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Pardon Their French, but the First of American Bubbly Boasts a Champagne Worthy of the Name

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It’s the first night of Christmas, and your true love has just knocked your stockings off by giving you, of all things, a partridge in a pear tree. Now what?

First you break open a bottle of champagne. Slice a few pears and poach them in some of the champagne, saving the rest to drink with your meal. Reduce the liquid, add butter and brown sugar. Et voilà, you have a tangy glaze to sauce the partridge, which you have grilled over an aromatic fire of vine cuttings.

If you can’t find vine cuttings, don’t worry, use charcoal. It’s just that at this time of year, having pruned their vines after the first frost, Jack and Jamie Davies of Calistoga, Calif., have bundles of cuttings lying around their 60-acre hillside vineyard in the Napa Valley. This is where, since 1965, they have made Schramsberg, the bubbly that proved that American champagne is not an oxymoron.

When the Davieses bought the moribund and overgrown Jacob Schram estate 22 years ago, only two companies in America were making sparkling wine by the traditional méthode champenoise, the process that the Champagne region of France had raised to an art. Today, says Jack, “there are about 45 California brands of champagne in some stage of production.” But Schramsberg is still the best bubbly in the land. President Nixon took Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to China in 1972, and every President since has sealed toasts with the Davieses’ product.

Jacob Schram would be proud and so would Robert Louis Stevenson. Schram emigrated from Germany to New York at the age of 14. Working his way to San Francisco, he opened a barbershop, saved his money and, in 1862, bought 300 acres of land in the Napa Valley. He had a network of tunnels dug into his solid limestone hillside, and dubbed the hill Schramsberg—German for “Schram’s Mountain.” With a year-round temperature of 58 degrees, the damp tunnels approximated conditions in the French caves where champagne is stored during its long fermentation in the bottle.

In 1880 Robert Louis Stevenson visited Schramsberg on his honeymoon and deemed its issue “bottled poetry.” Unfortunately, a root louse wiped out almost all of the Schram vines after 1900. By the 1950s Schramsberg was abandoned, its residence a shambles.

Enter Jack and Jamie. A Harvard MBA and vice president of a Los Angeles metal parts company, Jack Davies was successful but unsatisfied. He and Jamie, who had founded a San Francisco art gallery, were smitten with Schramsberg on first sight and bought the property. Backed by friends and drawing on their life savings, they studied winemaking and went into business. There was an inevitable period of trial and error. Once, an oak cask exuding brandy fumes exploded when Jack lowered a sterilizing sulfur wick into it. Another time Jamie resorted to squishing grapes barefoot when the couple’s first crushing machine went kaput. As the Davieses were learning, they managed to raise three sons, now grown.

The first year’s labor yielded a mere 250 cases of wine (versus 50,000 this year). In the French manner, the wine was fermented first in a cask or stainless steel tank and then again in the bottle. Then, as now, each bottle was hand turned in its rack at regular intervals to let spent yeast particles settle near the cork. After at least two years of aging, the neck was flash frozen and the cork removed, causing the sediment plug to shoot out. Topped up and recorked, the bubbly was aged three to six months longer. Sampling the Davieses’ vintage, critics and restaurateurs immediately doffed their caps. Fellow vintners, says Jack, 64, “began patting me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Bravo, it’s about time somebody did it right.’ ”

The Blanc de Blancs, made of all white grapes, was followed in 1971 by Blanc de Noirs—mostly black-skinned Pinot Noir grapes, the classic French champagne blend. Skeptics told the Davieses that they would never achieve champagne’s quintessential golden color, so when they did they bottled it in clear glass instead of traditional green, “to show it off,” says Jamie, 52.

The Davieses are determined to dispel the notion that champagne is meant only for special occasions. “We serve champagne with veal tenderloin or rack of lamb all the time,” says Jamie. “Pork is fine too—tenderloin with mustard champagne sauce. Filet of beef isn’t bad either.” And should you happen to receive two turtledoves or three French hens, well, champagne would complement them nicely too.