For this post I decided to dust off an old paper from one of my wine history classes. I’ve long admired the Schramsberg family of sparking wines as well as their J. Davies table wines. Recently I read that J. Davies was moving their production facility into an old car dealership, Epps Chevrolet, in St. Helena. From a recent press relelase:
For the 2012 vintage, it is expected that the winery will process 155 tons of fruit. 85 tons will be J. Davies Estate Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon, 45 tons will be Davies Vineyards vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs, and 25 tons will be the first-ever Davies Vineyards vineyard-designated Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.
Over time, I’m sure that vast areas of pavement, normally used to hold car inventory, will flourish with a more stylish design reminisicent of the iconic caves and house of the Schramsberg estate located in the charming hills above Calistoga. For now, feature and function are the first order of business.
A Brief History of Schramsberg Vineyards
On a cool spring day in April, 1972 Jack Davies, owner of Schramsberg Vineyards, received the now historic phone call. Jack personally answered the ringing phone while at work in the cellar. The caller identified himself as a member of the State Department and expressed interest in purchasing 15 cases of 1969 Blanc de Blancs, one of the first vintages produced by Jack since purchasing the winery back in 1965. At that time Jack was producing close to 3,000 cases annually and any sale was an important sale. He didn’t fully anticipate the importance of this sale.
Jack Davies was a graduate of Stanford University with a Master’s In Business Administration from Harvard. He enjoyed a successful career in management before deciding with his wife to move to Napa from Los Angeles in pursuit of a simpler and more meaningful lifestyle. Some early experience working in an orchid nursery and his love of wine led them to consider winemaking. After a yearlong search, Jack and his wife Jamie discovered the rundown and overgrown Schramsberg property. With an antique and dilapidated Victorian style mansion sitting among overgrown vineyards and a garden, they started dreaming of bringing the property back to life, a passion which drove them the rest of their lives together.
Schramsberg historic house.
The original property was developed by Jacob Schram, an immigrant from Pheddersheim, Germany. Jacob had grown up near the Rhine River and came from a winemaking family. Immigrating to New York in 1826, he became a barber to earn a living. In 1852, Jacob traveled to the west coast by ship through the Panama Canal and arrived in San Francisco. He eventually settled in Napa Valley and continued his trade in Saratoga where he fell in love with his future wife. In 1859, he married Annie Christine Weaver, also from Germany, and started a family. Still barbering to raise money, Jacob bought the large piece of land in the mountainsides of the Napa Valley and Schramsberg was born.
Schram family at cave entrance in the 1800s.
An interesting passage is found in the memoir written by Robert Louis Stevenson titled Silverado Squatters published in 1883.  In this wild spot, I did not feel the sacredness of ancient cultivation. It was no Marathon, and no Johannesburg; yet the stirring sunlight, and the growing vines, and vats and bottles in the cavern, made a pleasant music for the mind. Here, also, earth’s cream was being skimmed and garnered; and the London customers can taste, such as it is, the tang of the earth in this green valley.”
Jacob planted Riesling, Hock, Burgundy and Chasselas  grapes. He hired Chinese workers, previously used on the transcontinental railroad to dig his cool underground cellars. By 1876 his production had reached 12,000 cases per year and he was shipping to New York and Europe, mostly England, winning awards at American and International competitions. As the wine business prospered, Jacob hired a shipbuilder to build the lavish Victorian mansion. Consistent with shipbuilding techniques, small pegs instead of nails were used in its construction, details which are preserved in the recently restored mansion. Jacob died in 1905 at which time his son, Herman, took over management of the property. Unfortunately the phylloxera epidemic and Prohibition brought an end to the Schramsberg era.
Before Jack Davies discovered and purchased the run down property in 1965 it traded hands through a number of investors who used it as a vacation destination or speculative investment. It never regained its glory until Jack and Jamie came along. In a recent article Jack’s wife Jamie described the property as “Windows were broken, plaster was falling off the walls and bats flew out of the attic, which she swatted with a tennis racket. It was insane!” 
As they considered the future of the winery they decided to dedicate their efforts to producing a prestigious, select, and admired sparkling wine. They realized this meant educating a new generation of American consumers about sparkling wine produced by the traditional process of Methode Champenoise. Such legendary wines were typically made only in France. They began replanting the vineyards and producing some of their first vintages using grapes purchased from the cooler Carneros region. The 1965 Blanc de Blancs was a product of the first commercial use of chardonnay in an American sparkling wine. The 1967 Blanc de Noirs used the pinot noir grape and was followed by the Reserve, with over four years of aging which quickly became recognized as the finest sparkling wine made in the United States.
Waiting for riddling.
As Jack continued the phone call with the man from the State Department he was asked to deliver the 15 cases of Blanc de Blancs to Travis air base in Fairfield near Sacramento. A passing reference was made to the White House but no additional details were provided. Jack personally delivered the wine to the base in his pickup truck and was instructed to drive across the tarmac to the parked Boeing 707. It was not a normal Air Force jet but had the markings of Air Force One. While loading the wine into the cargo hold Jack noticed a podium with the presidential seal inside. As he finished loading, he asked his escort how he would be paid. The gentleman simply handed him a business card with the White House seal printed on it and told him to call the number listed there.
Jack didn’t give the whole episode much more thought after returning home. Several weeks passed until one morning a local winemaker called and suggested that he turn on the television and watch the Today Show with Barbara Walters right away. He did so and there was Barbara holding up a bottle of the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs explaining how this bottle of champagne from a little unknown California winery was at that moment being served at the historic Peace Talks in Beijing between President Nixon and Premier Chou En-Lai on April 28th, 1972. This epochal event generated unprecedented publicity for Jack and his winery. It marked the first time that Schramsberg or any American wine was served at any White House or State event at home or abroad. Since then Schramsberg wines have been served by every subsequent presidential administration.
Other key milestones:
1967 - First production of vintage dated Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir grapes in the United States.
1968 - First production of brut rose’ in the United States. Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve established by Jack.
1980 – Schramsberg Reserve is introduced making the first vintage dated U.S. sparkling wine aged on yeast for four years before disgorging.
1985 - First use of barrel fermentation in production of Schramsberg sparkling wines.
1994 - Diamond Mountain property is ripped out and replanted with Bordeaux varieties. Cool region grapes are sourced from Marin, Monterey, and Sonoma counties and Anderson Valley.
Today Schramsberg produces over 60,000 cases of wine and ships them to over 25 countries with Europe and Asia as their best markets. Visitors to their tasting room can view photos of many of the White House dinners featuring Schramsberg wine and various heads of state.
1 Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters, printed for the Silverado Museum, Ashland Oregon 1974, originally published in 1883, pp26-27.
2 Chasselas is a wine grape variety grown in Switzerland, France, Germany, Portugal and New Zealand. Chasselas is mostly vinified to be a full, dry and fruity white wine. It is also suitable as a table grape, grown widely for this purpose in Turkey. In France it is mostly grown in the Loire region where it is converted into a blend with Sauvignon Blanc called “Pouilly-sur-Loire”
3 Linda Murphy, San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 2005.