‘Hello’….yes, it’s you I’m looking for.
Your wonderful aromas of brioche, honey and preserved lemon. Your tiny, soft bubbles that tickle the tongue. The feeling you give me of the world being right when I have a glass of you in my hand. Sparkling Wine, you’re all I’ve ever wanted, and my arms are open wide.
Or should I say glass? I know, a *really* bad reference to some good 80’s songs right? And a repeat for some of you (sorry!). But it will make sense in just a bit. Stay with me because you’ll want to hear about my wonderful visit last week with the team at Schramsberg Vineyards, high up on Diamond Mountain in Napa Valley. What a treat! I hadn’t been there before, and honestly, didn’t know much about their wines or background either. But after the tour & tasting, I left the winery feeling so fortunate to have experienced a bit of history in my glass. Schramsberg is one of California’s oldest wineries. Founded in 1862, it carries the honor of having the oldest hillside vineyards in Napa Valley (218 acres in total with 43 under vine). The winery was started by its namesake, Jacob Schram back in the late 1800’s. By 1876, he was producing just under 12,000 gallons of wine such as Riesling, Hock, Burgundy and Chasselas. His wines were shipped all across the country and winning awards at American and International competitions. Jacob Schram was truly a pioneer in putting California on the map for viticulture and winemaking. At the turn of the century, Jacob built this beautiful Victorian-era home for his wife Annie, which was added to the National Register of Historic Homes in 1957. It was the home of Jack & Jamie Davies (owners since 1965) and when they both passed, their son Hugh Davies relocated there, and is now the current owner of the historic estate.
Jack & Jamie Davies purchased the much-neglected winery in 1965 after over fifty years of it being shuffled around by several owners since Jacob’s death in 1905. The Davies family uses 1965 as the ‘start date’ of the modern Schramsberg Vineyards, and 2015 marks their 50th anniversary. Definitely a cause for celebration indeed! Today, the winery is producing over 25 different bottlings of sparkling (with only a handful available commercially), along with a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon under their secondary label of J. Davies Estates. You’ll need to visit the winery to taste their range of wines and tastings are by appointment only, and after the one-hour tour.
Before I begin sharing photos of the tour, I should mention that it was tough to get good shots throughout my entire visit. So pardon the blurriness and over-exposures. The sunlight kept toying with me in what’s already a heavily wooded area, and it was very dark in the caves. Oh, and to top it off, my camera battery was almost dead upon arrival. Must buy a spare! So I didn’t get all the shots I wanted to, but figured you’d understand, and still enjoy seeing the remarkable work that has gone in to preserving this iconic cellar and grounds. :>)
Kari, our guide for the visit, took us on a great tour consisting of a walk deep into their long network of caves stretching two miles into the hillside. Dark and low ceilings make up the cellars, which were dug from the mountain’s porous tufa rock. A constant 58F temperature year-round ensures the sparkling is kept in optimum storage condition. What I found most amazing though, is how they stack the bottles. Once the finished bottles come off the bottling line, they have a crew of cellar hands racing with full carts through the cellar (literally, no joke) to deliver the bottles to the aging area, where they will sit to age for years to come. They’re cruising at a pretty good clip too; I have no idea how they don’t loose any bottles along the way. At the aging area, another crew stacks them into “walls” like mad-men. Once fully stacked, it will be 10-12 feet high by 8 rows deep. Wow! Then the bottling crew races back with empty carts to collect the next batch of readied-wines. The noise and vibration of the commotion echos for hundreds of yards throughout the labyrinth of tunnels. A well-organized chaos. Was so fun to see it all in action.
The Cuveé, or finished blend of grape varietals going into the bottle, is comprised of several lots of fruit from varied vineyards. Schramsberg is best known for their Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay fruit) but also makes a dreamy Brut Rosé (Pinot Noir & Chardonnay) and a lovely Blanc de Noirs (all Pinot Noir). Plus many more special blends for their wine club that can only be purchased as a member. This handy chart showed all their vineyard properties and contracted-fruit partners. As most of you are probably aware, Napa is far too hot to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to its best expression. So most producers look at the Carneros region (southern Napa), Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) or further south down along the southern Sonoma & Marin coastlines to select their ultra-premium grapes.
At the riddling area, we were shown how they age the wine ‘sur lees’ or ‘on the yeast’ using the méthode champenoise process. Their Master Riddler will turn the bottle only 1/8 of an inch for the first few days of aging, then gradually increased the turning radius over the months and years until the sediment (or dead yeast cells) have all lined up in a neat row, ready to be disgorged (a chilling process which removes this yeast from the neck of the bottle). It’s a true labor of love. Every bottle of Schramsberg sparkling has been touched by human hands dozens and dozens of times over the years—making their winemaking process expensive, and of highest quality and tradition. All in all, a fabulous visit and new-found appreciation for the wines at Schramsberg Vineyards.
(the white sediment above is the lees. It has been riddled (turned) for years to coax the lees into a single line. Eventually, it will all fall to the neck of the bottle and be removed).
We tasted four wines– all delicious! Here’s some notes from the winery on the vintages:
2012 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine – $38.00
Bright and fresh aromas of grapefruit, lime, green apple and white apricot. The fragrance is complemented with hints of yeast, white flowers, spicy ginger and fresh honeycomb. The lime, tangerine and pear flavors are tart and refreshing on the palate with a crisp, lingering acidity.
2011 Schramsberg Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine – $43.00
Generous aromas of strawberry, cranberry and watermelon. It’s fruitful nose is complemented by notes of candied ginger and warm pastrydough. On the palate, flavors of mandarin orange, pomelo, pineapple and strawberry. Bright acidity with a long refreshing finish.
2011 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs Sparkling Wine – $40.00
Showcases the sustained aromas of cherry, strawberry and tangerine, which gradually layers with the fragrance of warm bread dough and toasted almond. The palate is bright on entry, with lush flavors of Rainier cherry, juicy orange and wild berry. Subtle acidity but enough to carry the lengthy finish.
2006 Schramsberg J. Schram Sparkling Wine – $110.00
Opens with bright aromas of green apple, ripe grapefruit and sweet pineapple followed by nuances of mango, guava, panna cotta, and toasted almond. On first sip, tangerine and Kaffir lime are present, which are accentuated by layers of tart pear and Fuji apple. The palate’s texture is viscous and savory on entry. Delicate and soft finish.
1400 Schramsberg Road | Calistoga, CA 94515
Tour Reservations: (707) 942-4558
Okay, here’s the explanation of my crazy song references. Bet you know who I’m talking about now right? So, I was coming up to the Visitor Center to check in. This person (pictured left) held the door for me as I had walked in right behind him (not recognizing who it was at that point). Then a minute later, it hit me. So I popped back outside for a few snaps. Their tour guide and VP of Marketing (shown) said he & his guest were so nice. And from the looks of it, very interested in learning how to saber bubbly. There’s more to see in Napa than just grapes folks! ;>)
(click on photos to zoom in)