Since the holidays are around the corner and the champagne corks will come flying, a topic like bubbly seems more than appropriate. Of course champagne has now become a word that can only used for bubbly coming out of the actual Champagne region of France, yet the Napa Valley is well on its way to become the second bubbly region in the world.
Numerous American wineries produce blanc de blanc and wines which have been produced according to the “champanoise” method. There is even a “sparkling wine” route which will take you along all the prominent wineries like Domaines Chandon, Carneros and Gloria Ferrer. In my mind’s eye, I see the two wenches from Absolutely Fabulous tear down this route, bottle in one hand, cig in another and occasionally tripping over vines and falling into ditches.
But dahling, I digress…
Of all of Napa’s bubbly estates, Schramsberg Vineyards is the most compelling, and maybe particularly because it’s such a unique California story.
Schramsberg was started as early as 1862 by the German immigrant Jacob Schram who initially had a barber’s shop in New York.
During the Gold Rush, he came to California via the Panama Canal and he would eventually put down roots in Napa where he bought some land and planted his first vines which he financed with the proceeds from his traveling barber’s shop.
He built the first underground cellar in Napa, by digging a sizeable piece out of a hill. Scram was one of the first wine farmers in Napa and though he owned a smaller piece of land than most, he came to be one of the most successful vintners: his wines won international prizes and were included in the wine list of the exclusive Palace Hotel in San Francisco. His story was cited as one of the most remarkable California success stories, i.e. he arrived penniless and had neither credit nor friends. Unlike other vintners, he preferred to go up the hill and not stay in the valley, to plant vines that were harder and more expensive to harvest. During the week he was a farmer, but on Saturday and Sunday he traveled to White Sulphur Springs and Calistoga for his barber shop customers.
Since Schram was considered such a successful wine pioneer, the author Robert Louis Stevenson visited Schramsberg Vineyards in 1880. At that point in time, Stevenson counted only 50 wineries. The Schramsberg estate was both opulent and eccentric and Stevenson was particularly impressed by the wine cave which could have easily housed bandits, according to the author.
Shortly after Stevenson’s visit, phylloxera broke out, which, together with the Prohibition, signified the end of the wine industry in Napa. While Jacob’s son Herman still tried to keep his father’s business going, around the turn of the century everything had died a quiet death as if the Wine Muse had pricked her finger and fell into a deep slumber, and with it, all the knowledge of those first few wine pioneers vanished while the vines browned and withered on California’s hills.
After WWII, the wine industry was being slowly reawakened in California. A couple from Los Angeles by the name of Jack and Jamie Davies, quit the rat race and Jack left a successful career to buy some land in Napa and start a new life with his wife and four sons.
Soon they discovered the extraordinary but desolate winery of Schramsberg Vineyards. The cellars which Jacob Schram had dug with his bare hands were full of bats and in the darkness the couple saw empty bottles and decaying barrels. The Victorian home housed bats too and not a single room was livable. Rats ran through the walls and under the floors, and the rain came through the roof.
And yet, the couple bought this forgotten piece of land in 1965 and after working hard Schramsberg Sparkling Wine has become once again one of the most well-known bubblies of the Napa Valley. Nixon served Schramsberg to the Chinese Prime Minister and Ford served Schramsberg to Queen Elizabeth II during state dinners at the White House.
Jack and Jamie Davies have died by now but their son Hugh has taken over the business and the vineyard (www.schramsberg.com) can be visited, though by appointment only. The cellars are the oldest and most impressive in all of Napa, the bats have left and the bubbly sparkles like it did when Jacob Schram poured his first vintage.