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Schramsberg Sparkling Enlightenment

by Jon Rusciano

Truth be told, I was initially doubtful that I would attend the Spring 2010 Camp Schramsberg when the offer came through Sally back in early February of 2010.  Her excitement about this opportunity was dampened by my typical crotchety skepticism.  Scratching my head about this dilemma, I contacted the one resource I knew who would give me the straight scoop, my wine consultant Magid Nazari (owner of Ludwig’s Fine Wines, the man who supplies me with most of the “juice” that I purchase).  Without hesitation, Magid said, “You should go.”   He informed me that Schramsberg was the leading sparkling wine producer in California and I needed the experience to help me diversify my limited (and often jaded) viewpoints about anything that is not based in Cabernet Sauvignon.  Besides (he added to tweak my interest) they also have been marketing a noteworthy Cabernet (J. Davies) since 2004.

This was what I needed to nudge me off of the fence.   I contacted Sally and agreed to participate.  Matthew Levy (Schramsberg’s PR and Marketing Director) was soon in touch with me providing all the pertinent information I would need to know about becoming a “camper.”  It started in mid-March (Spring Break), to enable as much participation as possible.  Throughout the event, Matt was there every step of the way, organizing (and photographing) every segment in a flawless fashion, from behind the scenes, not distracting from any of the Camp’s focus.  This I considered and appreciated as a natural talent.

Matt helped me to find a suitable (and thrifty) place to reside during the event.  After checking into my Calistoga hotel late on Sunday afternoon, I was coached by my little GPS “girlfriend” how to find the winery.  The reception was to begin at 5:30 pm. followed by dinner.   My journey to the property (just south of Calistoga off of Hwy. 29) was beautiful indeed, especially along the private driveway into the facility.   The most impressive structure I noted upon entering the “friendly confines” was the Schram Victorian mansion (built in 1875).  Nestled into a wooded hillside, it took my breath away with its magnificence.

Adjacent to the (three times expanded and renovated) winery facility, many of the campers had assembled near the “frog pond” where the famous Schramsberg mascot is sculpted as if living the “good life” amidst the sparkling wine and lily pads.  Many of my fellow campers were chatting as if already good friends.   Somewhat of a social recluse, I stood around at the outskirts of this gathering yet soon was greeted by Matt, Hugh Davies (Proprietor) and wine makers Keith Hock and Sean Thompson, all quite cordial.  For me, the entertainment started not with the first sip of the continually flowing “bubbly” being offered, but watching Hugh’s “rough and tumble” boys hopping about on the stonework bordering the lily pond.  One uncertain move could have yielded untold parental embarrassment amidst gasps from the crowd.   This was not their “first rodeo,” and thus mom and dad were spared.

After a gracious greeting speech by Hugh, the procession moved into the wine caves (pick-and-shovel excavated by Chinese laborers during the 1870’s) where a long banquet table was set up to accommodate the hosts and guests.  I sat across from Monique (Hugh’s wife) who seemed relieved after her “wild Indians” had been whisked away to the care of her parents.  Even with the stresses of motherhood, Monique was quite the lovely young woman, a local to the Valley whose beauty no doubt swept Hugh off his feet at some point in time in their lives.   The cave was dimly lit with its functional overhead string of dangling light bulbs, yet the table was adorned with bright bouquets of fresh flowers and candles.   Holly Peterson (Guest Chef Instructor, trained at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris) introduced the courses of foods we would be served along with explanations of the wines which would be offered in multiple glasses to accompany each.

The food was exquisite, and the wines to my amazement were perfect accompaniments to the flavors.   This (of course) is where Sally would shine as she could expertly describe all these combinations and flavors.  Not being trained or educated in the culinary arts, I cannot offer anything more than to say it was “awesome, dude.”   The array of sparkling wines, including the 2004 Anderson Valley Brut and the 2005 Brut Sonoma Coast, were delightful.  We were also treated to the 2001 and 2006 J. Davies Cabernet, both very tasty wines.  Being offered the 2001 Cab was a special honor, because there were very few cases of this left in the family’s possession.

Without bogging these recollections down with too many specifics, suffice it to say that the next two days were filled with interesting adventures to their Carneros Vineyard for lessons in vine care and instructional tours through every portion of the winery where the grapes are crushed, the juice is fermented, blended and bottled.  We experimented with our own blends, determined as best suited to a final product by the votes of every participant.  More often than not, the most popular results were compatible with the judgment of Keith (the blending guru of the sparkling wines they produce).  

