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A Passion for California Bubbly
By Robert Whitley
Dec 27, 2013
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CALISTOGA, California — To walk the grounds of the heavily forested Schramsberg winery is to step back in time. While most of this historic facility is state-of-the-art, much of it is as it was when German immigrant Jacob Schram pioneered winemaking on Diamond Mountain more than 150 years ago.

The location, at the northern tip of the Napa Valley, was so warm that Schram was left little choice but to dig caves to protect his young wines from the heat as the wines aged. The caves, the first in the Napa Valley, were completed in 1870.

The Victorian mansion, built in 1875, has been restored and still stands, as does the lower winery and an original barn. This landmark winery had been abandoned and was in disrepair when the late Jack and Jamie Davies purchased the property in 1965. The Davies were visionaries in their day, convinced they could produce sparkling wine in California that would rival those made in the great houses of Champagne.

The first vintage presented a huge challenge to the young couple intent upon respecting the French traditions, for chardonnay and pinot noir were not widely planted and thus in short supply at the time. They sourced enough chardonnay to make a blanc de blancs, and that 1965 Schramsberg represented the first commercial use of chardonnay for sparkling wine in the United States.

Their youngest son, Hugh, runs the winery today. Hugh Davies studied winemaking at the University of California, Davis, and for practical experience did stints at Moet et Chandon in Epernay, France and Mumm Napa Valley, close to home.

The success of Schramsberg, which was impressive and immediate, inspired an expansion of sparkling wine production in the United States, most notably in California. A parade of French investors from the Champagne region founded Chandon, Mumm and Domaine Carneros by Taittinger in the Napa Valley, Roederer Estate in Mendocino's Anderson Valley and the now-defunct Maison Deutz in the Central Coast near San Luis Obispo.

To that list of luxury sparkling-wine producers you could add Judy Jordan's J Vineyards, the Sterling family's Iron Horse Vineyards and Piper Sonoma in the Russian River Valley; the Spanish-owned Gloria Ferrer in Carneros; and Scharffenberger Cellars and Handley Cellars in Mendocino. California sparkling wine, made in the traditional method of Champagne with fermentation in the bottle, boomed in the years following the restoration and resurgence of Schramsberg.

All of those wines were good. Some were very good. Yet despite the flood of competition, Schramsberg has remained the colossus of sparkling wine production in America, the quality benchmark for the genre. Hugh Davies, who became CEO of the winery in 2005, merely picked up where his parents left off.

Yet there is a piece of unfinished business that gnaws at Davies. While most everyone agrees that the three most important terroirs in the world for sparkling wine are France's Champagne region, a few sites in northern Italy and California's cool coastal valleys, almost everyone places Champagne at the top of the quality pyramid — everyone except Hugh Davies.

"It is often said the main difference between Champagne and California sparkling is that Champagne has better acidity," Davies said. "That's simply not true. With our cool coastal valleys, our acid levels are as good, perhaps even better than those in Champagne."

Acidity and structure are the very essence of Champagne and quality sparkling wine, allowing the ageing process to take place and develop complex aromas and flavors without losing freshness. Most  tetes de cuvee  Champagnes, for example, are aged seven to 10 years before disgorgement, which is when the cork is inserted and the wine prepared for release to the market.

Schramsberg's top two wines, Schramsberg Reserve and J. Schram, are put through a similar regimen, ageing on average eight years prior to disgorgement. Both are tetes de cuvee (prestigious cuvees) in their own right and worthy, Davies believes, to be included in any discussion of the world's finest bubblies.

He not only talks the talk; he walks the walk. Earlier this year, Davies took his two prized wines on a tour of five cities: Tokyo, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston. He invited sommeliers, wine buyers and wine journalists to participate in a blind tasting of seven sparkling wines. Two of the seven were the 2005 J. Schram and 2005 Schramsberg Reserve; the other five included the 2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque, 2004 Dom Perignon, 2005 Roederer Cristal and the Krug Grande Cuvee, tetes de cuvee all.

The J. Schram finished first in Tokyo, the Schramsberg Reserve first in Chicago. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne was first in Boston and Los Angeles, Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque first in Houston. The overall results were revealing: Schramsberg Reserve topped the field over the course of the five tastings and the J. Schram tied for second place with Taittinger Comtes de Champagne.

Do the same tasting again in another city with a different set of wine professionals and you very well might get a different result. Champagne in all its glory is a remarkable wine. But the point of the exercise is inescapable. When you choose to drink the finest sparkling wine America has to offer, you are hardly settling for an inferior product.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.