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 very 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. After Jacob passed away in 1905, his son Herman inherited the property for several years before selling. Production stopped in 1912 and the property changed hands several times including being used as a summer home at one point by one of the owners. None of the ventures lasted very long.
In the 1940s the property was acquired by the California Champagne Company and in 1951 new owners started Mt. Diamond Cellars (producing both still and sparkling wines) and also bottled wines under the Schramsberg label. In 1965 Jack and Jamie Davies (from Southern California) purchased the grand old estate and produced their first vintage that year from purchased grapes.
The realtor of record was Davies family friend Jerome C Draper who owned Draper Vineyards on Spring Mountain. His son Jerry (who we have communicated with a number of times and have met in person) recalls that his father helped introduce the Davies family to Katharine Cebrian, the owner of Schramsberg – which wasn’t actually on the market at the time but the Draper’s knew she might be interested in selling. Incidentally, Katherine and her second husband, Douglas Pringle purchased the old H.H. Harris Winery in Rutherford in the 1940s which remained in the family until 1996 (today known as Martin Estate and home to some of the first ever wines produced by Beaulieu Vineyard).
After the successful sale, Jerry asked his father what their commission would be on the sale. His father simply told him there are no family commissions! The Draper Vineyard manager at the time, Joe Torres helped oversee the initial plantings at Schramsberg under the Davies ownership. And one day when a coyote killed all the ducks in a pond on the property, Jerry quickly took action, found a place in Sonoma that sold Mallard ducks – recalling he had them soon swimming in the pond.
Jack had a variety of jobs after graduating from Harvard including working with his father in the cabinetry business making office furniture from their Los Angeles based business (Avalon Wood Products). Later he worked at Kaiser Aluminum and two years before moving the family up to the Napa Valley, he was a vice president at Ducommun Inc (the oldest continuously operating business in the state of California with a founding date of 1849).
Jamie co-founded the Hansen-Peterman Gallery in 1957 (Jamie’s maiden name was Peterman); the gallery was located near Union Square on Tillman Alley in San Francisco. The Hansen-Peterman Gallery later changed owners and names multiple times; its last address was just around the corner from Tillman Place at 228 Grant Ave. Over the years the gallery building housed a number of artists and galleries. Today the gallery is no longer in business.
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 were 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 varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at the time.
The estate lay in various states of decay for many years; after acquiring the property, initially with 14 other investors, 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 varieties which prefer cooler climates – and by 1994 they began replanting to Bordeaux red varieties, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. Their estate vineyard spans a range of about 500 to 1000 feet in elevation.
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 André Tchelistcheff) and Dimitri became Schramsberg’s first consulting winemaker. Their first wine made was in 1965; they purchased White Riesling from Jerome C Draper of Draper Vineyards on Spring Mountain, because Jerome already had all of his Chardonnay under contract to Beaulieu Vineyard (Chardonnay was not widely planted in the Napa Valley at this time). However, Jerome did mention that the Mondavi’s might be interested in trading for Riesling; Schramsberg soon traded the Riesling for five tons of Chardonnay from the Mondavi family – fermented at Charles Krug Winery and then brought back to Schramsberg. This was their Blanc de Blancs, now their iconic wine, still produced each year. 1966 was the first vintage where they crushed grapes entirely at Schramsberg including using grapes from Draper Vineyards and Chardonnay from a Beringer vineyard near Yountville (presumably the still existing Beringer Vineyard located on Finnell Road). And 1967 was their first vintage dated wine, a Blanc de Noir of Pinot Noir. The Schramsberg selection of wines has expanded greatly since the early days focusing on vintage dated products with the exception of Mirabelle, a multi-vintage brut sparkling (one of their largest production and best selling wines).
