March 3, 2006
Napa Valley's grande dame Schramsberg's Jamie Davies
In 1805, Francois Clicquot died of a fever, leaving his 27-year-old wife, Barbe Nicole Ponsardin, to run his family's Champagne business.
The widow (veuve in French) knew little about wine production, yet seized the moment, inventing the riddling table that is still used today, and building a company so successful that one of France's finest Champagnes, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin's La Grande Dame, is named for her.
Two hundred years after the widow joined the male-dominated French winemaking world, America's own sparkling "grande dame," Jamie Davies, celebrates her 40th winemaking anniversary.
In 1965, Davies and her husband, Jack, purchased a ramshackle Victorian house, a winery and vineyards established in 1862 by German immigrant Jacob Schram in Calistoga, turning it into Schramsberg Vineyards, producer of arguably the finest sparkling wines in the United States.
"The property just popped out to us, and we said, 'This rundown old lady needs lots of attention,' " says Davies, 71, a petite, soft-spoken woman whose stature belies her internal strength and sharp mind. "We didn't have a wine style then, but we knew we didn't want to be, 'Me, too' winemakers. Some of our neighbors were not improving quality, and they felt their wines were good enough as is. We decided to do something that no one else was doing."
That something was sparkling wine, made with the same labor-intensive methods used in Champagne, called methode champenoise, where still wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sometimes Pinot Meunier grapes undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, creating the bubbles. The bottles are stored for several years, allowing the post-fermentation yeast cells to remain in contact with the wine, giving it a biscuity character and complexity.
"We did our homework before we got here," says Davies with a laugh, meaning sipping Champagne at parties. "We asked ourselves, 'What's missing here?' It was sparkling wine at the high end."
Jack Davies died in 1998, and it was with some sadness, and also great pride, that Jamie completed this year's circuit of anniversary celebrations held at the Diamond Mountain winery and at special dinners across the country.
The Davies were equal partners in the business, each with areas of expertise. Jack was the winemaker, the businessman, the man who spearheaded the creation of the Napa Valley Agriculture Preserve to ward off development, and helped prevent a four-lane freeway from splitting the valley in two.
Jamie is the creative force, the marketer, the hospitality director, the landscaper, the campaigner for the belief that sparkling wine isn't just for weddings, New Year's Eve and the launching of ships. She has lost count of the number of tours she's given of the nearly 2 miles of aging caves and tunnels first dug out of the hillside by Chinese laborers hired by Schram.
Like Ponsardin, Davies took control after Jack's death, seeing Schramsberg through several changes, including the replanting of the estate vines to Bordeaux red varieties, which flourish in the warmth and hillside exposure above Calistoga.
The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines that were pulled out to make room for Cabernet Sauvignon were replaced by purchased fruit from much cooler regions like Carneros, Marin County, Mendocino County's Anderson Valley and Monterey County, where the grapes achieve the ripeness and acidity levels beneficial to making fine bubbly.
Already the first in the United States to produce blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs, brut rosé and a prestige cuvee using methode champenoise, Schramsberg also is a pioneer in barrel-fermenting and barrel-aging some of the base wines that become sparklers.
With the exception of the well-made, moderately priced Mirabelle California Brut ($20) and $36 Querencia Napa-Mendocino-Sonoma Counties Brut Rosé (sales proceeds support the Jack L. Davies Land Preservation Fund), Schramsberg's sparklers are vintage-dated, reflecting the variances in growing seasons that nonvintage blends do not.
From a first-year production of 250 cases, Schramberg now makes 50,000 cases per year of sparkling wine and 1,000 cases of J. Davies Diamond Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), first made in 2001 from grapes grown on the property.
Recent vintages of Schramsberg wines show an increasing depth of both flavor and finesse; they are Californian in their fruit intensity and French in their natural acidity and structure -- a most happy medium.
