Jamie Davies, a founder of Schramsberg, considered a pioneer of American sparkling-wine producers, died Tuesday at her home in Calistoga, Calif. Two of her three sons, Hugh and Bill Davies, and their families, were with her at her bedside when she died (her son John lives in Moscow). She was 73.
Though Davies had been ill for several years, battling Parkinson's disease, her sudden death shocked close friends. "It's sad and it's unexpected," said Margrit Biever Mondavi, wife of vintner Robert Mondavi. "We knew she was ill, but we thought she had more time."
Davies, along with her late husband, Jack, brought a pioneering spirit, wit and intelligence to the Napa Valley wine industry in the 1960s, friends said. The couple knew little about winemaking when they renovated the rundown Jacob Schram property in Calistoga, beginning in 1965, yet they set out to master one of the wine world's most technically challenging wines: méthode Champenoise sparkling wine. They were the first in California to use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—the two great grapes used in Champagne—in their base wine.
"I thought I was ambitious, with all my plans," Robert Mondavi recalled at Jack Davies' memorial service in 1998. But when he met the Davies and listened to their dreams, he remarked, "They were even more challenging than mine."
Despite recent legal disputes between two of her sons over the family trust, Mrs. Davies will be best remembered among her Napa winemaking peers for her warm smile, sparkling eyes and gracious style.
"She was the grande dame of the wine industry, a real icon of the valley," said Mrs. Mondavi. "She had such wonderful manners, poise and she could talk about her wines with such eloquence. She had a great family and was greatly admired. She made one of our happy drinks. Champagne fitted her well."
The Davies were a true husband-and-wife team that worked closely together. After their initial success with Schramsberg, the Davies set out to make a Cognac-style brandy, founding RMS in a joint venture with Remy Martin. The family later added a Cabernet Sauvignon, bottled under the J. Davies label in honor of the late Jack Davies.
The Davies came to Napa from Los Angeles and had social ties that were far reaching. The Davies and Napa Valley gained worldwide recognition in 1972 when President Richard Nixon toasted China's then Premier Chou En-Lai with the 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs at a state dinner in Beijing.
"Jamie and Jack were friends of presidents, ambassadors, celebrities, generations of winemakers, farmers and dreamers for close to a half a century," said Napa vintner Tor Kenward. "In turn, they were two of the greatest ambassadors Napa Valley and the California wine industry had from 1965 to now. To me, they shared and championed the same ideals—they were honest, hardworking, and committed to their dream, building the quality and image of their Schramsberg winery. Jamie was every bit as involved as Jack each step of the way."
The Davies were also instrumental in creating the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, which has protected the valley's winegrowing interests from commercial development.
A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 17, at 1 p.m. in Jack's Grove at Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions