Want to hear a riddle? Actually, a riddling? After being widowed in France in the early 1800’s at just 27, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin inherited her husband’s businesses, including a vineyard. Rather than selling everything off and living large, Madame Clicquot doubled down on the vineyard business by using méthode champenoise, a labor-intensive process used to make ultra-expressive Champagne. The result of her hard work is none other than Veuve Clicquot, which still stands today.
A key to her success, and her lasting legacy in winemaking takes place during méthode champenoise’s critical secondary fermentation, which includes Clicquot’s own invention, which is a process called riddling. Essentially, the winemaker turns aging bottles full of fine juice on a rack by just a quarter inch each day. This small-but-mighty move rustles the sediment in the bottle, rather than let it just settle. Over time, thanks to yeast, it creates lees, which add to the structure and flavor of Champagne. The final step, called disgorgement, flips the bottles upside down so that gravity forces the lees to the neck of the bottle for easy removal without impacting the structure of the bubbly vino.
Why the riddle story? Because it is one of the reasons that Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley is a preeminent sparkling wine house in the United States. The brand is so beloved that it has been served at the White House under every administration – no matter the political affiliation – since 1972 with Nixon.
While the modern vineyard was founded in 1965 by Napa pioneers Jack and Jamie Davies, the land was first developed for winemaking in the 1860’s by Jacob Schram, determined to use méthode champenoise – including Clicquot’s riddling process – in the United States. His work was a success, and today Schramsberg has nine distinct California sparkling wines and vintages that go back decades. Schram is honored to this day both on property – his Victorian home, barn and hand-dug caves still stand – and in the wines themselves as there is high-end label called J. Schram reserved for Schramsberg Vineyards’ most exclusive offerings.
The estate, which is a registered historic landmark, is set far enough off the main road through Calistoga that it feels like a green, tree-lined, 220-acre world unto itself, complete with a welcome pond. The Davies family have committed themselves to becoming long-term stewards of the land, refurbishing and restoring it without turning Schramsberg into an ultra-modern commercial shell of its former self. While a popular brand name, Schramsberg Vineyards is also committed to excellence, limiting itself to just about 60,000 cases annually despite demand using hand-harvesting practices and painstaking-but-fruitful hand-riddling in 34,000-sq.-ft. underground caves.
Words on a page (or phone or tablet, more likely) do not do the property justice. Seeing is believing, and Schramsberg must be seen to be believed.
Knowing this all too well, Schramsberg Vineyards has a host of experiences on property to showcase its wines right along with the land…and the caves. There are two primary experiences that do not require any customization. One is a cave tour, complete with the chance to riddle, that features an extensive sparkling wine tasting starting at $85 per person while the other also includes a selection of red wines from sister property Davies for $95. The tastings take place under candlelight in the heart of the cave, which makes it perfect for couples or special occasions.
Oh, there is also a camp. Yes, a camp.
Available in both the spring and fall and starting at $1,650 per person (with discounts available for wine members and scholarships for those in the industry), the three-day Schramsberg camp features wine pairing meals, blending seminars and the chance to make real wine. There are additional charges for VIP extras, including the lauded first-night evening library wine dinner. Plus, guests need find transportation to and from the vineyard (no drinking and driving!) and lodging if needed, but it is well worth the investment.
Also worth the investment are each of Schramsberg’s award-winning sparkling wines, whether a collector or consumer. Some best bets:
2019 Schramsberg Brut Rosé: Versatile as it will be a welcome treat during dinner, by the pool or at a party with friends, the red berries are very playful here, especially strawberry and raspberry. There are also definite notes of sweet bread and even citrus that come to life as it is enjoyed further. $48
2018 Schramsberg Blanc De Noirs, Extra Brut: This one is for those who want their bubbly dry. Very dry. The dryness is juxtaposed by the big, bold fruit flavors, which are intense and intoxicating. Expect tropical fruits but also notes of citrus and just a touch of cream. $65
2004 J. Schram, Late Disgorged: Released in late 2022, this is a triumph in winemaking at the highest level. On the nose, there is a rich perfume that smells of grilled pineapple and lemon meringue and apple pies. To the taste, the pie flavors melt on the tongue, giving way to caramel-praline ice cream, marzipan candy and peaches, which come together in creamy harmony. $200
For more information on Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley, visit www.schramsberg.com.
1400 Schramsberg Rd.
Calistoga, CA 94515