We were thrilled to have a house full of young adults staying with us last weekend. Included in the group were my son Mike, who was seeing the Napa house for the first time; his girlfriend Hannah, who was nimble enough to side-step what would have been a massive airplane delay; daughter Kate, who had been here before; and Kate’s friend Sarah, who by now is family whether she wants to be or not. We had a great weekend full of awesome food and wine, including a bottle of 1986 Chateau Cheval Blanc, which Kate brought for us to enjoy. Yeah, it was amazing.
For Saturday, I had booked a cave tour and tasting at Schramsberg in St. Helena. Schramsberg, as you may know, makes what many people consider to be the best sparkling wine (we dare not call it Champagne!) in America. The Schramsberg winery was founded by Jacob Schram in 1862 (that is not a typo) and produced a variety of wines, none of which were sparkling. In 1870, Schram hired hundreds of displaced Chinese railroad workers (they had completed the transcontinental RR by that time) to dig the winery’s cellars by hand. These cellars exist today, covered in creepy lichen, and you will see these marvelous caves (and some newer, machine-cut ones) when you tour here.
Both Annie and Jacob Schram fell ill and died in the early 1900’s, and the winery ceased operations. The estate changed hands over the years, but was not used for commercial wine-making during this time, largely due to Prohibition. It wasn’t until 1965, when Jack and Jamie Davies bought the run-down property, that the site began to percolate back to life as a winery.
Ok, enough with the history lesson… you can read much more about the origins here at the Schramsberg website.
When we arrived we joined a tour (we had reservations, as must you) of 14 people for a 90-minute tour and tasting. We first saw the reception area, which has some lovely tasting rooms for sit-down sessions, and we saw all the photos of the various presidents and world leaders who have enjoyed Schramsberg wine at important functions over the years.
Then it was into the caves, and they really are amazing to behold. What is even more amazing was that we were joined inside the caves by almost 3 million bottles of aging sparkling wine! Everywhere we looked we saw walls of wine bottles, stacked carefully upon each other, awaiting their maturity date. Some of the alcoves were filled with bottles 15 feet high and 75 feet deep! Occasionally we saw holes in the walls of wine where bottles had exploded in the early days of aging, due to the pressure inside. Upon hearing this, we all stood back a little. (Click here to see a great 90-second video on the bottling, aging and stacking process.)
We heard about the wine-making process, as well as full details about the “riddling” process, by which the accumulated yeast sediments are carefully and meticulously turned and tilted in racks until the sediment all flows down into the top of the bottle, after which they are frozen and popped to extract the yeast. Finally, the bottles are topped off with the “dosage” (more wine and a simple syrup addition) and then corked, after which they await their final aging.
The man who has riddled (turned and tilted) all the bottles for over 20 years is retiring this year, and his replacement has been training for FIVE YEARS to take his place. If I recall correctly, the riddler has to be able to turn and tilt almost 4000 bottles per hour in order to handle the production quantities at Schramsberg. (Many other sparkling wine houses do this procedure by machine.) It sounds like quite a craft!
Finally we moved over into one of the alcoves where some tall candelabras were lit and we were able to taste 5 or 6 (the memory fades at this point) of the ten different wines made at the winery. We learned more about each wine, how to pair the different wines with food, best temperature for serving (47 degrees Fahrenheit), and more. But mostly we just enjoyed sampling the wonderful bubbles and comparing the different tastes.
As far as Napa Valley tours and tastings go, this is right at the top. It’s hard to find up off Highway 29 in Calistoga, and reservations are definitely required in advance. The kids join me in giving this place our highest recommendation, and suggest you make an appointment next time you are in the northern end of the valley.
P.S. The lamp-bottle to the right is a 9-liter “Salmanazar” of Schramsberg which we enjoyed with our guests at our wedding in 2009. It served then, as it does now, as our guestbook from the wedding, and casts a warm glow in our sitting area at home every night.