Tales From: Sonoma—Rack and Riddle and Breathless Wines Revisited

A quick hurricane update: while there are serious concerns in Louisiana and to the east here in Houston, we were relatively unscathed. It did get windy and rained briefly, but other than that, no ill effects at all. Thank you for all of your concerns!

I can’t believe it, but it has almost been a year since I have been on an airplane. I have wondered where I will go once it seems again like a “smart” move to board a plane again, and I keep coming back to one place:

Sonoma County.

While it not might be as “fancy” as, say, the South of France or Chile, it is a region dear to my heart as I have made several close friends there. It is also, once again going through a terrifying bout with wildfires which, when coupled with the crippling effects of the COVID crisis, could cause long-lasting damage to the industry.

While the list of people and places that I would feel the need to visit is long and the roads that I would once again want to ride almost endless, one winery that is certainly on the list is Breathless.


Not many outside the Northern California wine industry have heard of Breathless or its sister company, Rack and Riddle. But chances are if you have had many sparkling wines from California, you have had a wine that has gone through the Rack and Riddle custom crush facility.

There are a few custom crush facilities in Northern California, and the concept is a variation of the Co-Op model that is prevalent in Europe. Usually, smaller wine producers without their own wine-making equipment, use the services of the custom crush to produce their wine with varying levels of involvement: some winemakers use the facility almost as if it were their own, make all the decisions along the way, and provide most (all?) of the labor. Other producers might not be involved at all—the facility may even arrange for fruit acquisition and then handle every aspect of the winemaking process, from grape to bottle, in house.

What sets Rack and Riddle apart from the other custom crush facilities? Founded in 2007 by Rebecca Faust and Bruce Lundquist, Rack and Riddle quickly became the pre-eminent (and essentially only) custom crush facility that specializes in sparkling wine. As far as I have been able to ascertain, nearly every small to medium-sized winery in Northern California that sells a sparkling wine uses the services of Rack and Riddle at least at some point during the process.

We first passed by the gyro palates—used to riddle the bottles in order to remove the dead yeast cells after the second fermentation.

Why is Rack and Riddle essentially the only “game in town”? Sparkling wine equipment, like these gyropalates, used to “riddle” the wines (to remove the dead yeast cells caused by the second fermentation in the bottle), are expensive.

Winemaker Penny Gadd-Coster, formerly of Jordan Winery and J, where she became head sparkling winemaker, has been with Rack and Riddle since the beginning, oversees the production of what seems like countless individual labels from all over California.

Rebecca Faust enlisted her sisters Sharon Cohn and Cynthia Faust to launch a new brand, Breathless Wines, in 2014, now producing four sparkling wines (Brut, Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs, Brut Rosé), a Moscato, and several still wines. All the wines are made by Gadd-Coster in the Rack and Riddle facility.

We then walked the length of the bottling line—Sharon made me swear not to divulge whose wine they were bottling at the time!

Rack and Riddle also has another relatively rare sight: their own bottling line.

A couple of weeks ago, the fine people at Breathless sent me a few of their current releases to try here in Houston. Hopefully, the next time I try the wines, I will be at their tasting room in Healdsburg.

NV Breathless Brut, North Coast, CA: Retail $27. 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir. Wow. Has it been really over six years since I have reviewed this wine? Way back in 2014, I had a tour of the Rack & Riddle facility (sister partner to Breathless) and I was impressed. A magnificent facility producing most of the sparkling wines of Sonoma (and Napa, for that matter). While Breathless is but a tiny fraction of the Rack & Riddle portfolio, it is perhaps the best representation of Sonoma sparkling wine. Fruity (peach, pear) and yeasty (as most good sparklers are), with a vibrant sparkle in the glass, this does not disappoint on the palate. Bright, fruity, and even a bit savory on the palate, this is not just a cookie-cutter sparkler trying to find a middle path of the genre. No, it is full of flavor and depth with a lengthy finish. Very Good to Excellent. 88-90 Points.

The Blanc de Blancs was the center piece of a dinner that starts with a take on Bruschetta: cherry tomato-onion balsamic salad with pesto and parmesan in an Athens Foods phyllo shell.

Followed by butter-sous vide lobster on a bed of lobster consommé cavatelli with a parmesan crisp.

NV Breathless Blanc de Blancs, North Coast, CA:
Retail $34. 100% Chardonnay. This is the inaugural release of the Blanc de Blancs and it is certainly a solid effort. Slightly golden in the glass with tiny but active bubbles. Yeasty and citrus on the nose along with Granny Smith apple, and a touch of funk (but I love the funk). The palate is tart, fruity, and dry–many domestic sparklers tend to have a bit of a heavy hand with the dosage (the amount of sugar added after the second fermentation that determines the style), but this wine hits that balance almost perfectly. I am not usually a fan of young BdB, but this is a particularly compelling wine. Now, if they would only call it “Méthode Traditionelle” instead of “Méthode Champenoise” (it made me cringe just writing that)… Excellent. 90-92 Points.

Then, to show the versatility of sparkling wine, I served the Blanc de Noirs with homemade broccoli, cauliflower, sausage, bacon pizza. Whoa.

Breathless Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma County, CA: Retail $32. 93% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier. It has been a minute since I have tried this wine and this most recent blend lives up to the previous iteration that I tried a half a dozen years ago. I do have a problem, though–it is called a “Blanc de Noirs” which is translated as “White from Blacks” meaning a white wine made with black (i.e., red) wine grapes. Well, the wine is decidedly not white, in fact, it is much more of a rosé in color. I know. Big deal. Tons of red berry fruit with a splash of citrus on the nose. The palate is accentuated by plenty of that fruit, balanced acidity, and a delicate sparkle. Another stellar wine from the folks who make a high percentage of the valley’s sparkling wine. Excellent. 91-93 Points.


Last, and (hopefully for a few giggles, here is a video of me (attempting the?) sabering of a bottle of Breathless Rosé back in 2014:


About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sparkling Wine, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

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