Chasing Bubbles

Photo by Tyler Darden

Elliott Watkins walks the vines of Veritas vineyards, inspecting the coming harvest

Elliott Watkins inspecting the Veritas vineyards.

In a roundabout way, a family’s summers on the English coast launched the Virginia Sparkling Company.

Elliott Watkins has a distinctive beard—a tapered, regal thatch you’d expect him to absently stroke during quiet moments, while pondering what the future holds. That is, if he had any quiet moments.

LEARN ABOUT five unusual wines from author Nancy Bauer in “Offbeat Bubbles.”

But when the 31-year-old winemaker gets to talking about the new Virginia Sparkling Company, his family’s wine business in the mountains outside Charlottesville, there’s really not much to ponder anyway—it’s clear he’s found his place in the universe.

Watkins’ passion for sparkling wine goes back to his roots in England, where he studied winemaking, and bubbly in particular, a style well-suited to the region’s cool and wet local climate. But before the studies, before the bubbly, and well before the beard, there was Chloe Hodson, the little American girl who came each summer with brother George and sister Emily to visit her grandparents, just down the row from the Watkins family. The pack of kids grew close, raiding their grandparents’ sheds and playing in the pebbles on the beach. Later, Chloe’s parents, Andrew and Patricia Hodson, would build what is now one of the premier wineries in Virginia, and in 2012, on a break from his studies, Watkins found his way back to his old friends, where he also found a new job, a new wife, and a new life with the Hodson clan. 

Now, the Virginia Sparkling Company is just one of Watkins’ projects, which include a partnership in Flying Fox Vineyard in Afton with George and Emily (now his brother- and sister-in-law); his winemaking duties for the family’s flagship, Veritas Vineyards; and a young family at home—he and Chloe have two little girls, Isla, 3, and Elsie, 1. Asked if he’s managed to maintain any work/life balance, he both laughs and sighs. “Not right now. It’s tough. Chloe has a go at me for not taking any days off. I’m hoping the energy I’m putting in is a good thing.”

Photo by Tyler Darden

Elliott Watkins of the Virginia Sparkling Company.

The future looks promising for the nascent Virginia Sparkling Company. Virginia wine drinkers have lately developed an insatiable thirst for bubbles, juice from the abundant 2019 vintage fills this year’s tanks, and competition is minimal, due to the heavy start-up costs for a sparkling operation.

Even recent bad news—the business impact from COVID-19 and disastrous late frosts that killed 20 to 100 percent of the primary fruit in many vineyards­—may ultimately work in Virginia Sparkling Company’s favor. Secondary fruit has less time to ripen, which can be a problem for still wine production, but less so for sparkling. And with wineries sitting on excess inventory, due to COVID slowing sales, some may be reluctant to make wine this year, potentially freeing up grapes Watkins can purchase for his clients.

Still, there are challenges. A key new piece of winemaking equipment Watkins ordered has been delayed for months after the French manufacturer closed due to COVID. And a day still has only 24 hours.

The Leap into Sparkling

Photo by Tyler Darden

cooled liquid glycol freezes the top of each bottle so the sediment resting near the cap can be removed without clouding the wine.

Cooled liquid glycol freezes the top of each bottle for sediment removal. 

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Watkins was making sparkling wine for Veritas Vineyards with his sister-in-law, Emily Hodson. He says, “The winemaker at Breaux Vineyards had tasted our wines and said they wanted to add a traditional method sparkling to their portfolio. I wasn’t going to say no to the possibility of building something bigger. After that, winemakers talk to other winemakers, so word just kind of got out.”

The launch of Virginia Sparkling Company was Watkins’ drive to make the one-off business more legitimate. “We were almost doing a favor for wineries, to handle that secondary fermentation process for them. But with the amount of time and energy that was going into it, it made sense for us to try and make it a separate company.”

“We are trying to emulate Rack & Riddle,” Watkins continues, naming a California sparkling wine producer. “They are enormous and provide probably a majority of the sparkling wine that you see in the grocery store. They built that model purely on traditional-method sparkling services and have been so successful with it.”

Making traditional sparkling, or méthode champenoise, is a highly technical process requiring two fermentations, the second of which happens in the bottle, which is then aged, riddled (progressively turned and tipped upside down to force sediment into the neck), disgorged, and then topped off with more wine and sugar and corked while still under pressure. It takes time, skill, and money, but in the end, Watkins says most opt for the traditional method route. 

Photo by Tyler Darden

Bottles corked and wire cage added

Bottle being corked.

