Schramsberg Vineyards Diamonds in the Rough
By W. Peter Hoyne
I have been captivated by sparkling wines for decades traveling through the French Champagne regions of Reims and Epernay and California’s North Coast. When thinking about Champagne, you instinctively consider the elite of Krug, Salon, Dom Ruinart and Cristal. Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley is in a class by itself and should be honored among the expertly crafted sparklers in the world. In fact, Schramsberg J Davies consistently ranks among the top tete de cuvee’s in blind tastings. Schramsberg has a storied past and a historical list of achievements that have become the cornerstone of Champagne styled “méthode traditionelle” sparkling wine in the US.
The story 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 rich soils at high elevations. A barber by trade, 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 them to hand dig the first wine caves in Napa for cellaring his wines. Following a visit to the winery, author Robert Louis Stevenson brought recognition to the estate, detailing his stay in his writings “The Silverado Squatters.” 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 executive relocated from Southern California to Napa Valley along with his wife Jamie and their two sons. Jack and Jamie decided to become vintners and grape growers, acquiring the run down Schramsberg estate and vineyards. Together they were inspired by the property and the prospect of crafting high-end sparkling wine in the traditional French method from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. During the same year the couple produced the first vintage dated Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine in the US, from purchased Chardonnay grapes. A Blanc de Noir followed two years later.
Since Chardonnay was not popular in the valley at that time, the Davies traded their Riesling grown grapes in exchange for Chardonnay from Robert Mondavi Winery. Jack hired Dimitri Tchelistcheff, son of renowned Napa winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, as his first consulting winemaker. Other neighbors in the valley helped in supporting their cause.
Schramsberg’s rise to international fame occurred in 1972 when their 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc was served by President Nixon at the “Toast to Peace” state dinner for Premier Zhou Enlai of China. This was an unprecedented event, as it was the first time an American wine was served at the White House. Since then, Schramsberg sparkling wines have been served by every presidential administration to visiting dignitaries including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip as well as Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Recently, Donald Trump served Schramsberg wines during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit in 2018. Schramsberg’s vision and path to success with premium sparkling wines paved the way for others such as Moet & Chandon Domaine Chandon, Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley and Mumm Napa.
Today, Schramsberg produces over 80,000 cases of sparkling wine annually. They source Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from 66 vineyard sites in the cool-climate reaches of Napa, Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin. Their portfolio includes between 12-15 sparkling wines. Hugh Davies has served as CEO and President of Schramsberg since 2005. Hugh replanted the estate hillside vineyards on Diamond Mountain to red Bordeaux varietals and honored his father Jack in 2004 with the debut of the 2001 J Davies Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Hugh has also been instrumental with innovations in winemaking and production introducing a still Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley in Mendocino. He carries on the legacy and vision of his parents. Schramsberg celebrated the 150th Anniversary of Jacob Schram’s founding of this property in 2012 and it is certain there will be many more memorable milestones in their future.