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Amista Vineyards

Sparkling Moments in Wine

I have been asked lots of questions about owning a winery after spending so many years in the corporate world. Here are some of the stories of my journey into wine that have added sparkling moments to my life.

Vicky Farrow
 
January 6, 2022 | Vicky Farrow

Becoming the First Sparkling Winery in Healdsburg, 5 Surprising Discoveries

It's Not a Destination, It's a Journey

Sparkling Syrah from Amista Vineyards - Joy in a Bottle

...and it's been both exhilarating and challenging. Here's what I've discovered.

 

 

We never thought we’d be in the wine business let alone be the first sparkling winery in Healdsburg. The creation of Amista Vineyards was a dream that my husband Mike and I never knew we had and never knew we shared. It emerged slowly over time. When we started, we made Chardonnay and Syrah from our estate Morningsong Vineyards and Zinfandel and Cabernet from the vineyards of our neighbors in Dry Creek Valley, in Healdsburg, California.

Becoming the first sparkling winery in Healdsburg wasn’t part of our plan, although to be honest, in those days we didn’t really have a plan. It all started when we made our first sparkling wine in 2008. That was five years after our first harvest in 2003, when we picked for red wines - Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

We are now known as the sparkling wine house in Dry Creek Valley in Healdsburg, California with six sparkling wines, a sparkling wine club and a sparkling wine tasting flight. It’s been an exhilarating journey of opportunities, setbacks, surprises, and a lot of lessons learned. Here are my five surprising discoveries.

Be open to serendipity

Discovery #1.  Embrace serendipity because accidents and unexpected happenings present opportunities.

Seize the opportunity

Discovery #2. Seizing opportunities has been an important part of our journey to becoming a sparkling winery. I will admit that Mike is better at this than me. I like to research and think things through before acting. But when I’ve allowed myself to take the leap, it’s always turned out to be a good thing.

Full speed ahead

Discovery #3. When you’re on a roll keep going. Building on your successes creates momentum and energy in your team. Externally, it creates a buzz and tells the world that you are committed to building something bigger than just a one-time offering.

Keep innovating

Discovery #4. Experiment - don’t be afraid to fail. Trying new things is sometimes the only way to know what will happen. Often, the experiments are great successes. Sometimes they fail. So, I like the to remind myself of the two sides of the same coin: “when you’re on a roll, keep going” and “when you’re in a rut, quit digging”.

Bend, don’t break

Discovery #5. Be flexible AND stay true to what is most important. This is a fine line to walk, and we haven’t always gotten it right. It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the things that are fundamental to our values and our brand and the things that can change over time as circumstance and experience evolve.

We are proud to be the first sparkling winery in Healdsburg, with estate grown fruit from our vineyards in Dry Creek Valley and honored to stand alongside the pioneering sparkling wine houses that came before us and paved the path for sparkling wineries in Sonoma County.

 

 

Still Thirsty?

Here are a few of the stories that illustrate the things I’ve discovered on the journey to becoming a sparkling wine house in Dry Creek Valley.

Be open to serendipity

I’m convinced we would not be Healdsburg’s first sparkling winery if it weren’t for a series of happy accidents.

Prevent a Spillover, Create a Rosé

In September 2005, we decided to try harvesting our Syrah by machine. Mike was in the vineyard at night (machine harvesting is typically done at night when it’s cool) supervising the pick. He was enthralled watching the machine go up and down the rows and got so excited that he kept asking the operator to pick more rows. He didn’t want to stop.

The next morning, he was still reveling over his midnight pick when he got a call from someone at the winery. They told him he had 10 tons of Syrah grapes in a 10-ton fermentation tank, and when the wine started fermenting, it was going to bubble over, go all over the floor and he was going to have to clean it up.

He swiftly moved into action and had 200 gallons moved from the tank to neutral barrels. Neutral barrels have been used in prior years and impart no oak to the wine. His idea was that once the Syrah in the tank was fermented and moved to barrels, he would combine it with the juice he had removed.

