The Legend Behind Schramsberg Vineyards
By W Peter Hoyne
Hugh Davies’ craftsmanship and knowledge of sparkling wines transcends most vintners that I have met through the decades in my travels. He is a second generation family member of Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley, which has a storied past and a historical list of achievements in the evolution of “methode traditional” sparkling wines in the United States.
The history behind Schamsberg Vineyards unfolds in 1862 when Jacob Schram, a German Immigrant, purchased 218 acres of property on the hillsides of Diamond Mountain, south of the city of Calistoga, California. Six years later he would plant vineyards in these volcanic sub-soils situated at high elevations. Schram’s family had a background in winemaking, so he pursued crafting his first still wine in 1876. At that time, Schramsberg was only the second bonded winery in Napa Valley. The Transcontinental Railroad provided a workforce of Chinese manpower for Schram as he hired these laborers to hand dig the first wine caves in Napa Valley for his wines. After Jacob Schram’s passing in 1905, the property was handed down to his son and later sold, falling into disrepair.
In 1965, Jack Davies a Harvard educated businessman and his wife Jamie, a graduate of Berkley, decided to relocate to Napa Valley from Southern California. They were inspired to start their own business crafting high-end sparkling wine in the traditional French method from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Although there wasn’t much of a market for this style of wine, they pursued their dream of making world-class sparkling wine.
Together, Jack and Jamie used their investments to purchase the run down Schramsberg estate in northern California’s mountainous Calistoga appellation. Robert Mondavi helped their cause by exchanging some low alcohol Chardonnay juice that he had on his property for Riesling grapes that Jack had purchased from Spring Mountain. Mondavi admitted “Jack if you succeed, we’ll all succeed.” In 1965, the Davies released their first vintage dated Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine in the US. By 1967, they had crafted a Blanc de Noir and in 1968 they produced a Rose´, a cuvee de Gamey. In 1965, they also started to replant their estate, reestablishing their own vineyard property as a source for their fruit.
When Jack and Jamie Davies moved to Calistoga in 1965, their son Hugh Davis had been born which was just before the first harvest. During his childhood, Hugh had grown up in the vineyards, but his destiny as the future patriarch of Schramsberg was not yet known. Hugh attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine along with visiting wineries in Spain and Peru. According to Hugh he “was uncertain of the path he would go down when he was younger.” His parents encouraged him to travel and he admits to having “had five unique over seas experiences in his 20’s” which would be influential later in his life.
He worked for a congressman in Washington DC, then worked for a non-profit in San Francisco for a couple of years. According to Hugh “In the early 90’s the economy took a turn for the worse. For non-profits that was not good.” He went back to school since it was a tough job market. “I took biology and chemistry with the idea that I could go into resource management or wildlife biology or a broader environmental field, or maybe I could think about getting into the wine end business as a winemaker.”
Hugh decided to move back home to attend college, while working part time at the winery. “Then the whole thing rubbed me pretty well that darn, this winemaking thing might not be such a bad idea.” He was 25 at the time.
Hugh proceeded to attend UC Davis for a Masters Degree in Enology. His master’s thesis at Davis was on the sensory evaluation of base wines and the sparkling wines he made from them. He also built on his many work experiences during his time at Moët et Chandon in Champagne, Remy Martin in Cognac, France, Australia and at Mumm Napa Valley. He returned back to Schramsberg full time as a junior winemaker at the age of 30.
Hugh shared with me that “I would have stayed on a more modest growth track in terms of my career, title and responsibility at the winery but my dad died in 1998 when I was 32 at the time. Once my Dad took ill and then my older brother moved on, it became more clear that my Mom and I were going to be the family members at the winey. “
Three years later, general manger Mike Reynolds left Schramsberg and Hugh became general manager, eventually becoming president and CEO of the company. In honesty Hugh professes “I guess if I had it to do all over, it would have been fun to be just one of the winemakers for a longer period of time, but that just wasn’t going to be possible. I needed to then think about how to sell this, market it, build the business. Make sure that the whole thing works so that there would be a chance for another generation one day to take it on and move it forward. “
Through the decades Hugh has continued to build upon the achievements and accolades of Schramsberg. Hugh admits to being most inspired by his parents, but he also credits winemaker Dawnine Dyer of Domaine Chandon and French native Michelle Salgues, former winemaker at Roederer Estate, who shared with Hugh everything he knew.
