Feature Coverage

Schramsberg Vineyards Review

“The northern Napa Valley was still a thickly forested, rugged terrain, and a difficult place to navigate when Jacob Schram set forth to establish the second winery in the area, one year after Charles Krug had opened up shop just a little ways to the south. Krug was a Prussian immigrant, Schram a German; both left their homeland before the Franco-Prussian War would resurrect the German Reich as a world superpower. Only a decade earlier, slightly more, California had officially become a state, the 31st. This was uncharted territory at that time, and something about the raw, dense, uninterrupted beauty of northern California clearly appealed to men like Jacob Schram.

“Schram was a barber who built a home for him and his wife in these woods and began to make wine. He hired Chinese labor left over from the railroad boom to dig caves into the sides of the mountain to store his wine. Schram continued to cut hair and to make wine at the same time, and according to the Schramsberg web page, production reached 12K gallons in 1876. A few years later, they were visited by a Scot named Robert Louis Stevenson who was honeymooning in the area. Stevenson’s book, The Silverado Squatters, suggests that he imbibed on no less than 18 wines at Schramsberg during his visit and is the source of his oft-quoted statement about wine being “bottled poetry.”

“Jacob Schram died in 1905. In the next two decades, Phylloxera and Prohibition devastated the wine industry in California. The Schramsberg property would pass from one wealthy yet disinterested owner to the next for a series of decades until, finally, in 1965, it was purchased by Jack and Jamie Davies.

“Jack was a management consultant who had grown tired of the bustle of business and city life and, along with his devoted wife Jamie, sought a simpler existence. They found it in a run-down historic winery near Calistoga, California and immediately set to work resurrecting Jacob Schram’s ambition. The Davies were resourceful and hard-working, and though the term “Napa Valley” wasn’t yet a meaningful thing to most industry professionals at that time, the Davies knew they had something special on their hands. Further complicating their conundrum, the Davies had self-selected the uphill battle of producing sparkling wines, a venture virtually unheard of in the area at that time, and a pursuit that earned them plenty of scrutiny. That scrutiny was rebuked, however, and their efforts rewarded when in 1972 President Nixon took a bottle of their Blanc de Blancs to China. Schramsberg sparkling wines have been regularly served in the White House ever since.

“Jack died in the late ‘90’s, and Jamie a decade later, but their legacy lives on. The estate today is managed by their youngest son, Hugh, and a visit to the winery is a good indication of just how popular the cite remains. On the day of our visit, there was a bit of rain to drive us quickly from the parking lot and into the gift shop/reception where we were greeted by friendly staff who informed us that Hugh had only just stepped out. One of the neatest things about the tour was that it was conducted almost entirely in Schramsberg’s immense series of caves, amidst hundreds of thousands of gallons of sparkling wine. The caves are over two miles in length and had taken fifteen years to dig well over a century prior, rendering them as brimming with history as they were with wine. The cool and dimly lit caves helped to create a time capsule taking us back to when the author of Treasure Island and his young bride had paid a visit to the very same location. 

“Our tour was conducted by Kari, a knowledgeable young lady who had persistently pursued a job at Schramsberg over the course of several years before finally landing one. It’s a story she’s proud of, her persistence ultimately paying off, and representative of the prestige that Schramsberg can still claim within the industry. Kari explained to us the meticulous, old-world methods, the traditional methode champenois that is still used today at Schramsberg to make their world-famous sparkling wines. Each bottle is hand riddled, a tiny turn to the left, a tiny turn to the right, over and over and over, by trained professionals with a skill set that is becoming increasingly rare in an industry that finds itself in a state of conflict, torn between being an art form and a moneymaker. At Schramsberg, it takes three years to move from grape to glass, three years of time spent riddling, aging, and maturing, until every sparkling wine is worthy of the legacy of Jacob Schram, of Jack and Hugh Davies, and of the valley that this storied winery helped place upon the map.

“Driving down the winding but well-paved roads that head back toward Calistoga toward the northern end of the Napa Valley, I couldn’t help but imagine Jacob Schram, an industrious, grizzled barber, slashing his way through the heavy growth for the first time in 1862, now more than 150 years ago. I couldn’t help but be in awe as I imagined the difficulties and the dangers of pioneering in the Napa Valley, before it was a well-oiled and finely tuned icon of American viticulture, back when it was unbroken wilderness. I suppose that’s what it takes to begin something as special as Schramsberg – it takes a willingness to go where others dared not, as Jacob Schram had done, and it took a boldness to do what others dared not, as Jack Davies had done when he endeavored into the world of sparkling wine. Glancing back through the annals of history, it’s fair to say that these men risked their lives to provide us with their excellent wines, and in that case, I would suggest that the very least that we can do is to drink them.”

Mark Gudgel, July 14, 2016
Schramsberg Vineyards Review