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American Wine Royalty: Schramsberg

5 min read

When I started Opening a Bottle last year, I didn’t realize that I would get the chance to meet so many winemakers so quickly. And I also didn’t realize that so many winemakers would be such approachable, wonderful people.

It makes sense, however. They spend much of their time outside, they form a close bond with the land, they take enormous personal risk for the love of their end product, and they have to have a knack for people-skills in order to organize labor and to market and sell their product.

All of this was once again affirmed recently when I was invited to attend a wine tasting of Schramsberg Vineyards of Diamond Mountain, California. There I got a chance to chat with Hugh Davies, the second generation winemaker behind Schramsberg’s storied bottles of bubbly. Here was a man whose family’s wines had been served at more than 100 White House functions (including nearly any event involving a visit from a Chinese President … more on that later), and yet, he had the friendly demeanor of a neighbor you chat with three times a week over your fence.

A Little History (OK, a Lot)

The Schramsberg Estate near Calistoga, California

The Schramsberg Estate near Calistoga, California. ©Wilson Daniels

As guests for the tasting filtered in, he excitedly told me about the history of the Schramsberg estate — a tale that has even more layers to it than Napa’s famous soil. Originally homesteaded by an immigrant barber from Germany named Jacob Schram in 1862, the estate flourished with Riesling and Burgundy-style wines for the next several decades. Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson — the author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde — visited the winery during his time in Northern California and praised it in his writings. But eventually, the estate would flounder under the pressures of phylloxera, and eventually, the crushing blow of Prohibition.

In 1965, Hugh’s parents — Jack and Jamie Davies — purchased the run-down estate and resurrected its vineyards. But their aim was never to reproduce the German and Burgundian styles that Schram cultivated. They set out to make sparkling wine. At that time, the word “nascent” would barely describe American sparkling wine.

A mere seven years later, President Richard Nixon would bring their Blanc de Blanc to Beijing and “toast to peace” with Premier Zhou Enlai. From then on, their sparkling wines would be a regular staple at White House functions.

The Tasting

20151014-Wine-0116

One of the more wonderful — yet less spoken of — elements of sparkling wine produced with the traditional method is its primary note of bread. And not just any bread: brioche.

I’m not just saying brioche because it is a French-style of bread (and Champagne-style wines are so inherently French). I’m saying that because they truly resemble brioche. This is because of the yeast used in the bottle during secondary fermentation which creates in the wine a velvety embrace that is perfectly aligned with our perception of buttery, soft, fresh-out-of-the-oven bread.

Mix this brioche top note with depths of crisp apple, and you have a profile that exudes pure comfort. Set it alight with those nicely beaded bubbles, and you are simultaneously relaxing and dancing.

20151014-Wine-0111Hugh lead us through a progressive tasting that showed the wine’s story arc. It began with a low-alcohol, 2014 base blend of Chardonnay (86%) and Pinot Noir (14%), which showed like a Chablis more than anything. From there, we got to sip its effervescent finished product, followed by the same wine with seven years on it (the 2007 J. Schram).

From there, we went into two “Library Wines,” a 2001 J. Schram and a 1996 J. Schram. The transformation was captivating, as brioche and apples turned into bruleé, bitter almond, baked apples, toffee and raisin. In fact, the 1996 resembled rum, which I found strange. However, the most incredible attribute of the library wines was their light-as-a-feather weight. The seemed to float on the palate just as much the 2014.

I also found it peculiar that the advancement of the wine from 2001 back to 1996 was so much more dramatic than from the 2007 to the 2001. When I pressed Hugh on this, he shrugged, as if acknowledging the mystery of it, then guessed that it had more to do with the vintage than any alteration in the blend.

The Still Wines of Davies Vineyards

We finished the session with a run of still red wines that Hugh has bottled under a different label simply called Davies. It began with a Pinot Noir from the Nobles Vineyard of Fort Ross (Sonoma Coast) followed by another Pinot Noir from more familiar territory to me: the Ferrington Vineyard in Anderson Valley. Both leaned more on the tart side, but I found the Ferrington Vineyard to be a little more complex. The final wine was their Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, which includes a fair amount of Malbec, and is the kind of wine to blow the doors off. It was supple, delicious and I imagined it would pair well with a cigar.

But honestly, I hesitate to levy a true judgement on these last wines because by then we were on our ninth, tenth and eleventh wines — my palate was getting a bit fatigued. I could tell that the elements that were standing out to me were the louder ones, and I much prefer to give a fine wine — such as a single-vineyard Pinot Noir — its due as a full bottle over a meal and an entire evening.

Despite palate fatigue, it was clear that each bottle of Schramsberg presents a pretty compelling story. Layers upon layers of flavor and history, and that rare thing we don’t find often in American wine: continuity. Hugh expressed a desire to hand down the family business to the next generation, and you can see why. They have a good thing going, and its largely due to continuity.

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