In the late 60’s into the 90’s Schramsberg was sourcing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from their home property, but they were also buying grapes from esteemed growers.
As Hugh looked back “ … we came out of the recession in the early 90’s. As we start to make more wine we should collaborate with people that grow grapes in these cooler areas. Initially, we were going to grow Cabernet for somebody else who would grow Pinot Noir for us in a cooler area. Fairly quickly, after we got started, we changed that idea. We should grow cabernet for ourselves. Let’s do it for ourselves. We don’t have to grow Cabernet for somebody in order to get Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from cooler areas. We can just buy the fruit “Chardonnay and Pinot Noir” and grow Cabernet. That led us to replant on this home property with Cabernet.”
Their first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon was made in 1996, but was never sold. The 2001 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon was the first red wine to make it to market in 2004. According to Hugh, “we launched the Cabernet from the estate, called it the J Davies Estate Cab with my Dad’s initials J… It seemed like a nice way to honor him…
We have grown with that whole program. Today, we have 46 acres. We have the 5 varietals. There is the Davies Winery in St Helena, which we established in 2012, where we make the reds. In that year, we started doing Cabernet from other Napa Vineyards as well, so we have a set of 6 vineyard designate Cabernets. In addition to the J Davies Estate Cab, there is the J Davies Estate Jamie, which is the crown jewel, which we named after my mom.” It is a special bottle with a smaller production of 8-12 barrels. In 2009, Schramsberg also added Pinot Noir to their portfolio.
I was curious and inquired how Hugh might describe the Schramsberg style. Hugh responded, “Inside of the house, we make Chardonnay, we make Pinot Noirs, then we make rose´. They are all sparklings. Chardonnay is always different from Pinot Noir. I feel like our blanc styles are very tart. They really are. We have more acidity naturally in the fruit that we work with than you will see in the Champagne district of France. The world doesn’t know that.
So I feel that what people like about our blanc style, is that it is crisp on entry, it is long on the finish. What I feel that people are not paying attention to is how much acidity is there. We do work with barrels that give us a little richness and roundness, but typically 20-25 %. It’s neutral barrels, not new barrels. Just a little bit of a subtle richness and roundness that will help nestle with that really tart acidity.
On our Noir styles. we have pushed further toward some of these coastal sites in Sonoma, in particular with Pinot Noir. Especially, close to the coast you get lower yields, tiny berries, there is a density of flavors… that is so tasty. I feel like that the Schramsberg Noir style is a richer style. It has this density, a little bit of the stone fruit essence, a little interesting cherry essence that might be fleeting because it is not that ripe. As that ages too, just kind of caramelized richness that comes with if you try the J Schram Noir 2014. That wine is in its own lane. There aren’t many sparkling wines that taste like that wine.
Meanwhile with rose´, the world loves rose´ more than it did before, still wine rose´ and sparkling rose´. This is one thing that I feel that I grabbed from Champagne, visiting Roederer, the notion of putting Chardonnay into your rose´. That was something that we hadn’t quite so much of, and now 30 years later, the Chardonnay component is very important. It gives you the crisp entry, it gives the long finish, the spine and backbone to the blend. So our rose´ is generally 30% Chardonnay, sometimes 50% Chardonnay and then J Schram Rose´ is 70% Chardonnay sometimes… You need some of the crisp, tart Chardonnay in there to really give this backbone. Then you layer in the more flavorful Pinot Noirs. We also need to layer in some Pinot Noir that has color. It is really trying to dial that in so that it tastes right and looks right. I feel like we figured that out pretty well. It is different than the way we did it 30 years ago.
I concluded by asking Hugh what he wanted his legacy to be. He responded, “I don’t think about it as much as what I want my legacy to be. I just think about it as what I would like to be able to accomplish in my life. I would like to pass on a healthy, stable business, family operation to the next generation. The next group would be really excited to be there and to stay there, and to enjoy the moment that they have there. That’s the way I see it.”