In early January of 2006, we went down to the winery with our winemaker, Chris Wills, to taste all the wine in barrels. We decided to taste the wine that had been removed to avoid the spillover. It had spent very little time on the skins, so it was a rosé rather than a red wine. We tasted it. It was fantastic. We decided on the spot to keep it separate from the other Syrah and bottle it as our first Rosé of Syrah. This was step number one in the serendipity that would lead to our first sparkling wine.

Sparkling Syrah from a Class Winemaking Project

Step number two didn’t occur until two years later. Our Rosé of Syrah had become a big hit and we continued to make it each year. In 2007, Chris (our winemaker who helped us decide to make our first rosé) asked if he could have some of the current vintage of our Rosé of Syrah to use to teach his class at the junior college how to make a sparkling wine using the classic Methode Champenoise. This is the method used to make fine French Champagne. We immediately said yes, on the condition that we got to try the finished product.

When we tasted it, we knew we had to make more for ourselves and our friends. We sent one barrel each of our 2007 and 2008 Rosé of Syrah, to a custom crush winery specializing in sparkling wines. This is where the second fermentation in the bottle was done, transforming a still wine into a sparkling wine. We released it in 2009 at our first Sparkling Holidays party. Mike celebrated the occasion with what has now become a tradition at this party of opening the bottle with a saber.

Discovery #1.  Embrace serendipity because accidents and unexpected happenings present opportunities.

Seize the opportunity

Some opportunities present themselves in a flash and you must decide with no time for research or reflection. Others only occur to you if you are open to change. Some feel like they were just meant to be.

Our First Rosé – From Problem to Opportunity

Mike had just a few hours to figure out what to do with the excess Syrah in the 10-ton fermenter before it spilled over forcing him to don rubber boots (he didn’t have any) and wash the spillage down the drain with a big hose. Fixing that problem created an opportunity – a chance to make our first rosé.

OK Rosé – Trust Your Intuition

Sometimes opportunities are unseen because of a mindset of “this is how we do things”. We had never made a rosé in our early years in the wine business. It wasn’t something we even considered. We hadn’t done any customer research to see if anyone would like it much less buy it. Rosés are popular now in the U.S. but that wasn’t the case then. When we tasted it and loved it, we immediately decided we’d find a way to market it. I’ve learned that listening to intuition can be a path to innovation.

Sparkling Syrah – It Just Felt Right

On the other hand, seizing the opportunity was a piece of cake when we made the decision to make a sparkling wine from our Rosé of Syrah, at least for me. Although making a sparkling wine is far more complicated and expensive than making a still wine, I was undeterred.

It helped that our winemaker, Chris, had experience with sparkling wines and knew of a new winery specializing in making sparkling wines that had recently emerged on the local wine scene. Making it ourselves would have been impossible but partnering with a custom crush operation could make it viable. Besides, I love bubbles and thought it would be fun to make our Rosé of Syrah sparkle!

Discovery #2. Seizing opportunities has been an important part of our journey to becoming a sparkling winery. I will admit that Mike is better at this than me. I like to research and think things through before acting. But when I’ve allowed myself to take the leap, it’s always turned out to be a good thing.

Full speed ahead

We had three years of making Sparkling Syrah under our belt and I was ready to move full speed ahead with another sparkling wine.

Next Stop – Sparkling Blanc de Blanc

Ashley Herzberg joined as our new winemaker in 2011 and I asked her if she thought we could make a Blanc de Blanc from our chardonnay grapes. She had never made a sparkling wine, but she too loves bubbles and said, “Absolutely”.

 A few months later we harvested some of our Chardonnay to make our first Blanc de Blanc. The inaugural release of our Amista Blanc de Blanc in 2013 scored 91 points and won a gold medal in the Press Democrat’s “Best of the Best” North Coast Wine Challenge. I absolutely fell in love with this wine, and it continues to be my go-to bubbly. There’s nothing like personal satisfaction and public recognition to encourage full speed ahead, so we kept going!

On a Roll – More Sparkling Wines and Healdsburg’s First Sparkling Wine Club

In 2013 we started making not one, not two, but three sparkling wines to add to our portfolio, a Sparkling Grenache, a vintage Blanc de Blanc (technically a late disgorged version of our Blanc de Blanc) and our first sparkling blend called Fusión.

