I am an unabashed fan of sparklers – so much so that an editor once called me Bubbles Melnik.

Every year I get excited for the bubbly tastings and this year, as I tasted through two flights of  sparklers, I was taken by the quality of the top scorers. It made me think of the tasting I had once where I gathered a panel of American and French palates. I’ll never forget the surprise on the faces of the French tasters when the sparkers were unbagged. They were amazed at the quality of California bubbly and had thought some to be French. It was a “California comes of age” moment.

This week I roll out the first of two flights of California sparklers — the first $35 and below and the second, $36 and above. As we discover these sparklers and others during bubbly season, I figure it’s a good time for a few pointers for the practical consumer:

1)      Yes, it is possible to budget the good life. Tasty top picks under $25 include:

Roederer Estate’s NV Anderson Valley Brut

Domaine Chandon’s Brut Classic, NV California

Mirabelle NV North Coast Brut

2)     If you’re curious as to how much bubbly to buy for a gathering, here’s all

you need to know:  There’s roughly five servings from each 750 ml bottle.

3)      When value shopping, it’s key to find bottles that are made in the

traditional method that Champagne is produced. Look for this wording on

the label: “Traditional method” or “fermented in this bottle.” If you see a

label that says “Charmat Process” or “fermented in the bottle,” beware.

The sparklers’ secondary fermentation was in a big container or a tank

and this process will create big soda pop bubbles, not to mention a less

complex, refined sparkler.

4)     Two key serving tips: A) When chilling bubbly, never put bottles in the

freezer. Just put them in the fridge for a few hours or if you’re in a hurry

put a bottle in a champagne bucket half filled with ice and water for 30

minutes. B) When choosing glassware, opt for the deep fluted glasses over

the tulip –shaped to get the best aromas and flavors, not to mention the

best view of the spiraling bubbles.

5)    Good eats with bubbly include: Hog Island Oyster, Sterling Caviar, smoked

salmon, steak tartare with cilantro or avocado, Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese and

sliced pears with prosciutto and hazelnuts.

6)   Finally, a life-saving reminder: Cork can fly 250 miles per hour so by all

means uncork with care and keep this secret in mind. Contrary to common

belief, the best way to open a bottle is not to pop the cork, but rather to

slowly allow for the cork’s release, achieving an ideal “sigh” as the cork

exits the bottle. One last tip: be sure to make the process look easy.