The story of Schramsberg Vineyards in the Napa Valley is a long and intriguing one—so much so, it celebrates two ‘histories’, and with it a fantastic blend of both old and new.
The first originates from its namesake Jacob Schram, who at 16 immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1826. Although he became a barber, he was from a winemaking family and 36 years later he eventually made his way to the Napa Valley and founded Schramsberg, the area’s first hillside winery on Diamond Mountain. It’s also the second oldest winery in Napa after Charles Krug. While continuing to work as a barber, he produced approximately 12,000 cases of wine a year which was sold throughout the United States and Europe. After Jacob’s death in 1905, his son Herman sold the property and although it changed ownership several times over the next 60 years, it wasn’t being used to produce any wines largely due to phylloxera, prohibition and the two World Wars.
Schramsberg’s ‘second’ history began in 1965 when the property was purchased by Jack and Jamie Davies. Originally from southern California, the Davies wanted to raise their family outside of the city and were keen to get into the wine business. They chose to make sparkling wine for two reasons: they loved Champagne, and they wanted to produce something that separated them from what everyone else was making in the Valley. The only challenge was they didn’t know how to make sparkling wine! So Jack went to France and apprenticed with none other than the prestigious Moët & Chandon Champagne House. When he returned to Napa, they purchased some fruit from the Mondavi family, had it custom crushed at Charles Krug and made 250 cases of their 1965 Blancs de Blancs. Production remained small at around 1,000 cases per year until they received a phone call from the U.S. Government in 1972 that would catapult Schramsberg Vineyards onto the world wine map. That call was for an order of 13 cases to be delivered to a nearby air force base but no further details were provided. About 3 weeks later a friend called the Davies and told them to turn on their television. The Today Show was airing Barbara Walters live from Tiananmen Square holding a bottle of Schramsberg. The reason was the “Toast to Peace” in Beijing between U.S. President Nixon and China’s Premier Zhou Enlai. And since the deal with China was benefitting trade relations with America, rather than choose a French Champagne, the U.S. Government chose to toast the occasion with an American sparkling wine…the 13 cases of Schramsberg ordered 3 weeks earlier.
Needless to say, their phone started ringing off the hook and the winery sold out of their entire stock 6 weeks after the Today Show aired. Demand continued over the years so Jack & Jamie added a mile and a half to the original half mile of tunnels in the late seventies in order to increase production. (The relationship with the White House has continued to this very day as every administration since Nixon through to Obama has served Schramsberg).
Today, although Jack and Jamie have passed on, their legacy is alive and well through their youngest son Hugh who is now head winemaker and CEO of Schramsberg Vineyards. He holds a Masters degree in oenology from UC Davis and his family now resides in the original home on the property first built by Jacob Schram and where Hugh grew up as a child. And while 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Davies family era it is the combination of both histories that make this a winery to be celebrated.
The Schramsberg Tour
The tour at Schramsberg Vineyards is easily one of the most interesting and informative wine tours we have done and we would highly recommend it. It starts of course with the quality of the guide and ours, Jared Engkilterra, was outstanding. Although only a few months with Schramsberg, he is a certified sommelier and has worked at other vineyards for several years. He is very knowledgeable as well as engaging in both his explanations of everything from the history of the winery to his demonstrations of the riddling process.
As he leads you through parts of the caves, you can still see the pick axe marks and (healthy) mold along the ceiling of the original ½ mile of caves that took Jacob Schram close to 10 years to tunnel. Today the caves are 2 miles long with rows upon rows of bottles stacked along the walls. Not only are the caves a blend of old and new, so too is the riddling area where the pupitre (or rack) holding the bottles that are riddled by hand, sit next to gyropalettes of bottles that will be riddled by machine.
The tour ends with an outstanding tasting back at the visitor centre in a private room off the general tasting room. We started with the Blanc de Noirs and worked our way through the Schramsberg Reserve, the J. Schram & J. Schram Reserve and finally one of their still wines, the J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been made since 2001. Our tasting notes along with prices are listed below and we can say without question the tour and tasting are well worth the fee.
This is a crisp sparkling wine that has a lovely acidic quality that is refreshing and fruity. Nicely balanced and a steal at this price point.
Very Good + USD $41
In contrast to the 2011 Blanc de Noir, this wine is creamy and smooth with a much more full-bodied mouth feel. Great complexity with notes of apple, nuts and a hint of spice.
Excellent USD $120
Wow…if you like a dry sparkling style, you’ll love this wine! Dry, crisp and toasty notes balanced with pinapple and peach. Mouthwateringly delicious.
Excellent + Rating USD $120
Another well balanced wine with lots of strawberry and raspberry on the nose, plus secondary notes of orange and vanilla.
Very Good + USD $44
A big and bold Cabernet as you would expect from a great California winery but with all the balance of a wine much older than its vintage suggests. Smooth and plush with notes of black fruit and a lovely long finish.
Excellent USD $100