fruit, stick it on the rim.

Spot: Korbel Winery, 13250 River Road. Open 10am to 5pm daily. No tasting fee. 707.824.7316.

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From the May 26-June 1, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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