In 2014 we launched Healdsburg’s first sparkling wine club at the annual Passport, Dry Creek Valley's premiere food and wine event. Then in 2016 our Sparkling Mataró made its debut and in February 2022, we will release our second sparkling blend called Sparkling Tres, another rosé, made from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

Discovery #3. When you’re on a roll keep going. Building on your successes creates momentum and energy in your team. Externally, it creates a buzz and tells the world that you are committed to building something bigger than just a one-time offering.

Keep innovating

Sparkling Wines from Non-Traditional Grapes

Our first sparkling wine was made with a grape that is never used in classic French Champagne, Syrah. Tradionally, Champagne and sparkling wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The Australians make a bubbly called Sparkling Shiraz from the Syrah grape, but it is a very deep red color and slightly sweet. Our Sparkling Syrah is a rosé, glittering cranberry in color and quite dry.

Most of the grapes we grow on our own vineyards are Rhône varieties – Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. Using those grapes rather than the classic Champagne varieties, is one of the ways we innovate. The other non-traditional approach we take is to produce sparkling wines from single vintages. Although we don’t vintage date them, each bottling comes from a single year (except that first Sparkling Syrah). Most Champagnes and sparkling wines are blends from several vintages. We have the luxury of beautiful California weather, so we don’t need to save the “good years” to blend with the bad.

Glittering Sparkling Wines in Non-traditional Bottles

In addition to using non-traditional varieties, we also use non-traditional bottles. Most sparkling wine is bottled in dark green glass. This makes sense because the dark glass protects the delicate wine from the bright lights in the wine shops. Since we don’t sell our wine in shops – only from our website, tasting room and wine club – we get the privilege of using clear glass bottles.

This just plain makes me happy because lining up our sparkling wines creates a glittering array of precious gems. I love seeing the color of the wine in the bottle – from the gorgeous gold of our Blanc to the blush-colored Fusión all the way to the deep cranberry color of the sparkling Syrah. I’m not sure anyone else cares, but there should be some things about owning a winery that make the owner smile, right?

Healdsburg’s First Sparkling Wine Club, with a Twist

Another innovation was the introduction of the first sparkling wine club in Healdsburg. We were eager to launch it in April of 2014 at Passport, the premiere food and wine event in Dry Creek Valley, but we only had two sparkling wines at that time. We knew we had others coming, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to introduce our club to so many people. We decided to borrow from the idea of selling wine futures. People could sign up for our sparkling wine club in April and purchase their first shipment which would arrive later in the year. It worked!

Dosage Trial Tastings – a Big Flop

A big part of being innovating is taking risks and not being afraid to fail. We had what we thought was a brilliant idea to offer “Dosage Trial Tastings”. The tasting would be led by Ashley, our winemaker, and guests would experience the process of deciding on the dosage (the dose of sugar syrup) to be added to the wine to achieve the perfect balance and mouthfeel. The dosage level also determines whether a sparkling wine is designated as Brut, Extra Brut or Brut Nature (dryer) or Sec, Demi-sec and Doux (sweeter).

Dosage trials are one of my most favorite parts of having a sparkling wine house. In fact, all of us love doing them but apparently no one else did. Another local sparkling house started offering them right after we did. I guess it seemed like a good idea to the producers, but the dogs weren’t eating the dog food. We dropped them. Now we offer a sparkling flight of our bubbles which is wildly popular.

Late Disgorged Blanc de Blanc – Complicated and Expensive

Another thing we tried was making a late disgorged Blanc de Blanc. For many reasons, it turned out to be more complicated and expensive to produce than we expected and there were several production mishaps. We dropped the wine from our lineup after a couple of vintages, but this is one we’re going to revisit. Stay tuned!

Discovery #4. Experiment - don’t be afraid to fail. Trying new things is sometimes the only way to know what will happen. Often, the experiments are great successes. Sometimes they fail. So, I like the to remind myself of the two sides of the same coin: “when you’re on a roll, keep going” and “when you’re in a rut, quit digging”.