The fine-textured 2001 Schramsberg California Blanc de Blancs ($33), which received a three-star "excellent" rating from The Chronicle last week, offers fragrant aromas of lemon zest, ripe peach and baked bread, with a palate that is creamy and lively at the same time.
Also "excellent" is the 1999 Schramsberg J. Schram Napa-Mendocino-Monterey-Sonoma Counties prestige cuvee ($80), with superb weight and structure, exotic fruitcake, ginger, pear and peach flavors and a gentle toastiness. (See Page F4 for reviews of Schramsberg's blanc de noirs and brut rosé wines.)
"The quality of our wines has evolved," says the Davies' youngest son, Hugh, 40, the company's president and winemaker. "It begins with our collection of vineyards (some 80 different blocks); the fruit itself is where it starts. We've gravitated to the cooler pockets of California, to get the fruit intensity along with the development of natural acidity.
"Then we can merge the complexity dimension of the fruit with barrel fermentation and increased aging time in the bottle."
The Davies, who had a bit of enological experience after being short-time investors in Martin Ray Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains (now Mount Eden Vineyards), could not have tackled a more difficult winemaking task than methode champenoise. At the time, Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford made a small amount of bubbly, and Hanns Kornell in Calistoga and Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville (Sonoma County) produced sparkling wines using grapes other than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Schramsberg was the first to make significant amounts of sparkling wine the Champagne way, using Champagne's grapes.
It was even called Champagne until the 1990s, which angered the French, who insisted that only the Champagne region could produce Champagne. The Davies dropped "Champagne" once they were confident that their brand had a high-quality image.
In 1965, Jamie -- eight months pregnant with Hugh -- moved into the dilapidated, 1860s house on remote Diamond Mountain. She already had two sons, ages 4 and 3. Jack, an executive with Ducommon Inc., a pipe and steel distributor in Los Angeles, commuted back and forth for the first year.
Jamie and kids were surrounded by forest, some 6 miles from civilization -- Calistoga to the north, St. Helena to the south.
The property had a series of owners since Jacob Schram's death in 1905, and although it had been made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book, "The Silverado Squatters," the estate had been abandoned since 1960. In 1965, windows were broken, plaster was falling off the walls and bats flew out of the attic. Jamie swatted them with a tennis racket. The vineyard was overgrown with blackberry bushes. There were no next-door neighbors.
"It was insane," Davies says. "Insane."
The wife of the man they hired to drive a tractor scolded Jack: "Mr. Davies, you have some nerve bringing your wife to this place," Jamie recalls. "The couple left because she couldn't take it. It was too uninhabitable; 6 miles seemed like 60 to some, I guess.
"Everywhere we looked, there was a challenge. If we knew then what we know now, would we have done it again? Yes. We felt secure and believed we had a very secure environment for our children. We loved the thrill of re-creating a world that had died out, the thrill to reproduce history and make it live for the next generation."
Even crushing their first load of grapes in 1965 was challenging. With friends, neighbors and investors looking on, the button was pushed to start the press and ... nothing happened. As Jamie tells it, from the back of the room, Russian-born Beaulieu enologist Andre Tchelistcheff cried out, "Madame, your duty is clear!"
"I knew at that moment that I needed to go stomp the grapes," Davies says. "I took off my shoes and socks and went to work."
The Davies boys grew up tending the garden, feeding the domesticated animals and absorbing the nuances of the wine business. Hugh made wine in Champagne, got an enology degree at UC Davis and now runs the winery. Brother John, 41, is in the hedge fund business in Moscow. Bill, 43, used to handle sales and marketing at the winery and remains on the board of directors. He struck out on his own in 2000 with Tom Gamble to found the Source-Napa wine brand (formerly Origin Napa) and manage Napa Free-Range Beef.
The Davies also have a second family, their employees, many of whom arrived in Napa Valley years ago from Mexico. One, master riddler Ramon Viera, has been with Schramsberg 30 years, arriving in the valley to play soccer. With the spot on the soccer team came the job.
