As a first press load of Ferrington pinot noir and J. Davies malbec grapes was being moved into J. Davies Winery, a space that for 23 years had housed Epps Chevrolet car sales, winemaker Sean Thompson did his best to answer questions about what’s involved in taking over the property.
“There will be a lot less asphalt and a lot more plants,” Thompson theorized. There will be, he said, trees and vines and a series of gardens along the edge of the property, which sits at 555 Main St. in the business district of St. Helena.
“And there has been talk about wood and stone walls that will be echoing Schramsberg,” he added. This will be a critical step, given the historic significance of the property’s acquisition by Schramsberg, which is the first branching out for a winery that has been around since 1862. J. Davies Winery is a branch of Schramsberg.
What’s important, Thompson said, is that the appearance of the eventual buildout when the retrofit is complete remain loyal to the late Jack and Jamie Davies, who purchased the Schramsberg property in 1965. When they died in 1998 and 2008 respectively, their youngest son, Hugh, became president.
“We really want to make this into a showplace,” Thompson said. “We want to make it a place to come to have that J. Davies experience. We want to focus on bringing people into a place that has the nature that Schramsberg has had for so long.”
When will the conversion be completed?
“Complete? Ahhh, we’re never complete,” Thompson said. “We are never satisfied with staying in one place. That’s what makes Schramsberg special. As an example, who was making sparkling wine [in the Napa Valley] before Jack and Jamie [Davies] showed up? They had a revolutionary idea in 1965 that they wanted to make the best Champagne in the world.”
So time is not an issue?
“Exactly!” Thompson said with exuberance. “We are a very thoughtful company. We like to think about what we want to do and then accomplish it in the best way possible.”
That means issues such as landscaping are still being mulled over by Schramsberg’s executive committee. Will the conversion include fountains and the like?
“I don’t even know,” Thompson said. “But we like plants. That’s really what Jamie was known for. One thing’s sure: We’re not going to make this into an amusement park. This is going to be a serious place to taste wine and to make wine and still have fun doing it.”
At present, the winery’s executive committee is working with the Santa Rosa architectural firm Osborn Siegert to come up with a design plan.
Thompson’s comments on other elements of the conversion:
• Overall cost: “That’s something we’re going to find out as we go along. We are going to be very judicious in how we spend our money, but we’re going to have what we want. If sometimes we have to spend a little bit more money to get there, then we will. There isn’t going to be a footprint of any kind. Eventually we’re going to expand, but we really want it to represent J. Davies.”
• Workforce: “At the moment there are three of us ... myself, Tony Hurtado, who has been my main guy since 2007, and Julian Vargas. It’s a very hand-selected team with great loyalty and ability. Tony is always looking for quality and how to get things done better, safer and making everything work. He’s a phenomenal individual and I think we’re very lucky to have him. In the future maybe we’ll go up to 15 to 20 people. Right now, Schramsberg employs a little over 50 people.”
• Tasting room: “It’s further down the path, so I really don’t know what it will look like. But it’s going to incorporate being able to see the winemaking process from beginning to end. We would invite trade and journalists to come and experience Schramsberg by taking them out to the vineyards and through the tastings, giving them the whole experience. We want to get people involved in the winemaking process.
“We’re going to get some expertise down here to see what direction we can go and what equipment we can use,” he continued, “but our focus is going to remain on making top-quality cabernet and pinot noir at this point in time. And we’re really excited about that particular aspect.”
How do the folks at Zumwalt Ford down the highway feel about seeing a winery move into the space where their only in-town car sales competition used to be?
“We used to have picnics together and play each other in softball games,” said Zumwalt owner Ronald B. Clark. “Ford always beat Chevy. It’s always good to have some competition in town, but when a manufacturer pulls the plug, that’s what happens.”