I am in love with champagne.
I have always enjoyed champagne, but only in the last couple of years have I begun to develop a true appreciation for it, an appreciation that borders on worship. It's a drink with endless variations, a spectrum of flavors, the added textural element of the bubbles (which vary so widely from wine to wine), and it makes everything so gosh-darn special. Plus, it's way more fun to learn about than still wine - you've got the yeast, the degorgement, the riddling...fascinating.
Plus, champagne has inspired some of the loveliest drinking-related bon mots yet coined, including the (apocryphal) "Come quickly, I'm drinking the stars," attributed to Don Perignon, and, more recently, this one from The Philadelphia Story: "Champagne is funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back; champagne is heavy mist before my eyes."
If you ask someone from France if what Schramsberg Vineyards produces in California is champagne, they will poo-poo you. If you ask a member of Schramsberg's staff, they will launch into a mini-lecture on the methode champenoise and the 1891 Treaty of Madrid, which provided France with sole ownership of the term "champagne." Schramsberg's product may not technically be champagne, but it's absolutely stellar.
Our tour of the Schramsberg facilities began with the long ascent of a narrow, curving drive. We were a bit early, so we spent some time enjoying the crisp sunshine of a Calistoga morning and chatting with the staff about the tornado that had touched down that day in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The other members of our tour trickled in, and at 10:30 we gathered by the Frog Pond to begin.
Our guide gave us a bit of the history of the estate, originally established by Jacob Schram in 1862. The hillside vineyards reminded him of those used to grow Riesling in his native Germany, and he bought the land and began his wine-making business (he had been a barber by trade). Eventually the family sold the property, and nothing much of note really happened to it until Jack and Jamie Davies bought the land in 1965.
The Davies' were specifically interested in making sparkling wines, but only discovered after moving onto the land that the hot Calistoga hillsides (Calistoga is typically 5 to 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the Napa Valley) were not particularly hospitable to the two grapes essential to champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They set about finding suppliers in other parts of the valley, and produced their first sparkling vintage in 1965. Widespread fame came in 1972, when President Nixon used the 1969 in his toast to China. Schramsberg has been the official sparkling wine of U.S. presidents ever since.
After the history lesson, we proceeded into the caves. Based on my trip to the Champagne region of France, I knew we'd be spending most of our time in the cellars looking out for the remnants of bottles that had exploded during the aging process and hearing about the magic of riddling and its grand finale, degorgement.
Riddling is so cool - in order to get the sediment produced by the yeast (whose carbon dioxide exhalations remain behind to make your champagne good and bubbly, or subtly creamy, depending) out of the bottle, the riddler comes around periodically and turns the bottle just so. With his or her hands. A tiny bit each time, with just their fingertips, ever so lightly. A good riddler turns upwards of 20,000 bottles each day. Schramsberg's turns 35,000.
Once the sediment has collected in the bottom of the bottle, and been coaxed toward the neck, it's time for the degorgement. Basically, they freeze the neck of the champagne, open it, allow the ice cube (which now contains the sediment) to pop out, top the bottle off quickly with the dosage (whose contents differ from maker to maker) and seal the whole thing up again. A few months of aging incorporate the dosage into the wine, and bam! Champagne ready for drinking.
After a spin around the caves, we were led into an empty room, at the back of which stood a table - our tasting was in the caves! This was one of the neater things about the visit. It felt very personal and intimate, and we never felt rushed. Quite the opposite, actually - the computers were down, so the staff from upstairs brought a sixth bottle for us to taste (to keep us occupied so that we could place orders on said computer before we left).
We tasted the Blanc de Blancs first. Blanc de Blancs means "white of whites," and contains only Chardonnay grapes. It was tart, full of apple flavor, and would have paired beautifully with oysters. Its bubbles were lively but small, popping all over the tongue. Next up, the Blanc de Noirs, which, as you've probably guessed, is a white champagne made entirely of Pinot Noir grapes. This one was true to its Pinot origins, full of berry flavors and a subtler bubble than the Blanc de Blancs.
Third, the J. Schram, which was one of the most full-bodied champagnes I've tasted. It could stand up to lamb, something that can't be said for many sparkling wines. We followed it with the Brut Rose - I have a soft spot for pink champagne, and this one was no exception. It was divine, and our guide recommended pairing it with lobster or buttered popcorn. I hope to put both suggestions to good use someday soon.
Finally, we moved on to the Reserve, which had a deep caramel flavor - it would be lovely after dinner or on its own. The bottle rushed down to compensate for the computer lag time was the Cremant, a sweeter wine - perfect with or instead of dessert.
So, basically, all I have left to say about Schramsberg is this - you should go. Or at least get up, go to the wine store, and buy a couple of bottles. But you shouldn't store them in the fridge for more than a month (which is an awfully good excuse to drink anything you've got in there right now).
Pre-degorgement photo courtesy of Google Images. Photos of Schramsberg's Frog Pond and the Rose champagne courtesy of yours truly.