Monday, November 9, 2009

The stuff of stars.

After burgers at Taylor's, my entourage and I headed north to Calistoga, home of Schramsberg Vineyards. It was my second visit to Schramsberg (Mom and I went back in August 2007); I suppose I could have chosen something new and different for the big 3-0, but, frankly, nothing makes me happier than champagne, so why not?

After making our way up Schramsberg's twisty, steep drive, we gathered in the reception area and met our tour guide, Ron. (Schramsberg runs several guided tours and tastings per day; if you have six people or more in your group, they request that you reserve a private tour.) The reception area is decorated with photographs and news clippings chronicling Schramsberg's history (lots more on that - and the méthode champenoise - in my post from 2007). We found ourselves gathering around a series of White House state dinner menus - and two very famous champagne coupes.

See, Schramsberg was the wine Nixon took with him to China to toast Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai. Jack and Jamie Davies, the proprietors, had no idea what the cases of 1969 Blanc de Blancs were going to be used for, but were asked by the State Department to deliver them to an airstrip in Southern California - turned out they were bound for Air Force One. Schramsberg has been the White House's go-to sparkling wine ever since.

After a quick run-through of the winery's history, Ron took us down into the caves, most of which were carved out by hand back in the late 19th century, when Jacob Schram owned the land. Champagne goes through a double-fermentation process; first, it's fermented in large barrels, like any other wine. Then, the wine is placed in bottles along with some extra sugar - food for the yeast whose digestive processes will eventually yield all that good carbonation. Once the wine is in the bottles, it's placed in the caves, where it will age, get bubbly, and eventually become champagne. (More here on the whole process, called the méthode champenoise.)

The caves are naturally cool, damp places, draped in fuzzy moss and filled with a musty scent. Every once in a while, you come across a bottle whose bottom has blown out, thanks to the carbonation building up inside. Not something you'd want to see in action, though, since the glass can fly several hundred feet through the air.

Eventually, we made our way upstairs to the tasting room, where Ron started us with one of my favorite wines of all time, Schramsberg's Blanc de Blancs. (When it comes to champagne, the primary grapes are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A Blanc de Blancs is a white champagne made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes. A Blanc de Noirs is a white champagne made with Pinot Noir grapes, and so on.) It's apple-y and crisp - the perfect wine to drink alone or with a plate of oysters and mignonette sauce.

We made our way down the line, tasting the J. Schram, an unbelievably creamy vintage blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, full of caramel flavors, round and supple in the mouth. I think I could drink nothing but J. Schram from here to eternity and be pretty damn happy.

Schramsberg makes what may be my favorite Brut Rose (Brut indicates a low sugar level - don't be fooled into thinking pink = sweet.), but the coolest thing about this shot are the little bubble volcanoes in each glass. See, the carbonation in champagne isn't released until it comes into contact with another substance. Usually, this is the microscopic dust inside your glass. These Riedel glasses, though, have little laser-etched dots in them, which give the bubbles a place to gather and help control the release of the fizz. So nifty.

On the way out, Uncle Jack showed off his purchase and took the Riddler's pose - toasting the stars, of which we'd just drunk. Copiously.

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