Feature Coverage

Schramsberg Vineyards Celebrates its 50th Anniversary — With Some Bubbly, Of Course

“Good-quality California sparkling wine is fairly common these days, but when Jack and Jamie Davies revived Schramsberg Vineyards 50 years ago, that wasn’t the case.

“Most California bubbly back then was of the cheap, bulk-process variety; only Korbel in Sonoma County and Hans Kornell in Napa Valley were making wines in the traditional Champagne method, in which the second fermentation, which produces the bubbles, occurs in the bottle in which the wine is sold. But they weren’t focused on chardonnay and pinot noir, the traditional grapes of Champagne.

“It seemed a risky proposition, but Hugh Davies, who now runs the winery started by his parents, says his father “wanted to do something no one else was doing.” Jack was a Los Angeles businessman and wine lover who had decided he wanted to get into the wine business. He and his wife, Jamie, started looking for property, and one day they were shown an old Napa Valley estate that had been known as Schramsberg.

“Founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram, the winery operated until 1912. The property included a Victorian home and more than 10,000 square feet of tunnels dug in the 1800s.

“The whole thing seemed to kind of click,” Hugh says.

“They found some investors and bought the 200-acre property in 1965, the same year Hugh was born. That first year, they crushed chardonnay grapes for their blanc de blancs, a French term referring to sparkling wine made only from white grapes. A couple of years later, they added blanc de noirs, white sparkling wine made from red grapes.

“Davies acknowledges that there wasn’t much of a market at first. In 1972, he says, the winery was selling only about 1,000 cases a year. But Schramsberg was about to burst onto the world stage. That year, the 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs was served at a state dinner hosted by President Nixon for Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during Nixon’s historic first trip to China. It marked the first time that an American wine had been served at a state event, at home or abroad.

“Hugh was only 6 at the time. “It was exciting, right?” he says. “More so for my parents than me.” And it gave a boost to the business, he adds.

“For years, the Davieses called their wine “Napa Valley Champagne,” although they abandoned that phrase in the late 1990s, both because the wine wasn’t made in Champagne and because many of the grapes were being sourced outside the Napa Valley. By the late 1980s, Jack Davies had begun to realize that his vineyard on Diamond Mountain was really too warm for sparkling wine, so he began to look for grapes from cooler sites. Now many of the grapes are purchased from cool-climate vineyards in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties. Schramsberg also owns a small vineyard in Carneros and leases vineyards in Anderson Valley and Marin. A less-expensive, nonvintage bubbly called Mirabelle was introduced in the early 1990s.

“Diamond Mountain is prime cabernet sauvignon country, and the family started planting it in 1994, gradually expanding the plantings. Small amounts of cab were produced for several years, and the first commercial vintage was 2001. The wine was named J. Davies, in honor of Jack, who died in 1998.

“The estate vineyard now has 40 acres of cab and five acres of the other red Bordeaux varieties. The J. Davies lineup was expanded to include a second-label cab called JD; in 2016, the first J. Davies “Jamie” — a reserve cab named for Hugh’s mother, who died in 2008 — will be released.

“At first, the still wines were made at the winery on Diamond Mountain. But “this is a sparkling wine property,” Hugh says. “You need different equipment, different storage.” So the company bought an old Chevrolet dealership on Main Street in St. Helena and converted it into a winery. That facility also is home to Davies Vineyards, which produces pinot noir and cabernet.

“As for the sparkling wines, after 50 years, they’re better than ever. The vintage-dated wines are rich yet lively, while the nonvintage Mirabelle brut and rosé are fresh and affordable. Here’s a toast to Schramsberg’s golden anniversary!

Contact Laurie Daniel at ladaniel@earthlink.net.

Tasting Notes

“A good starting point in the Schramsberg lineup is the Mirabelle label. The non-vintage Mirabelle Brut Rosé ($28), which offers racy red fruit, a yeasty brioche character and fine texture, is particularly good. The 2012 Blanc de Blancs ($38) — the current vintage of the wine that went to China — is very fresh and racy, with citrus, apple and some creaminess, while the 2011 Blanc de Noirs ($40) is a pretty golden color and displays notes of apple, strawberry and creamy brioche. The 2012 Brut Rosé ($43) is round and creamy, with juicy berry fruit and some minerality. The top wines are the Reserve and J. Schram. The 2007 Reserve ($110), which is primarily pinot noir, is bright and creamy, with citrusy fruit and some yeastiness. The 2007 J. Schram ($110) is dominated by chardonnay and is pretty and fresh, with lemon, apple and brioche flavors and fine texture. The 2007 J. Schram Brut Rosé ($120) is round, yeasty and full-bodied, with pretty berry and a long finish. The winery will be releasing two 50th anniversary commemorative bottlings, a late-disgorged 1999 J. Schram and a late-disgorged 1999 Reserve. They are $175 each and can be pre-ordered at www.schramsberg.com.”

Laurie Daniel, June 22, 2015
Schramsberg Vineyards Celebrates its 50th Anniversary — With Some Bubbly, Of Course