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Schramsberg Sets the Pace

California's pioneering producer of sparkling wines has never followed the crowd

Tim Fish
Posted: February 3, 2004

The winery passed through many hands before Jack Davies and his wife revitalized it in the 1960s.
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The history of Schramsberg can be read on the walls of the winery. Founder Jacob Schram, grim and steely eyed, glares down from a portrait, and there's a bust of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote about the winery in 1883. Prominent as well is the late Jack Davies, who revitalized the winery in the mid-1960s, and of course there's the 1972 photo of President Richard Nixon toasting to China with a glass of Schramsberg bubbly, a landmark for the winery and California wine in general.

Jack Davies had been a successful businessman in Southern California and was 42 when he launched his new career as a vintner, buying the ramshackle Jacob Schram property and establishing Schramsberg. At the time, American sparkling wine was a novelty. California's leading producers of sparkling wine -- Kornell and Korbel -- used grapes such as French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Thompson Seedless, but the Davies had the notion, and the chutzpah, to make "Napa Valley Champagne" using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the grapes traditionally used in France.

"Nobody was using the best varieties," Jamie says, "and we knew that in and of itself would make a big difference."

The first few years were challenging. Consumers were slow to embrace California bubbly, and even positive thinkers like Robert Mondavi thought it a long shot. And while it may be hard to believe now, Chardonnay was scarcely produced back then; until their own vineyards came on line, the Davieses had a difficult time finding a steady source.

Schramsberg's big break came in 1972 when its 1969 Blanc de Blancs was chosen by Nixon to toast the normalization of diplomatic relations with China during his historic trip to Beijing.

"They were the ones who showed that California could have a sparkling wine industry," says Michel Salgues, recently retired after 19 years as winemaker of Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley.

Soon, Moët & Chandon and other French Champagne houses, as well as Spanish cava producers, realized California's potential and established wineries such as Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer in Northern California. Champagne house Moët & Chandon at one point offered to buy the Davieses out. "We said 'Sorry, we're having too much fun,'" Jamie recalls.

Founder Jacob Schram, who died in 1905.

While the Davieses maintain a majority ownership of Schramsberg, they do have partners, including Duckhorn Wine Company, which owns about 28 percent of the business. The Davieses haven't always been as successful with their other partnerships. They were an original partner with French spirits company Rémy Martin in the now-defunct RMS brandy house. In 1988, the Davieses launched a sparkling wine venture in Portugal, called Vertice, but in 2002 allowed their partners to buy them out.

Today, efforts are focused solely on Schramsberg. Annual production is a relatively modest 45,000 cases. The Blanc de Blancs is the winery's lead player, accounting for half the production. The 1999 (88, $30) shows great structure and concentration. Another 25 percent of production is Mirabelle, a non-vintage sparkler that serves as Schramsberg's second label. It's a good value at $18, and the current release (86 points) is firm, spicy and complex.

Hugh, the youngest of three sons, practically grew up in the winery. After getting a master's degree in enology at the University of California, Davis, he joined the winemaking team at Schramsberg. Since the death of his father in 1998, Hugh's role has expanded. He became general manager and winemaker in 2001.

Dawnine Dyer, who was winemaker at Domaine Chandon for 25 years, gives much of the credit for Schramsberg's recent progress to Hugh. "He is really committed to and open about making changes," Dyer says. "He has a very strong commitment to sparkling wine. He was kind of born with it in his blood."

In late September, Hugh and Jamie were moving from tank to tank and barrel to barrel tasting the components of the 2003 wines. While all the wines have what Hugh describes as a "driving acidity," they are remarkably different.

But terroir is only part of the picture. "We pick the grapes a little bit riper than we used to, but at the same time, the acids are higher," Hugh says, explaining that new clones and cooler growing climates make that possible.

Schramsberg is also one of the few California sparkling wine producers that uses oak barrels to ferment and age much of its base wine. Hugh poured a sample of Chardonnay from a stainless steel tank and another from an oak barrel. Both were produced from the same vineyard but were already showing distinct personalities.

"About 25 percent of the juice goes in a barrel," Hugh says. "Some of it we'll put through malolactic fermentation and some we won't. We don't use any new wood. We aren't really interested in adding a lot of the wood character, toast or vanilla qualities." Barrels are all about texture, he believes, and make for a richer wine with a creamier, more viscous mouthfeel.

Schramsberg has barrel fermented since the early days, but only on a small scale, Jamie says. "We couldn't have used the level of barrels with the fruit we were getting in the late '60s," she said. "The fruit is much crisper now and more brilliant than it was then."

Sparkling wine houses have known since the early 1980s that regions such as Carneros and Anderson Valley are well-suited to their needs, but in the mid-'60s almost no one was growing grapes there. Conceding that the climate at Schramsberg's home ranch in Calistoga was too hot was not an easy lesson to learn, but the winery in recent years has learned to adapt.

While Napa grapes still account for about 60 percent of the winery's juice, the sources are almost exclusively in Carneros. The Calistoga estate vineyard, which was once the heart of the winery's sparkling wine, was budded over to Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux grapes by the late 1990s.

The Davieses are mum about what they plan to do with the new Cabernet growing on the winery's 50-acre estate vineyard. So far they've sold most of the grapes to wineries such as Cuvaison, Duckhorn, Laird and Artesa. "We might make our own wine. It's a definite possibility. If we do it, it will be a different project entirely, a different brand," Hugh says.

The history and tradition of sparkling wine is just too strong for Schramsberg to ever become a house of Cabernet. That's one part of the winery's past that the Davieses aren't willing to give up.

"In many ways we're making finer bubbly now than we ever have," says Jamie. "I liken it to computers -- every new model is a little bit better than the last."

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