Bend, don’t break

I’ve talked a lot about being flexible, open, and resourceful and those have been crucial parts of our journey. At the same time, it’s important to stay true to your values and your brand. For us, the quality of the wine and the quality of the partnerships with our guests and our team are fundamental.

Committed to the Traditional Methode Champenoise

We use non-traditional glass and non-traditional grapes, but all our sparkling wines are made using the traditional method for making fine French Champagne and sparkling wines. The grapes are picked at a lower brix level (sugar content) and the wine goes through a second fermentation in its own bottle. There are other less expensive and time-consuming ways to produce bubbles, but we remain committed to the traditional process because it delivers the highest quality sparkling wine.

Partnering with our Employees During the COVID Shutdown

One of the things we value is partnership, with our customers and with our team. When our tasting room was shut down due to COVID, it was another of those anxious moments – a huge challenge with no clear path forward. We decided to keep all our full-time employees on board and offer as many hours to our part-time team members as we could. Instead of working in the tasting room, they got on the phones from home and called our customers about their wine club orders.

We sent each team member a care package of wine and did a virtual tasting - one wine each week. The wine tasting was fun, but more important was the fact that we were staying connected and supporting each other through unchartered territory. And we connected with our members in the same way – virtually – enjoying not only wine tasting together but support and camaraderie.

A Sparkling Wine House Must Have a Sparkling Flight

Once it became clear that we were a sparkling wine house and not just a winery that makes a sparkling wine, we realized we had to offer a bubbles flight to our guests. We offer a beautiful flight of reds and whites, but how can you be a legitimate sparkling winery without also offering a sparkling flight?

This was one of my pet peeves about sparkling houses before we became one. Most sparkling wineries also make Chardonnays and Pinots since those are the two common varieties in sparkling wine. Being a lover of bubbles, when I came to visit, I wanted to taste sparkling wines, but all the flights were a mix of sparkling, Chardonnay and Pinot.

Now I understand it’s easier said than done. Although we produce several different sparkling wines, some of them are very limited production and they sell out a few months after release. You can’t have a sparkling flight with just one wine on the menu, so we have had to work hard juggling releases and wine club allocations so we can offer a flight of sparkling.

Discovery #5. Be flexible AND stay true to what is most important. This is a fine line to walk, and we haven’t always gotten it right. It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the things that are fundamental to our values and our brand and the things that can change over time as circumstance and experience evolve.

We are proud to be the first sparkling winery in Healdsburg, with estate grown fruit from our vineyards in Dry Creek Valley and honored to stand alongside the pioneering sparkling houses that came before us and paved the path for sparkling wineries in Sonoma County.

 

Vicky Farrow
 
December 2, 2021 | Vicky Farrow

11 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays with Sparkling Wine

Let us help you impress your friends

Winemaker Ashley Herzberg with Owners Mike and Vicky Farrow, Amista Vineyards, Sparkling Holiday Party, Healdsburg

with spectacular sparkling wine and food pairings!

 

 

Ashley Herzberg (Amista Winemaker), my husband Mike and I love our Sparkling Holidays Soiree and look forward to it every year. The holiday season is a time for gathering with family and friends, enjoying special treats, and proposing toasts to health, happiness, and friendship. Sparkling wine goes with an extensive array of dishes and occasions, but it’s a must for the holidays. For the past eleven years, we have hosted a sparkling holiday party with superb local chefs who have created some incredible sparkling wine and food pairings.

These pairings wowed our guests, and they are sure to wow yours. I am excited to share my eleven favorite pairings of Amista sparkling wines with delectable dishes. But first I want to tell you how our sparkling soiree came to be. Or you can go directly to the pairings.

We hosted our first holiday party in 2007, having just opened our tasting room that August. We were excited to finally have a place to have a party. We decided on an afternoon open house and did the same thing the following year.

When we were ready to release our first sparkling wine, we decided it would make its debut at our holiday party. But an open house just didn’t seem to have the right sparkle. No more mundane open houses for us. We wanted something special for our club members and their guests. We introduced Amista Sparkling Holidays in 2009, an early evening soiree with live music, passed hors d'oeuvres and a massive tree with glittering lights in the middle of a festively decorated tasting room. It’s the one time a year we trade in our jeans and vests and get all dressed up. Mike can often be seen in his tux!

