Schramsberg Vineyards is one of Napa’s venerable must visit properties; the winery is located just south of Calistoga off of Highway 128 on the west side of the road at Peterson Drive and Schramsberg Road. This is the Diamond Mountain sub appellation. The long steep wooded driveway is narrow and windy so drive carefully and slowly (during harvest sometimes the road will close for a few minutes to allow trucks carrying grapes to reach the winery).
We’ve waited in the parking lot a number of times and it is always interesting to see where visitors walk after stepping out of their vehicle (often it is not in the direction of the visitor’s center). There are three main sections/buildings surrounding the parking lot – as you drive in the parking lot the visitor’s center entrance is immediately on your left side.
The winery was established in 1862 and was the Napa Valley’s second bonded winery – right behind Charles Krug in 1861 (although there were several wineries in Napa Valley in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s who are no longer around). David Fulton Winery in St. Helena was also founded in the early 1860’s. Fulton’s final date of completion is missing from historical records. Lets just say that any winery who started in the early 1860’s in the Napa Valley and who is still in business today is in select historical company.
The estate was founded by Jacob Schram – an immigrant from Germany who was trained as a barber in New York City and actually opened a barber shop in the city of Napa in the late 1850’s. During the height of his production he and his family were producing around 12,000 cases of still wine per year from 50 aces of vineyards. Historically Jacob Schram never produced sparkling wines. Production stopped in 1912 and the property changed hands several times including being acquired by the California Champagne Company. In 1965 Jack and Jamie Davies (from Southern California) acquired it and produced their first vintage that year from purchased grapes.
Jack’s early interest in wine came from when he joined the San Francisco Wine and Food Society. He also met Martin Ray, a vintner based in the Santa Cruz Mountains who focused on single varietal wines. Jack had already been introduced to sparkling wines via Martin Ray and he observed that there are a number of still wine production wineries in the Napa Valley but only a few wineries between Napa and Sonoma that were focusing on sparkling wines – and certainly not from varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The estate lay in various states of decay for many years; after acquiring the property Jack and Jamie began planting a number of acres to grapes including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Ultimately they determined this warmer part of the Napa Valley was not ideally suited to these varietals that prefer cooler climates – and by 1994 they began replanting to Bordeaux red varietals.
Not coming from a wine family, Jack needed to either hire or learn wine making on his own. He was referred to Dimitri Tchelistcheff (son of well-known Andre Tchelistcheff) and Dimitri became Schramsberg’s first consulting winemaker. Their first wine made was in 1965 – fermented at Charles Krug Winery and then brought back to Schramsberg. 1966 was the first vintage they crushed grapes entirely at Schramsberg. And 1967 was their first vintage dated wine, a Blanc de Noir of Pinot Noir.
Today approximately 41 acres are planted to vines on the estate. The yields are fairly low by Napa standards – at about 2 tons per acre. Schramsberg’s property is 218 acres of which two historical vineyards are located on site, the original Schram Vineyard and the McEachran Vineyard first planted in 1878. They source grapes from select cooler climate vineyards throughout Napa (mostly the southern part of the valley), parts of Sonoma County, Marin County and Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.
Their sparkling wine has been served to Presidents, Heads of State and other important dignitaries world wide. The first time the White House got whiff of the quality of their wine was in 1972. Jack Davies was called to drop off cases at Travis Airforce Base where he was met by a government official. Jack forgot to get payment and delivered the wine for free. Several weeks later a friend called up and told them to watch Barbara Walters on National TV who was holding their wine which was served at a Presidential function in China. Talk about excellent publicity!
This is world-class sparkling wine; they are one of only four wineries focusing on sparkling wine production in Napa Valley. As of the time of this review they make 10+ different sparkling wines including their much coveted Reserve J. Schram. They even still employ a Riddler – someone who turns the bottles by hand in order to move the dead yeast out of the wine. Today most sparkling wine producers have automated this process using a machine called a gyropalette that turns an entire pallet of wine at one time.
A former riddler spend 30+ years doing this job at Schramsberg; you can imagine his job description, “I turn bottles of wine for a living”. However Riddlers are very good at what they do, often turning over 8,000 bottles in merely one hour. Automated riddling machines at other sparkling wineries are able to move the yeast to the stem of the bottle in about a week while it typically takes Schramsberg up to 6 weeks. This winery is all about quality versus quantity and respect for the historical aspects of making sparkling wine.
The very educational tour winds through the dark and damp wine cellars; one notices the musty smell of the caves as soon as one enters. These are some of the Napa Valley’s oldest and most historic caves. The original caves were hand dug by Chinese laborers in the early 1870’s – some of the pick ax marks can still be seen on some of the cave walls. The caves were extended in the 1980’s – today they are among the largest caves in the Napa Valley at about 34,000 square feet which still pales in size compared to Palmaz Winery with the largest cave in the Napa Valley at about 110,000 square feet. Note the thousands of bottles stacked on top of each other – up to 6 feet deep. Some of the stacks are held in place by bottle caps on the outside of the stack – stopping the bottles from rolling out of the stack.
After you tour the cave you will either taste within the cave or walk to one of their elegant tasting rooms where you are given select pours of various sparkling wines. Your host will demonstrate the proper way to open a bottle of sparkling wine. Seating is tight in the sit down tasting room with many glasses sitting on the tables, so be careful not to accidentally bump over a premium glass of sparkling wine.
We have been here a number of times – on our first visit we had the privilege of meeting Schramsberg’s matriarch, Jamie Davies who quietly stepped out of the shadows near the main entrance and introduced herself. Someone made a nice comment about the frog in the pond but the memory has become hazy since then and we cannot recall Jamie’s reply. She passed away in 2008 leaving an impressive legacy behind. Today Jack and Jamie’s youngest son Hugh Davies oversees the winery and the wine making operations.
Food and champagne pairing sessions are available and you can also take a self guided tour of their gardens which are best in Spring and Summer. You must reserve a tasting and tour ahead of time as tours are given only several times per day, appointment only.
Also of historical note is Robert Louis Stevenson visited Schramsberg in 1880 on his honeymoon (the same honeymoon he and his wife ended up ‘living’ in the abandoned Silverado Mine bunkhouse on nearby Mt. St. Helena). During his visit to Schramsberg he noted that he tasted 18 different wines. Schramsberg is mentioned several times in his book titled The Silverado Squatters.
And some more recent fascinating history, the site of what is now Etude Winery in Napa’s Carneros region used to be the home to RMS Brandy Distillery, a joint venture between Remy-Martin and Schramsberg Vineyards that was founded in 1982. Supposedly this was the first distillery built in California since prohibition. Despite creating some award winning brandies, ultimately the venture did not work out and they closed in 2002.
For more information visit: www.schramsberg.com and also visit their sister winery and tasting room located in St. Helena, Davies Vineyards, which we also review separately on this site. Davies Vineyards focuses on still wines – Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and these wines are made at an off site winery located in St. Helena.