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Second Generation Winemaker Hugh Davies Continues To Produce USA’s First Blanc De Blancs

The first vintage of Schramsberg sparkling wine was released in 1965, the same year Hugh Davies was born. Said to be the first winery in the United States to produce a Blanc de Blancs, or 100 percent Chardonnay sparkling wine, Schramsberg paved the way for California’s fine sparkling wine industry, which has come to be dominated by producers that are extensions of well-known French Champagne houses. Hugh has been president and CEO of Schramsberg since 2005. In addition to making improvements on vineyard and winemaking techniques for Schramsberg’s award-winning sparkling wines, Davies replanted the winery’s historic Diamond Mountain District vineyards with traditional Bordeaux varieties, in order to produce J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon. Davies Vineyards also produces Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley vineyard sites in Mendocino County. While Schramsberg and Davies Vineyards have both continued to expand their production to include a wider variety of styles, Schramsberg’s backbone is still the Blanc de Blancs first made by Davies’ parents, Jack and Jamie.

In 2019, Schramsberg produced and sold 85,000 12-bottle cases of sparkling wine via wholesale channels. Forty-two thousand cases were sold to wine stores and 28,000 to restaurants, while the remaining 15,000 were sold directly to consumers via the tasting room or wine club. In the same year, Davies Vineyards sold approximately 5,000 cases of red wines, 1,000 through wholesale channels and 4,000 direct to consumer. Between three and five percent of Schramsberg’s annual sales are to overseas markets. They are represented in 30 countries around the globe, with Japan being the number one export market, followed by Korea, Canada, and Denmark. We recently had the opportunity to ask Hugh Davies a few questions about the two iconic Napa Valley wineries that he helms.

World Wine Guys: What do you think inspired your parents to buy the Schramsberg estate and produce a sparkling Blanc de Blancs from Napa Valley in 1965?

Hugh Davies:My parents met in San Francisco in 1959. My dad was a marketing consultant at McKinsey on Montgomery Street and my mom was a partner in a gallery on Broadway Street. They married six months later and as a couple took up an interest in wine and food. They made a small investment in the Martin Ray Winery in Saratoga yet moved to Southern California where my Dad took a CEO position at Ducommon, an aerospace company. They started a family and were supported by two sets of grandparents.

Ultimately their hearts pulled them back to Northern California with the idea of establishing their own winery. They sought out a specific niche in the industry, becoming the first commercial producer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir based sparkling wines made in the traditional method. A realtor led them to the old Schramsberg property, up a creek canyon in the Mayacamas Range between St. Helena and Calistoga in Napa Valley. A collection of century-old hand dug caves and redwood buildings gave them a sense that they had found the location, and they launched the Schramsberg sparkling wine brand in 1965.

WWG:  Where did you train to acquire your winemaking skills before returning home to work with your family?

HD:I grew up on the property, born just a month after the first harvest. While growing up in the valley, I worked a number of seasons in vineyards and cellars. My most meaningful work experiences away from Schramsberg were at Moët et Chandon in Epernay, Remy Martin in Cognac, Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills, and at Mumm Napa Valley. I also earned a Master of Science Enology degree from UC Davis, working under the tutelage of Anne Nobles and Roger Boulton.

WWG: How have you expanded the Schramsberg portfolio of offerings since taking the helm?

HD:Over the last 25 years, our portfolio has expanded with a broader range of Schramsberg sparkling wines and with an exciting portfolio of Davies red wines. The sparkling wine program has evolved to include up to 15 sparkling wines every vintage. At the top end are the J. Schram, Reserve and J. Schram Rosé, that respectively represent our best efforts with a Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé style. Each are aged for 7-8 years on the yeast prior to disgorgement.

Our first Davies red wine produced was our J. Davies Estate Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2001 vintage was released in 2004, ten years after the first Cabernet was planted on our home property. Subsequently, we have added other Napa Valley Cabernet sites to our program along with a range of exceptional Pinot Noir vineyards from the Anderson Valley, the Sonoma Coast and the Carneros.

WWG: Between Schramsberg and Davies Vineyards, you make two very different types of wine. What are the commonalities between making still red wines and sparkling wines?

HD:Interesting question. I do think we approach both winemaking efforts similarly. Important for us is to have a range of elements to work with in crafting blends regardless of wine type. Red Pinot Noir blending allows for play with clone variation more than with other varietal winemaking. There is diversity to work with even when we have 12 to 16 barrels from a specific vineyard. Barrel variation also plays a key role. Cabernet involves a range of clones as well, yet here we also can blend with other Bordeaux varietals. Our sparkling program involves the deepest range of components, with multiple vineyards, clones, varietals and fermentation vessels all playing roles. Important is to note that we are blenders, always working with an array of pieces to carefully craft a blend that will evolve in an exceptional way over the course of time.

WWG: While we know everybody loves bubbles, explaining the concept of California sparkling wine is not always easy. What’s your “elevator pitch” to tell wine lovers about the wine you make at Schramsberg? 

HD:California sparkling wines can be absolutely delicious, as fine as are made in Champagne or anywhere else in the world. We have come a long way in 55 years. The diverse range of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sites that we work with, from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, to the Sonoma and Marin coastline and back into Napa’s Carneros, is as exciting as may exist anywhere. We’re enthusiastic about it. Natural acidity in the fruit is generally higher than you find in more northerly regions like Champagne, and we can’t chaptalize (add sugar to fermenting wine to increase the alcohol content). We are able to grow riper fruit that carries elevated acidity. It relates to the cool air in proximity to the cold, deep Pacific Ocean. While our region may not be noted broadly for the quality of sparkling wine that it produces, that has nothing to do with the potential to do it at the highest level of quality here. The styles that we are producing have vibrance and depth in your youth, and they promise decades of aging potential. We’re excited to see a growing fan base for the sparkling wines that we are producing.

WWG: How “hands on” are you in the vineyards and winery for Schramsberg and Davies Vineyards?

HD:I honestly do as much as I can do for the winery. It is a passion that I share with everyone on our team and with our broader community. I have spent the vast majority of my life here on the Schramsberg property where our sparkling wines have always been produced and where the J. Davies Estate vineyards are now planted. Unless I am on vacation or on the road selling wine, I am in the vineyard and winery every day. I try not to micromanage, but there are often details that you notice. Blending is critical and is a step that I don’t let go of. We have a super team, and I am honored to work with the whole group to move our programs forward.

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Second Generation Winemaker Hugh Davies Continues To Produce USA’s First Blanc De Blancs