Mike performed his first sabrage at that inaugural event, opening the bottle of bubbles with a saber. It only took six tries! How do you perform a sabrage, you ask? After carefully removing the foil and wire cage from the bottle, you hold the bottle in one hand by its end and the saber in the other.

The trick is to find the seam in the bottle and quickly run the saber along the seam from the end of the bottle to the neck. If successful, the lip of the glass and the cork come out with a pop! Be sure to point the bottle away from everyone because the glass lip and cork come out at lightening speed. The glass cuts cleanly making it possible to safely pour the wine and our guests always line up to get the first taste of those festive bubbles. 

Owner Mike Farrow Pouring Sparkling Blanc de Blanc at Amista Vineyards Sparkling Holiday Party, Healdsburg

Our sparkling soiree and the sabrage ceremony have become traditions over the last 11 years.The tradition has become so important that we even found a way to have the party during COVID. We moved the tree outside under our new solar covered patio and set up small bistro tables, six feet apart for our guests.

It was a very chilly evening and the heaters we ordered had not yet arrived because it seemed everyone was buying heaters at the time. Our club members were undaunted and dressed up for the affair complete with face masks and multiple layers of clothing plus scarves, gloves, and hats. Everyone was thrilled to be out after spending so many months cloistered at home and the mood was celebratory.

Amista Sparkling Holiday Party 2020, Healdsburg, California

That night we introduced another tradition, a sparkling cocktail! Our friend Tara Jasper, founder, and chief distiller at Sipsong Spirits, created a signature cocktail just for the occasion. Freshly squeezed orange juice, Tara’s hand-crafted Indira gin, Amista Sparkling Syrah and a garnish of fresh thyme and cranberries served as the welcome for a truly, madly sparkling evening!

One year I decided it was time for me to try the sabrage. I was nervous. Maybe that was the problem. I’m not sure exactly what happened but instead of the glass lip and cork flying out, the whole bottle kind of exploded. I was surprised but relieved that everyone was safe…except me. I eventually noticed a chunk of glass in my index finger. Fortunately for me, we had three club members who are surgeons attending the event that night. They escorted me into the back, removed the glass, washed, and bandaged the wound and declared me ready to party on! It was a good reminder to be extremely careful when performing a sabrage. I know they say you should get right back on the horse that threw you, but honestly, I haven’t tried a sabrage since. So, I stick with my bubbles and bites. Here are my eleven favorites.

11 KILLER PAIRINGS WITH AMISTA SPARKLING WINES

Tuscan Calamari Crostini pairs with Amista Vineyards Blanc de Blanc, Sparkling Holidays Party, Healdsburg

Blanc de Blanc with Tuscan calamari crostini

Sparkling Syrah with caramelized onions, blue cheese, and fig pizzettas

Sparkling Syrah with mushrooms stuffed with Italian fennel sausage

Sparkling Syrah with French cheesecake and raspberry coulis

Blanc de Blanc with lemon chive risotto cakes

Sparkling Syrah with seared ahi on a crisp wonton drizzled with wasabi aioli

Blanc de Blanc with Dungeness crab, marinated artichoke, and gruyere tart

Sparkling Grenache with lobster and brie mini puff pastry cups

Sparkling Syrah with cranberry-brie bites in mini pastry shells

Sparkling Mataró with mini brioche, Laura Chenel goat cheese, roasted pear, and pomegranate glaze

Sparkling Fusión with yellowtail sashimi, avocado, pickled red onions, pomegranate, and quinoa

We are looking forward to our 12th sparkling soiree this Saturday. I can’t wait to see our friends, try new pairings, taste the latest cocktail Tara is creating for us and watch someone (else) as they perform the traditional sabrage ceremony.

Cheers to a joyous holiday season filled with good food, good (sparkling) wine and good friends.

Vicky Farrow
 
November 4, 2021 | Vicky Farrow

3 Surprising Reasons Sparkling Syrah and Thanksgiving are the Perfect Pairing!

Add good friends and you have the secret for good times

Friends of Amista Vineyards in Prague

Let’s drink a Thanksgiving toast to friendship!

