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by Fred McMillin
for September 4, 1997
The Korbel Spell
Prologue: It is 1862 in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are two developments which still affect what America drinks today.
A traveler bound for Martinez requests a refreshing cocktail from San Francisco bartender Jerry Thomas. Gin, vermouth, and bitters are shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. Jerry names his creation after the traveler's destination. The "martini" is born.
The three Czech-born Korbel brothers leave San Francisco for the Russian River Valley. After logging and farming, they turn to producing sparkling wine. They have little idea that a hundred years later it will be served at five consecutive Presidential inaugurations, Reagan in 1981 through Clinton in 1997.
The Rest of the Story:The Korbel brothers did not have a lot of competition from other American firms when they turned to making sparkling wine. The USA's first (1847) successful producer, Nicholas Longworth, had shut down, due to the ravages of powdery mildew in his Ohio vineyards. Also, the first (1855) California sparkling wine producer, Los Angeles entrepreneur Benjamin D. Wilson, had abandoned the operation, no doubt influenced by the fact that in 1857 the winery had "about fifty earthquakes in two weeks." After all, the nearby San Gabriel River was named by the Spaniards the Rio de Temblores, "the river of earthquakes."
In any case, the Russian River Valley proved much more hospitable, and today sales exceed a million cases a year of seven Korbel sparklers...one of their most popular is the Brut...they've just turned out a mere 620,000 cases of it. My classes find it particularly pleasing, partly because it is not as severe and yeasty as some competitors, and partly because it costs only $11!
Korbel Brut California Champagne
Postscript:Korbel was one of the few sparkling wineries to survive prohibition. Who received the first case of Korbel after Repeal? President Franklin D. Roosevelt!
For much more about Korbel, see the April 24,1997 WineDay titled "How to Have a Sparkling Passover."
Read more articles by Fred McMillin in the eGGsf
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