Virginia Sparkling Company’s service model gives wineries lots of options. They can provide their own grapes, grape juice, or base wine for Watkins to work with, or they can private label. All of Watkins’ clients have opted for the traditional method used for high-end Champagne and sparkling wines, although he says he’s willing to consider simpler methods, such as Charmat, where secondary fermentation happens in a tank instead of the bottle, or force carbonation, where CO2 is injected into finished wine. “A lot of wineries have been keen to get a product to market inside a year,” says Watkins. “I’ve always said to them, look, if you want to go that route, you have to look at the force carbonation method, because with traditional sparkling method, you’re not receiving any secondary flavors from the yeast for at least a year.”

A Growing Demand

“I started working with a lot of my clients in 2017,” he says, “so most have had one round of wine come back out, and everybody has been saying it didn’t hang around for five minutes, so now they want to increase their volumes. We’re seeing volume increases across the board, as well as new wineries signing on.” 

Photo by Tyler Darden

Bottles corked and wire cage added

Wire cage added to the bottles.

Currently, Watkins works with about 10 wineries, all in Virginia. “We’re at about 3,000 cases right now,” he says, “but I feel like we could double that and still be in a good place. The only limitation is tank space.”

Aging, riddling, disgorging, and bottling all happen in a production facility at Flying Fox Vineyards. Automated riddling cubes can riddle two thousand bottles at a time–a process that takes between six weeks and three months. A newly insulated storage room can hold a temperature within three degrees any time of the year. “We’ve brought on two new people to work solely on the sparkling project,” says Watkins, “and we’ll add four more over the next six months. Making sparkling wine requires somebody with initial training in winemaking and a sense of how secondary fermentation works, but mostly they must have a passion for it, and for all the nuances that are very different from still winemaking.

Virginia’s Take on Sparkling

Champagne is the yardstick by which sparkling wines around the world have historically been measured. By French law, wines carrying the Champagne imprimatur can be made only from three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meuniere. Virginia wineries use that same yardstick, too—mostly. Although some have built loyal followings with everything from sparkling Nortons to traminettes to viogniers, according to Elliott Watkins, most wineries stick with traditional chardonnay. “Chardonnay provides a great building block for all those secondary flavors to work off, because it’s more neutral in its approach. Some hybrid grapes have a personality already, and so it starts to get a little competitive when you’ve got these really fruity qualities, and often they don’t mesh as well as they do with just a chardonnay base.”

Photo by Tyler Darden

Final, foil wrapped bottles

With the foil added, these are ready for packaging.

One of Watkins’ first clients was Christine Vrooman, owner of Ankida Ridge Vineyards in Amherst, for whom he makes a traditional Blanc de Blanc, a white sparkling wine made from chardonnay. Says Vrooman, “We had wanted to add a sparkling to our program for some time, because we love a fine méthode champenoise bubbly, and also we thought it would be a perfect addition to our dinner events lineup. We have been thrilled with the outcome, and we’re excited to now be adding a Blanc de Noir with our 2020 vintage pinot noir grapes.”

Even with a price point north of $30, a sparkling on a winery’s tasting menu usually has more to do with variety and prestige than big profits. Watkins says, “Virginia’s sparkling wines aren’t just higher in price because we want them to be. They take so much time and effort and energy and storage that when you add all the numbers up, you have to be at around $35 to $40 a bottle to make any money.

“I believe these wines do deserve a higher price point,” adds Watkins, “not only for the added time and energy that goes into them, but to uphold the quality and elevated experience it brings. Sparkling wine is a wine to celebrate with. The sound of a cork popping invokes such a sense of joy.”

Photo by Tyler Darden

Elliott Watkins pours a glass of Virginia Sparkling Company bubbles.

Despite his calm demeanor and his confidence in the growing consumer demand for the wine bubbling away in his cellar, one has to wonder if Watkins is feeling pressure in this new life he’s living. “Pressure? Oh, absolutely. Just a little bit,” he laughs. “Ensuring that bottle comes out the other side fully carbonated, hitting all those numbers, it’s a daunting process. We get one vintage, one shot per year. This isn’t brewing where you can dial in the recipe and just kind of do it again next week and do it better.

He added, “This is definitely not something that we came up with overnight. It really began in 2014. It’s money we could have used on other things, so for us to make that jump, it has to do well, and so far it’s proving itself.”

Watkins may be too busy to ponder whether Virginia Sparkling Company truly is his destiny, but no matter. “Anytime I’ve worked on projects that are meaningful for me, I’ve been the happiest, even if it is the most stressful time. It’s the same as parenting—equal parts madness and absolute joy.” 

This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

Photo credit Tyler Darden

The traditional method of riddling by hand.

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