California may not be best-known for its bubbly, but thanks in large part to Schramsberg’s efforts more than 40 years ago, there are a good handful of producers who make world-class sparkling wine in our backyard today.
Founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram, a German immigrant, the German grapes, riesling and gewürztraminer, as well as zinfandel, were grown and made into still wines. Along with the help of Chinese laborers, he blasted into the mountain and created two extensive caves that are still vital for aging.
Schramsberg was sold in 1912, seven years after Schram’s death, and winemaking ceased on the estate. It went through several ownership changes before Jack and Jamie Davies packed up their 2½ sons — the youngest, Hugh, was still in the oven — and left Los Angeles for Napa Valley with a vision to make the best sparkling wine outside of Champagne.
The Davieses did their homework, looking to the Champenois for guidance and got the best equipment, but one problem remained. While there was plenty of riesling on the property, chardonnay or pinot noir were nowhere to be found.
So, Jack Davies made a deal with Robert Mondavi, who was at the time still at Charles Krug with his brother, Peter, to trade riesling for some of their chardonnay. The Mondavi brothers had their famous parting of the ways, but Peter Mondavi honored the trade and the Schramsberg’s first wine, a blanc de blancs, was born with the 1965 vintage. Two years later, a blanc de noirs was made.
In 1972, there was a mysterious phone call from the State Department asking the Davieses to deliver 13 cases of wine to Travis Air Force Base. Without being given a who, where or why, they made the drive and delivered the wine to a plane on the tarmac.
Soon enough, they found out that their pride and joy was being used for a toast to peace during a State Department dinner given in honor of Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in Beijing. Schramsberg has since been served by every administration, Republican and Democrat.
The Davies’ influence cannot be understated. Their efforts have inspired people from all over the world to make sparkling wine in California. From vintage dating the cuvées to extended aging time, Schramsberg pushed the boundaries in California sparkling wine production. In 1992, J. Schram, the first California tête de cuvee was released. Today, this $100 bottle of wine is on par with many of its compatriots from Champagne.
Today, Schramsberg makes six sparkling wines, plus a few extras that are only available in the winery tasting room.
Since the mid-’90s, cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux grapes have been planted on the historic Schramsberg property and in 2004, the first J. Davies Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (2001) was released. Schramsberg is on schedule to release two pinot noirs some time next year.
Despite the more recent efforts, the Schramsberg name clearly hinges on its sparkling wines. It is nearly 40 years since Barbara Walters held up the ’69 Blanc de Blancs in Tiananmen Square on ABC News, yet few would argue that Schramsberg not only set but remains the standard for California sparkling wine.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.