Viera turns thousands of sparkling-wine bottles ever so slightly, every day, so that the sediment -- dead yeast cells -- gently collects in the necks of the inverted bottles; the process is known as "riddling." The sediment is later expelled and the bottles corked. The racks holding the bottles are similar to the riddling table devised by widow Clicquot 200 years ago.
Viera turns 30,000 bottles a day and can do up to 50,000. "His hands just float over the bottles," Davies says.
"We're small and we don't have a lot of jobs," she says. "But this whole thing is based on family and it just took off. I think the people who work for us understand that."
As she said in 2001, "When Jack passed away, (our employees') response was overwhelming, an outpouring of love. Real people make real things and inspire each other."
Upon arrival at Schramsberg, Jamie and Jack sought the advice of UC Davis enology professor Maynard Amerine.
"Amerine thought it unusual at best that these neophytes would do this without any background in winemaking," Davies says. "He told us that Dimitri Tchelistcheff (the son of Andre Tchelistcheff) was the only one with any expertise in sparkling wine, so we visited Dimitri at Bodegas Santo Tomas (winery) in Baja, Mexico, where he worked. He agreed to help.
"A lot of people were interested in us city slickers -- they didn't know whether to applaud or laugh. Many thought we would spend a lot of money and just be useless. We took on partners, and that was both the easy part and the scary part. We had backing, but we also had to move forward."
The former Jamie Peterman grew up in Pasadena and graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was a member of Delta Gamma. With sorority sister Wanda Hansen, she became an art dealer-promoter in San Francisco, before marrying Jack in 1960 at Memorial Chapel at Stanford University and starting a family.
Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote that year, "F'get it, all you guys who've been chasing Wanda Hansen and Jamie Peterman, the beauties who run Art Unltd. in Tillman Place. Jamie was married Sat. to Fibreboard's Jack Davies. Wanda marries Papermate's Matt Ashe April 23. So slash your wrists ..."
"Jamie has an incredible aesthetic, pitch-perfect vision," says Dawnine Dyer, the winemaker at Domaine Chandon for 25 years and now owner, with her husband, Bill, of Dyer Vineyard on Diamond Mountain. "She saw things so clearly, as real. She tracks what's true very clearly."
"Mom was always involved in the winemaking," adds Hugh, "but she was the one who asked, 'What do we want the wine to taste like? What is the vision for the product? This is what we want it to taste like and feel like.' She came from an aesthetic standpoint, in packaging, the look and feel of the place, the product ... she played a most significant role.
"More than anything, she said that this is a good wine and not just a celebratory wine. She traveled from city to city, working with different chefs, the James Beard Foundation, the Culinary Institute of America, with Julia Child and others. When Mom and Dad started, there wasn't a big food and wine connection in Napa Valley."
The Davies helped create one.
They knew they'd made it in 1972, when President Richard Nixon took the 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to the "Toast to Peace" dinner in China with Premier Chou En-lai. Davies says they were told to deliver the wine to a tarmac at Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, which son Bill did, in a beat-up turquoise-colored pickup. They'd heard that the wine might be headed for Beijing, but didn't know for sure.
Friend Ann Carpy called Jamie one morning and said, "Turn on your television," Jamie recalls. "Barbara Walters is holding a bottle of Schramsberg on national TV!"
Schramsberg paved the way for others trying to make Champagne-style wine in California. Eight years after the Davies' first vintage, Domaine Chandon was built in Yountville, by Moet Hennessy, the first surfer on a wave of French-owned sparkling wine houses to hit California shores. Champagne Mumm, Louis Roederer and others would follow.
Today, Schramsberg wines are sold in 25 countries. Another mark of success came in June 2005, when Hugh sold 28 cases of Schramsberg bubbly in Paris. To the French. To Champagne drinkers.
The widow Davies deserves much credit. The widow Clicquot would likely approve.