Feature Coverage

50 Years of American Sparkling Wine: The Schramsberg Odyssey

“The famous sign that welcomes the world to Napa Valley hosts a quote by author Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘…and the wine was bottled poetry.’ In the early 1880’s Stevenson took his honeymoon in the northern end of Napa valley, and wrote about it in a book called Silverado Squatters. In it, he describes his visit to the property of German immigrant Jacob Schram:

‘Mr. Schram’s, on the other hand, is the oldest vineyard in the valley, eighteen years old I think; yet he began a penniless barber, and even after he had broken ground up here with his black malvoisies, continued for long to tramp the valley with his razor. Now, his place is the picture of prosperity: stuffed birds on the verandah, cellars far dug into the hillside, and resting on pillars like a bandit’s cave: all trimness, varnish, flowers, and sunshine, among the tangled wildwood. Stout, smiling Mrs. Schram, who has been to Europe and apparently all about the States for pleasure, entertained Fanny in the verandah, while I was tasting wines in the cellar. To Mr. Schram this was a solemn office; his serious gusto warmed my heart; prosperity had not yet wholly banished a certain neophyte and girlish trepidation, and he followed every sip and read my face with proud anxiety. I tasted all. I tasted every variety and shade of Schramberger, red and white Schramberger, Burgundy Schramberger, Schramberger Hock, Schramberger Golden Chasselas, the latter with a notable bouquet, and I fear to think how many more. Much of it goes to London – most, I think; and Mr. Schram has a great notion of the English taste.
In this wild spot, I did not feel the sacredness of ancient cultivation. It was still raw, it was no Marathon, and no Johannesburg; yet the stirring sunlight, and the growing vines, and the vats and bottles in the cavern, made a pleasant music for the mind. Here, also, earth’s cream was being skimmed and garnered: and the customers can taste, such as it is, the tang of the earth in this green valley. So local, so quintessential is a wine, that it seems the very birds in the verandah might communicate a flavor, and that romantic cellar influence the bottle next to be uncorked in Pimlico, and the smile of jolly Mr. Schram might mantle in the glass.’

“Jacob Schram was indeed a penniless barber. At the age of sixteen, to avoid being drafted into the German army, Schram set off to find his fortune in the New World, on a steamer to New York, where he first apprenticed as a barber, and then south to the Caribbean, across Panama (no canal yet) and then on a ship to California. Shaves and haircuts, trims and tonics, paid his way until he reached the Napa Valley, where he set up a barber shop in Napa City, found himself a wife named Annie Christine Weber, and settled down to a life of modest prosperity.

“In 1862, as the government was beginning to offer land grants to spur development, it occurred to Schram that that he might trade one sort of shears for another, and with his savings, he purchased 200 acres on Diamond Mountain, and slowly began to plant vineyards.

“Schram, and some of the others that made up this earliest wave of Napa viticulture, benefited greatly from the coincidental completion of the transcontinental railroad in San Francisco. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants who had to be ‘imported’ specifically to work on the railroad were fanning out from San Francisco looking for work. Many found it in the burgeoning vineyards of the Napa Valley, including the Schram farm, where they helped plant the vineyards and dig what would be Napa’s first underground wine caves.

“By the time Stevenson visited in 1880, the winery had 50 acres of vines and was producing roughly 8000 cases of wine per year. When Schram passed away and his son took over the family business in 1905, the winery was producing more than 25,000 cases of wine.

“And then…. the first World War and Prohibition finished off what was left of the Napa wine industry after the Phylloxera epidemic just a few years earlier. The winery was sold to an investment firm, and Schramsberg wines were no longer sold.

“Over the next few decades, the winery changed hands several times. Some of the owners started producing wine again, and in 1951, the then current owner, Douglas Pringle revived the Schramsberg label, and began producing wines, including sparkling wine. In 1957, the property was designated a state Historical Monument, and in 1965, Jack and Jamie Davies — he a successful executive, she an art gallery owner — purchased the property with a grand dream: to make world class sparkling wine in California.

“And for more fifty years, the Davies’ family pursued that odyssey with remarkable success. Schramsberg Vineyards became an icon not only of the Napa Valley, but of California and the nation. From the first use of Chardonnay for sparkling wine in the U.S., to one of the earliest uses of the traditional Methode Champenoise for making sparkling wine, Schramsberg was an early pioneer of American sparkling wine.

“Today, after the passing of both his parents, the Davies’ son Hugh continues their legacy and presides over the production of some of the finest sparkling wine made in America.

“The winemaking for the estate’s roughly 60,000 case production begins with grapes from the estate’s original acreage, as well as many contract vineyard sources for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay around Sonoma and Napa counties. Whether owned by the Davies family or farmed on contract, all of the grapes are carefully farmed and picked by hand. The winemaking, overseen by Davies and senior winemaker Sean Thompson, involves a portion of the grapes (depending on the wine) fermented in barrel. Portions of the wine are also aged for extended time in the barrel, and these aged wines are then used as blending components in several of the winery’s bottlings.

“As with Champagne, the wines undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle deep in the cool, humid caves that were dug by Chinese laborers more than 150 years ago. As the bubbles are forming during this second ferment, the bottles are “riddled” or turned to allow the yeast to accumulate in the neck before it is disgorged and the bottle topped up, corked and sealed for sale. From 1974 to 2001, the riddling was done by one man, master riddler Ramon Viera.

“There are very few sparkling wines in America that can begin to equal the quality and complexity of Champagne, but Schramsberg is unquestionably among those few. With a few years of age on it, their top bottlings can hold their own among many tete-de-cuvees from France. While I enjoy their commercial bottlings, I have perhaps been most impressed with some small bits of very late-disgorged wines that the winery often makes available at the annual Premier Napa Valley auction for the trade. These wines, which have 10 or more years of aging on their lees, are truly world-class and among some of the best wines I’ve tasted from Napa Valley.

“2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Davies’ odyssey to produce world-class sparkling wine in a state where a surprisingly small amount of the stuff gets made, at least considering the size of the overall California wine industry. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobly took up the question of why there isn’t more sparkling wine made in California in a recent column.

“The answer Mobly arrived at was a combination of extremely high costs, hard to get knowledge, and the fear that there might not be a market for what will invariably be expensive bottles of wine.

“That equation was doubly in force when the Davies family began their work on the side of Diamond Mountain. Their persistence and success across 5 decades is an achievement worth celebrating in the annals of American wine.

“And what better way to celebrate than to open a bunch of old vintages? I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to do so with a small group of writers, sommeliers, and friends of Schramsberg earlier this year. Here are my notes on the wines we tasted…”

Alder Yarrow, December 24, 2015
50 Years of American Sparkling Wine: The Schramsberg Odyssey