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Riddling

Riddling in the Scramsberg wine caves. 

Like Napa Valley Cabernet, California sparkling wine has earned its place in the wine world, now widely enjoyed as a worthy — and often more affordable alternative — to Champagne.

The likes of Domaine Chandon, Mumm, and Korbel grace supermarket shelves across the country, but no other California sparkling is arguably as celebrated as Schramsberg’s J. Schram.

Schramsberg pioneered California’s premium sparkling movement. It all started in 1965 with the release of their Blanc de Blancs using the traditional champagnoise method.

“No one had made one in California, or the U.S. for the matter, so this notion of a Chardonnay sparkling wine was novel in itself,” said Hugh Davies, CEO and president, who was born a month after his parents purchased the old Schramsberg property in Calistoga.

Twenty-two years later, after becoming a staple at White House events, Schramsberg decided to take things to the next level. Enter: J. Schram.

“The idea was that no care would be omitted, no corner cut. We wanted to create the best blanc style,” said Davies.

“This will be the smaller, special select, more singular blend. We’d always focused on Chardonnay, but here, it represented just three percent of our overall production utilizing the best lots and ageing the wine for that much longer too. We wanted to make a richer style on one hand, but have vibrancy and fruitful acidity.”

It was a fresh idea in California, but was modeled after the famous Champagne houses that often produce two tiers of wine: one that’s more commercial and available, and the Tête de Cuvée, which is more premium, exclusive, and naturally, expensive, like Veuve Clicquot’s Yellow Label.

J. Schram accounts only for roughly 2,500 cases of Schramsberg’s total production, yet it also requires fastidious attention from the winemaking team.

In 2018, Schramsberg sourced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a 65 cool-climate sites (120 total blocks) across four North Coast counties: Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. From all of the sites, each year they create more than 300 different-sized base wines; some see malolactic fermentation, some don’t; some are put in barrels, some in tanks. After fermentation, all are thoroughly tasted — always blind — to begin narrowing them down to the final wine blends for J. Schram.

“There’s a somewhat elaborate process of making this full range of components,” said Davies, who downplays the task. “We want to start categorizing and separating out what we perceive to be the best of the lots. We want the best riper lots, best lean lots, some of the best barrels, some of the best tanks. We look at them all as individuals, then in sets, like all pinot tanks, pinot barrels, etc. We make sure we’re tasting them all, giving each lot time to shine.”

After several tastings over a handful of months, the base wines are cut down to 25 out of the 300. “We can’t be perfect,” said Davies. “We give it our best, but at some point, you have to cut bait and move on.”

The 25 base wines are then worked out into different percentages and the final spice added is about two percent from older vintages in barrel. The blend is bottled and set aside for secondary fermentation, napping eight years on the yeast before riddling, disgourging and the adding of dosage.

Once corked, caged and labeled, the bottles rest another six months before release. The current vintage of J. Schram is 2009.

“That’s a substantial amount of time, and somehow the double digits seems more meaningful,” said Davies. “There’s a profile that comes with additional ageing that you just can’t create in a few years.”

By the time the process is completed, each bottle of J. Schram will have been touched by a Schramsberg employee more than 50 times, and each year, Davies believes the blend gets better. The winery also now has three top-tier sparklings: J. Schram, the Reserve and J. Schram Rosé.

“Hopefully it’s recognized as that ultimate California sparkling wine. From my perspective, there’s nothing wrong with the French Champagnes, but hopefully it’s viewed as one of the world’s top sparkling wines,” said Davies of J. Schram. “It’s the goal my parents had and we continue on that track. We’re better than we’ve ever been, and that’s exciting.”

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