Travel Tastes

The Sparkling Story of Schramsberg

Bubbles are effervescent happiness.  They’re glee in a crystal flute.  Bubbles comes from several different regions – champagne from France, cava from Spain, prosecco from Italy, espumante from Portugal, and sparkling wine in the United States.

I’ve sipped Schramsberg before, but it wasn’t until I took the tour in their Napa Valley winery that I learned the sparkling story.  Founded in 1862, it is the second oldest winery in Napa Valley, beat out by Krug which started six months earlier.

As we walked up to the tasting room, I loved the frog in the pond, decked out in tuxedo tails lifting a glass.

“They allow me to day drink for a living,” said our tour guide Brittany.  She’s been with Schramsberg just under two years, lost her home in the 2017 wildfires, and was one of the best wine tour guides I’ve ever had.  Extremely knowledgeable, she is also funny and has no problems poking fun of your group or herself.  She was a perfect personality fit for our group made up of mainly wine lovers from San Antonio, Texas.

Our tour started with a little history of the Schramsberg brand.  It dates back to the 19th century when Jacob Schram, a German immigrant, headed west to make his home in California and started his winery on 200+ acres of Diamond Mountain in the Mayacamas Mountains, now in the northwest area of Napa Valley.  Jacob Schram died in 1905 and the winery ceased operation and was sold in 1912.  It was remain abandoned until Jack and Jamie Davies bought it in 1965.  In the 1960s there were 21 wineries and the Davies thought it was over-saturated with chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.  So they set out to produce “America’s most prestigious, select and admired sparkling wine” starting with the flagship vintage, the 1965 Blanc du Blancs.

Along the hall leading to the cave, you see a wall lined with pictures and menus from prestigious dinners at the White House.  Schramsberg was the first American White House Wine.  In 1972, the Blanc de Blancs was used for President Nixon’s “Toast to Peace” with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai. Schramsberg’s sparkling wines have been served at 58 official State functions by every U.S. Presidential administration since Nixon.  As a broadcaster, I found this tidbit Brittany shared interesting and funny – Barbara Walters butchered the Schramsberg name on national television while covering the “Toast to Peace.”

As you enter the caves on the tour, you literally are walking into history.  The caves dates back to 1870 when Chinese laborers dug out by hand the first hillside cave system for storing and aging wine in Napa at Schramsberg.  Ninety percent of the cave is original.  You can still see pick axe marks on the walls of the cave now storing 3.1 million bottles.

Being a meteorologist, I immediately asked about the temperature and humidity in the caves.  The hand dug caves stay around 55° and 80% humidity.  If you’re wondering, the deepest cave in the network is 66 feet deep.

Of course I had to ask about earthquakes, especially since so many wineries had huge losses in the 6.0 earthquake that rocked Napa in 2014.  Schramsberg lost very few bottles because of the structure of the caves.  The mountain is made up of volcanic rock.  That material is more porous and in a sense able to act as shock absorbers in an earthquake, as it did in 2014.  Another interesting weather related tidbit – Napa increases 1° per mile going north from from Carneros to Calistoga (where Schramsberg is).

“Big bubbles give you big troubles,” are words to live by when sipping bubbly.  Brittany reminded us of that rule of thumb as she told us about the fermenting process.  You always want tiny bubbles!

Schramsberg was the first gravity fed process in the country.  Fermentation happens inside of the bottles and there’s 150 pounds per square inch in each bottle.  That’s more than tire!  The bottles take 8 weeks to settle and are then aged for 2-18 years.  They still use the traditional riddling method that dates back to the 1800s of turning the bottles to allow the sediments to settle.  At Schramsberg, riddling is done by hand with one turn a day for 8-18 weeks.  Brittany also told us they are also the last winery in the world to drum.  Each bottle gets 4-7 shakes in the drumming phase.  I found it interesting they use robots in the disgorgment process.  It’s because the sediment ice plug pops out at 80mph!

After the incredibly interesting cave tour, it was time to sip some sensational sparkling wine.  We started with what Schramsberg is know for – Blanc de Blancs. I thought it was so cool to sip the same bubbly served many times at the White House since Nixon. You would think the “White House Wine” would have a big price tag, but at $41 at the winery (half bottles run $24), it’s not that expensive. Next we did a comparison of two sparkling wines from the same year (2008). That was my favorite part of the tasting. The J Schram pairs well with rich foods since it’s a little more buttery.  It’s 18% pinot noir and 82% chardonnay.  We compared it with the Reserve.  This was more traditional bubbles to me.  It’s that happiness in a glass – crisp, bright, and complex.  It was really neat to decipher the differences.  For a break from bubbles, we tasted the “JD” Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s 7% malbec, which makes it a great cab to sip now instead of laying down for years.  I found it delightful and thought it would be a great cab to sip on its own or pair with a wide range of foods.  We finished the tasting with Blanc de Noirs, which is white wine from black grapes.  Giddy would be the word to describe our group after the tasting.  I guess you could say we all had a bubbles buzz just like the words Don Ho coined in his song, “Tiny bubbles, in the wine, make me happy, make me feel fine.”