Food & Drink

Schramsberg branching out from sparkling wine

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

Good-quality California sparkling wine is fairly common these days, but when Jack and Jamie Davies revived Schramsberg Vineyards 50 years ago, that wasn’t the case.

Most California bubbly back then was of the cheap, bulk-process variety; only Korbel in Sonoma County and Hans Kornell in Napa Valley were making wines in the traditional Champagne method, in which the second fermentation, which produces the bubbles, occurs in the bottle in which the wine is sold.

Hugh Davies, who now runs the winery started by his parents, says his father “wanted to do something no one else was doing.” Jack Davies was a Los Angeles businessman and wine lover who had decided he wanted to get into the wine business. He and his wife, Jamie, started looking for property, and one day they were shown an old Napa Valley estate that had been known as Schramsberg. Founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram, the winery operated until 1912. “The whole thing seemed to kind of click,” Hugh Davies says. They found some investors and bought the 200-acre property in 1965, the same year Hugh was born.

Davies acknowledges that there wasn’t much of a market at first. In 1972, he says, the winery was selling only about 1,000 cases a year. But Schramsberg was about to burst onto the world stage. That year, the 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs was served at a state dinner hosted by President Nixon for Chinese premier Zhou Enlai during Nixon’s historic first trip to China. It marked the first time that an American wine had been served at a state event, at home or abroad.

For years, the Davieses called their wine “Napa Valley Champagne,” although they abandoned that phrase in the late 1990s, both because the wine wasn’t made in Champagne and because many of the grapes were being sourced outside the Napa Valley. By the late 1980s, Jack Davies had begun to realize that his vineyard on Diamond Mountain was really too warm for sparkling wine, so he began to look for grapes from cooler sites. Now many of the grapes are purchased from coolclimate vineyards in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties. Schramsberg also owns a small vineyard in Carneros and leases vineyards in Anderson Valley and Marin.

Diamond Mountain is prime cabernet sauvignon country, and the family started planting it in 1994, gradually expanding the plantings. The first com mercial vintage of cab was 2001. The wine was named

J. Davies, in honor of Jack, who died in 1998. The J. Davies lineup was expanded to include a second-label cab called JD; the first J. Davies “Jamie” — a reserve cab named for Hugh’s mother, who died in 2008 — will be released in 2016. Now there’s also a Davies Vineyards label, which produces pinot noir and cabernet.

As for the sparkling wines, after 50 years they’re better than ever. The vintage-dated wines are rich yet lively, while the non-vintage Mirabelle brut and rosé are fresh and affordable. Here’s a toast to Schramsberg’s golden anniversary!