 

 

Yes, our Sparkling Syrah, which is a Rosé, will surprise you with how beautifully it goes with Thanksgiving dinner! But more about that in a minute. First, I want to talk a little about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and one of the things I am most thankful for as a wine business owner is the many friends who have shared our wine journey.

Amista means making friends (literally “it makes friends” in Spanish) and we chose it because our friends have always been our best cheerleaders, supporters, and sounding boards. It’s also because we believe that wine is better with friends!

Today I am reminiscing about an unforgettable time we had in Prague four years ago this month with dear friends Traudl, Bertram and their daughter Anina from Germany. My husband, Mike, met Bertram during his time at IBM when Bertram came to work on a post-graduate studies program. We quickly became friends with Bertram and Traudl when we were living in the Silicon Valley, gathering for dinner and, of course, wine.

Traudl and I have always been big fans of bubbles long before we knew we would start a winery and make our own sparkling wines in our new home in Sonoma County. Our friendship has endured over time and distance, even after they moved back to Munich and had a daughter – who was born (three weeks early) while Bertram was visiting us in California.

Our rendezvous in Prague came about because Amista was one of the winery hosts for a wine cruise on the Danube in November of 2017 and we planned to spend a few days in Prague following the cruise. It was an amazing cruise – but more about that in another post! It was the perfect reason to arrange to meet our long-time friends in Prague. The three of them all happened to be in different cities – Brussels, Munich, and Cologne – so it was a happy gathering for all of us.

Bertram was excited to introduce us to U Modré Kachničky, an intimate restaurant in Prague’s old town, that he had discovered on one of his business trips to the city. We went for a late and very long lunch in a cozy room we had all to ourselves. Good thing because there were many animated stories and raucous laughter as we caught up on each other’s lives! The afternoon was extraordinary, first and foremost because we realized once again that despite not being together for several years, it felt like only yesterday.

Roast Duck with Good Friends of Amista Vineyards in PragueAs has always been our custom, Traudl and I started with a glass of Champagne and Bertram and Mike started with a beer – this time a Czech beer. The food and service were spectacular. The restaurant is famous for its roast duck (the name of the restaurant means “at the blue duckling”), and it was hands down the best I’ve ever eaten. Bertram chose a lovely Czech red wine to go with our meal and all the ingredients for a remarkable afternoon came together. 

Vicky and Mike Proprietors of Amista Vineyards in Prague

The previous evening Bertram, Traudl and Anina came for “cocktails” to our charming old-world apartment overlooking a picturesque plaza that we booked for our stay in Prague. We were excited to surprise them with a toast to friendship with our own Amista Vineyards Sparkling Blanc de Blanc that we had squirreled away after our winemaker dinner on the cruise.

We have gathered in many places over the decades. One year they all came to New Jersey to celebrate the millennium. Another time, Traudl and Anina came to Healdsburg to help us ring in the new year. That occasion also involved duck. Traudl made her famous Duck Breast with Balsamic Raspberry Sauce and the most decadent potatoes au gratin I’ve ever tasted. We introduced her to our Amista Sparkling Rosé of Syrah, which was a beautiful counterpoint to the rich duck and potato gratin.

Sparkling Rose of Syrah, Amista Vineyards, Sonoma County, CaliforniaSparkling Syrah is also our favorite wine to pair with Thanksgiving dinner and here are my top 3 reasons why:

1. It has the tannins to stand up to hearty dishes

2. Its effervescence and bright flavors cleanse the palate

3. It brings a splash of joyous color to the Thanksgiving table

There are many sparkling moments to mark our friendship over the years, but probably the most heartwarming and wonderful was the day Mike and I flew to Munich to surprise Traudl for her 40th birthday. We made secret arrangements with Bertram to be in Munich for the special occasion and had the neighbors let us into their home just before Traudl arrived back from work. When she came up the stairs and into the living room and saw me sitting there, she screamed with joy – at least I hope it was joy and not terror! Of course, we marked the moment with a bottle of Champagne!

I hope you’ll drink a toast to good friends, good wine, and good times, along with me, this Thanksgiving.

 

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