Paula Kornell recalls tasting wines with her father, famed sparkling-wine maker Hanns Kornell, in the family’s Napa Valley kitchen when she was a kid. Her German-born father, who founded Kornell Champagne Cellars in 1958, would ask her which wines she liked and then ask her to articulate why. He would explain what each lot would bring to the finished blend of the wine.
“I continuously go back to that,” she says. And that’s at least in part what led her to establish her own eponymous sparkling-wine brand. “It was always in the back of my mind that it would be great to do bubbles again.”
Hanns Kornell was among the first winemakers in California to make sparkling wine in the traditional method, sometimes called the méthode champenoise, in which the second fermentation (which produces the bubbles) takes place in the bottle in which the wine is sold. At the time, most California bubbly was made in large tanks. He called it “champagne,” as most producers did at the time.
Paula spent her vacations and summers working with her dad, everything from riddling and hand-disgorging the wines to running winery tours. But the winery filed for bankruptcy in 1991. (It’s currently the site of Frank Family Vineyards.) Hanns Kornell died in 1994 at the age of 83.
After the family winery closed, Paula Kornell worked as general manager for several wineries: Vichon in the Napa Valley, Carmenet in Sonoma Valley, then back to Napa for Oakville Ranch. She parted ways with Oakville Ranch a few years ago and set up a wine business consulting company.
Kornell says she was approached by Pat Roney, CEO of Vintage Wine Estates, which owns multiple wineries in California and the Pacific Northwest, who asked her whether she’d be interested in doing a sparkling wine project with the company. “I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” she says.
It was important to her to produce a Napa Valley wine, so she began with a 2017 Napa Valley Blanc de Noirs ($50), using grapes (mostly pinot noir) from Carneros. The wine displays crisp lemon, hints of strawberry and brioche, some creaminess and fine texture. Production is limited, at 1,000 six-packs. Later this month, she’ll release a more affordable non-vintage California Brut ($22), a chardonnay-based bubbly with fruit sourced from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and San Joaquin counties.
Kornell works with Vintage Wine Estates winemaker Robin Akhurst on picking decisions, base wines and blends. The base wines are made at VWE’s Clos Pegase in Napa Valley, and the wines are finished at Rack & Riddle, a custom facility for sparkling wine, in Healdsburg. Her aim is to produce wines that are dry and yeasty yet still have “beautiful fruit.”
“It’s been a great experience to be back in the business,” Kornell says.