The original two caves were dug in 1870 and in 1881 and were expanded in size significantly by Napa Valley wine cave pioneer Alf Burtelson (a general engineering contractor), in the right circles, referred to as the Godfather of the modern day Napa wine cave. Alf is well into his 80’s now and long since retired although is still living in the northern part of Napa Valley. He oversaw the drilling of the ‘new’ caves with a scary looking Alpine Miner machine.
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. Approximately 41 acres are planted to vines on the estate (none of their vineyards can be seen from the winery – and sometimes one has glimpses of a few hillside vines to the left side of the driveway as one makes the final approach to the winery – barely seen through trees near the lower house). Their yields are fairly low by Napa standards – at about 2 tons per acre.
Interestingly, Schramsberg owns very few vineyards for their sparkling wines (as of our latest update to this review, the Bayview Vineyard on the Napa side of Carneros and one in the Russian River Valley of neighboring Sonoma County), rather they have developed relationships with numerous growers sourcing grapes from select cooler climate vineyards in the southern Carneros region of the Napa 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 (a number of photographs of state dinners line one of the walls of the reception room). 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. And their wine has been served at presidential functions for every president since Richard Nixon.
This is world-class sparkling wine; they are one of only four wineries focusing on sparkling wine production in Napa Valley and the only one with no direct ties to Champagne, France. 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 and the majority of their production using a machine called a gyropalette which turns an entire pallet of wine at one time.
A select number of employees worked at Schramsberg for decades including Jaime Aguirre, their vineyard manager who was Schramsberg’s first full time employee (he spent nearly 50 years with the winery before retiring). Former riddler Ramon Viera spent nearly 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.
A friend of Jamie’s was visiting one day and remarked how Ramon was always working whenever she visited the winery. Both women started talking about coming up with some sort of tribute to Ramon. Sculptor Larry (LC) Shank was hired (a number of his works are also displayed in the Napa Valley at select wineries and restaurants including The Greeter at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) to create a statue in his honor. This bronze statue now greets visitors in the frog pond next to the entrance to the hospitality center. The frog is holding up a glass of Schramsberg’s finest to the light examining the clarity of the wine. A contest was held to name the statue and the winning entry was chosen as The Riddler’s Night Out.
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 pale in size compared to Palmaz Winery with the largest cave in the Napa Valley at about 110,000 square feet. The Schramsberg caves can hold about 4 million bottles when full. 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 at their peak in the spring and summer. You must reserve a tasting and tour ahead of time as tours are offered 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.
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 with the Napa Valley’s first alembic stills (initially 8 of them). Despite creating some award winning brandies, ultimately the venture did not work out and they closed in 2002.
And Schramsberg had connections to Portual in the 1980s. In 1988 they entered into a partnership with Portuguese winemakers João Carvalho Maia and Celso Pereira. This connection was made because João worked a harvest at Schramsberg in the 1980s and got to know the Davies family. Jointly they established Caves Transmontanas, producer of the Vértice still and sparkling wines near the town of Alijó in the Douro Valley. While Schramsberg is no longer involved in the operations, Caves Transmontanas continues to produce premium wines in this part of Portugal.
Guests looking for what might be the ultimate Schramsberg experience will want to inquire about Camp Schramsberg, a twice a year offering where “sparkling campers” attend either a 3-day session in spring or fall with detailed on the job training about producing sparkling wine. Select scholarships are given for wine professionals. These sessions are highly popular and sell out months and months in advance.
Note: the two photographs of the wine bottle on the left hand side below – one was taken before the bottle was broken and one taken after. In October 2017 this bottle was being moved into the cave for safe keeping during the terrible fires in October 2017 (anticipating the fires might reach the winery – they did not). There was no backing on the original case holding this bottle and when it was pulled out from the wall in the rush to potentially save it, the bottle fell out the back and broke on the ground directly below the case. The bottle was later pieced back together (using the same label).
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. While their first vintage was rather small (1,000 cases), production has grown significantly over the years; today total production of Schramsberg wines each year as of our latest update to this review is around 85,000 cases with good domestic distribution and some international.