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Winemaker Penn Gadd-Coster and the Sisters of Breathless Wines Winemaker Penn Gadd-Coster and the Sisters of Breathless Wines Photo: Breathless Wines

By Liz Thach

Do you enjoy sparkling wine? If so, consider scheduling a visit to Breathless Winery in Sonoma County, California.

As part of our continuing series on supporting local wineries during COVID by scheduling safe visits to winery tasting rooms, a small group of us ventured to the town of Healdsburg where Breathless is located. There we were greeted with a flutes of delicious bubbly wine, potato chip appetizers and a sabering demonstration with a sword.

Breathless Wines Famous Even in France

Liz Sharon and Fiona Prepare to saber PicmonkeyLiz, Sharon and Fiona select a bottle to saber I first heard of Breathless several years ago when the 2012 Breathless Brut won the top Sweepstakes Award in the Sonoma County Harvest Fair as well as several other competitions, where I was doing blind wine judging. This was quite amazing, because the winery had just opened in 2011, and their first vintage was already stealing all of the awards. They have continued this winning streak, winning 13 medals and a Best of Show with their most recent releases in 2019.

Even more surprising is when I mentioned Breathless Wines to some winemakers in France, and they said that most of the wine industry in France knew Breathless very well, and were especially impressed with the three sisters, Sharon, Rebecca and Cynthia, who started the winery and their famous winemaker, Penny Gadd-Coster. Penny has long been known as a super star in the California wine industry. With more than 30 years of winemaking experience, including stints at Jordan, J Winery, Forenzo Vineyards, and Rack & Riddle, where Breathless is located, Penny was rightly named “Winemaker of the Year” for Napa, Sonoma, and the greater Bay Area by the North Bay Business Journal.

Not a Chateau – Housed in Industrial Warehouse

Wearing masks, we arrived at Breathless Wines for our 11am appointment and were greeted by Sharon Cohn, whose business card reads, “Sister 1 of 3.” The winery tasting room is a small, cozy building nestled next to a large industrial complex of three huge warehouse buildings that house Rack & Riddle – the famous custom crush business that makes sparkling and still wine for many wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Indeed, all of the Breathless wines are made here as well.

What makes a visit to Breathless so enticing is not only the wine, but the beautiful outdoor garden with shaded tables, flowering shrubs and tall fir trees that spread out from the tasting room. This is also ideal for COVID outdoor tastings, as the seating areas are more than 6 feet apart.

Wearing a mask, Sharon invited us to take a seat in a large gazebo in the center of the garden. We were pleased to see a small welcome sign for our group, along with crystal Champagne flutes, small bowls of potato chips (one of the best pairings with all types of wine due to the salt and crunch), and a bottle of Breathless Brut chilling in a silver ice bucket.

The Story of Breathless and Its Beautiful “Lady on a Flying Cork” Label

As we sipped the beautiful Brut sparkling wine and nibbled on potato chips, Sharon told us the story of Breathless Winery. She and her other two sisters, Rebecca and Cynthia, decided to start the winery to honor their mother who had passed away from Alpha-1, a disease that makes it hard to breathe. This was also an inspiration for the name “Breathless,” along with its double meaning of something so beautiful it leaves you breathless. Today they donate money from wine sales each year to Alpha-1 Foundation, as well as other non-profits.

All three sisters have impressive backgrounds in finance, business strategy, hospitality and wine, so starting the winery was based on passion for wine and family. They decided to focus on sparkling wine, made in the traditional methode Champenoise, where secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, producing delicate bubbles and fresh exciting wines to celebrate life.

Sharon described how they decided to use the “Lady on a Flying Cork” from a 1920’s Champagne poster for their label. “We were working with a graphic designer who told us we should put a picture of our ‘chateau’ on the label, but we laughed because we make our wine in this warehouse.” She gestured to the large aluminum sided building behind her. “However, we found this great old poster of the lady on the flying cork and decided to use this. We pay a royalty to the artist for every bottle sold.”

A Tasting of Five Breathless Sparkling Wines with a Sword Demonstration

In total, we tasted five Breathless Sparkling wines, each made in the traditional method with aging 2 to 3 years in bottle as non-vintage wines. They all had very distinctive personalities.

Breathless Brut – 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, inviting red cherry notes with lemon zest and tiny bubbles. Received 98 points in the 2019 Harvest Challenge ($27)

Breathless Blanc de Blanc – 100% Chardonnay, fresh pear and lemon with hints of toast and minerality; great complexity, with a zippy refreshing finish. ($34)

Breathless Rosé – 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay, fruit forward and voluptuous with ripe cherry cordial notes, and hint of sweetness on the finish. ($33)

Breathless Blanc de Noirs – 93% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier, sophisticated and complex with toasty brioche and lemon brûlée notes – delicious! Sweepstakes Wine at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. ($32)

Breathless Moscato – 98% Muscat Canelli, 2% Chardonnay, perfumed floral nose of honeysuckle with spice and honeydew notes on palate with slightly sweet finish. A perfect brunch or appetizer wine. ($29)

Fiona and Liz toast at Breathless 2 PicmonkeyFiona and Liz toast to a successful sabering and the wines of Breathless

When we arrived at the Blanc de Noirs, Sharon invited one of us to “saber” the bottle with a sword. This is an ancient tradition from Europe of breaking a Champagne bottle using a saber (sword). It was popularized by Napoleon’s cavalries to celebrate a victory. The French term is sabrage. Since I had already done this several times in the past, I encouraged Fiona to try it (Fiona Fang is a graduate student in Sonoma State’s MBA program in Wine Business). Sharon showed her what to do, and after donning gloves and eyeglasses for protection, Fiona deftly sabered the bottle and then poured from it into our glasses. 

Meeting with the Famous Breathless Winemaker – Penny Gadd-Coster

We were honored when Penny Gadd-Coster, the award-winning winemaker of Breathless Wines and Director of Winemaking for Rack & Riddle, stopped by our table to chat with us for a few minutes. Penny explained that they make around 20,000 cases of Breathless sparkling wine each year, and that is it sold and shipped to more than 25 states. She also described the impressive size of Rack & Riddle, which produces around 1.7 million cases of sparking and still wine for many different wineries. With more than 70 employees and two locations, Penny has a huge winemaking empire to oversee. However, her true love is making sparkling wine, and the exquisite taste of Breathless wines is a true tribute to her skill and artistry as a world-class winemaker.

Scheduling a Tasting and/or Sabrage Experience at Breathless

A tasting of four sparkling wines is $16 per person, and the “Sabrage” sword experience with tasting is $69. To schedule a tasting or find more information, visit www.breathesswines.com.

Liz Thach MW bio pic MUG

 

Dr. Liz Thach, MW, is a Wine Journalist and the Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management at Sonoma State University where she conducts research and teaches in undergraduate and MBA courses in wine business. You can read more about her winery visits at https://winetravelstories2.com/

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