O ur journey to this historic house of sparkling wine began in Larkspur. Out of six French Champagnes, Italian Proseccos and domestic sparkling that the Tam Cellars wine shop offered at a recent tasting, one impressed me. Schramsberg's 2003 Blanc de Noirs had the rich aroma of the ghosts of yeast past, a light note somewhere between pear fruit and perspiration, the sensuality of a great Champagne. Realizing that I have been woefully remiss in my tasting duties in this category, I made an appointment at the next opportunity.
Every venerable Napa estate has its founding graybeard and namesake. Jacob Schram was a German immigrant who took up barbering in the 1850s. Being frugal, the story goes, he saved up and bought a 200 acre parcel in the Napa Valley. (Ah, if only you could frugally skip your daily $3 latté for a few years, and consequently close on a few hundred North Bay acres.) Despite the popularity of Champagne in post-Gold Rush California, Schram made still wines. He did, however, employ Chinese laborers to hand-dig extensive caves. The winery first gained recognition for hosting Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote about it in Silverado Squatters .
After the disruptions of Prohibition and changes in ownership, enter Jack and Jamie Davies in 1965. They rehabilitated the Victorian house and dilapidated caves, and, keeping Schram's name, began a family-run Champagne house. When their Blanc de Blancs was featured front and center at the "Toast to Peace" during Nixon's 1972 China trip, they were vaulted to the preeminent status the estate enjoys today. Incredibly, it was the first domestic sparkling wine served at a U.S. state function.
Schramsberg is tucked into a quiet, forested hillside, and because it's open for tours by appointment only, there are no crowds. Dark, diaphanous lichen floats on the hand-chipped rock walls of the caves. The lichen, which doesn't grow in modern, concrete-walled caves, serves to cleanse the air in the subterranean microclimate, as well as lending spooky atmosphere. With golden-hued bottles stacked floor to ceiling in the background, our guide explains the méthode champenoise and relates various colorful anecdotes before moving on to tasting.
The "tasting room" is a branch of the cave illuminated with standing candelabras. After a demonstration that in uncorking Champagne "the ear's gain is the palate's loss," we toast with a round of the 2004 Blanc de Blancs ($34.50). Even Queen Elizabeth II is said to be fond of its clean pear and apple cider flavors. Forget strawberries with the Brut Rosé ($39.50); our guide suggests it pairs particularly well with popcorn. That Blanc de Noirs was not on the table; however, the 2001 Reserve ($90) is a premium selection of that cuveé. (Holiday budget tip: Schramsberg sparkling can be bought at Trader Joe's at a significant discount.)
After the third glass, concerned that all this fine quaff might produce sufficient euphoria to contraindicate piloting an automobile, a few of us stepped up to the dump bucket. The majority of folks darn well got their money's worth.
Schramsberg Vineyards, 1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga. Four tours a day by appointment only, $25 per person. 707.942.4558.