The bottling process was to me the most fascinating event that we witnessed.   During bottle fermentation, CO2 gas is trapped in the bottles and some sediment results.  The sediment is carefully isolated in the neck of a “capped” bottle, by a process called “Riddling,” in which the bottle neck is tilted downward and slightly turned at regular intervals throughout a period of several days.  Once sediment settles in the neck, each bottle is placed in a machine where the neck (alone) can be flash-frozen.   This traps the sediment in a plug of ice.   The bottle is righted, cap popped and the CO2 in the wine pushes the plug of sediment-ice out, enabling the “Dosage” of liquid sugar to be added to the mixture for flavor, then final corking and attachment of the wire harness.   These steps take place in only a few moments with their sophisticated machinery developed by the French for bottling Champagne.

We were all introduced to the art of “Sabering,” supposedly started by Napoleon upon one of his army’s victorious returns to Paris.  A long knife, bayonet or sword can be scraped across a bottle of very cold sparkling wine (as if whittling a stick, away from the body) in a brisk thrusting motion.  When the blade contacts the thickened glass where the cork is nestled, the entire end of the bottle is popped off, with the gushing wine taking away any glass chards which might have resulted from the fracture.   It brought smiles to every camper who participated.  And, we consumed all the wine opened in this fashion.

Every afternoon there was a sumptuous multi-course lunch prepared by the staff and students of the Culinary Institute, in a special pavilion away from the main building.  In two days we had sampled every “sparkler” that the Schramsberg winery had to offer.  Holly was the host for these events, discussing the various ways that each of the dishes and sauces affected the taste of the wine.   Needless to say, these variations were much easier to discern at the beginning of these bountiful events, than toward the end.  I am still trying to remember the discussion about Marie Antoinette’s breasts…

On Monday evening, we all met at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen for dinner, the menu of which had been created by Cindy Pawlcyn (Chef Owner and creator of my beloved Mongolian Pork Chops, served at Mustard’s Grill).  Each course paired to perfection with the 4 sparkling Schramsberg wines served.  A thrill for me was being able to meet Cindy as I thanked her for planning our wonderful meal, as well as creating the above referenced “manna-from-heaven” that I would devour the next evening at Mustard’s, after the Camp’s conclusion.

On the final day, following our two hour lunch, Holly had us divide up into groups for a contest.  Each group was to develop a menu which would best compliment the 4 wines that we had consumed for lunch that day.  The imaginary feast would require a setting and a theme.  I stuck with several of the interesting ladies I had dined with on previous occasions, apologizing that I would not be able to offer any competent input toward a masterful menu.  Fortunately, a “ringer” (Anthony Kim) had opted to sit at our table that day.   Culinary talent exuded from the pores of this guy.  He was a wine buyer for a popular Asian restaurant in San Francisco.  The ladies shared culinary ideas with Anthony and then decided that the setting would be the Virgin Islands.  Anthony and I agreed that Tortola was the best possible location in that chain.  After hearing that “sole” was to be one of the fish utilized in our menu, our Jimmy Buffett lyric-theme came to me in a flash…. “I’ve got some Caribbean Sole, I can barely control.”   I was able to contribute after all.  We won the contest and were each awarded a bottle of Schramsberg’s Brut Rose.

Over the course of this Camp, Hugh Davies stayed with us every step of the way, rather than assigning his employees to the task.  I sat across the isle from him on each of our bus rides to and from the vineyard and winery.  A young man in his mid-forties, Hugh possessed a playful, boyish zeal for his work and an intense desire to succeed in his position as President of Schramsberg.   Commendable attributes were his close personal relationships with employees, no fear of making mistakes, hands-on knowledge about vineyard care, impressive expertise in wine making, an appreciation of the history of the establishment he is bound-and-determined to preserve and an openness to controlled expansion.   This guy is the “real deal,” and a great pleasure to be around. 

We spoke briefly about his becoming entrusted with controlling interest in the winery by his mother Jamie at her passing two years ago.  Hugh, being the youngest of three sons, would not have expected the torch to have been passed to his care.  However his brothers left the “nest” in pursuit of other business opportunities, possibly aware that Jamie somehow realized who would be the best at preserving the legacy that the family had re-established, starting the very year that Hugh was born.   With his position, Hugh is still hesitant about moving into the Schram mansion, now utilized for office space and storage since the passing of his mother.   His family currently lives in another residence on the property.   As we sat on that bus and discussed those possibilities for the future, it was evident that his hesitance was nothing more than the respect that he maintains for his entire family and their legacy.  I made no comment, because this man will decide on his own the best timing for such a move.   However, I will herein assert that it may not necessarily have been his birthright, but just as his character affirms to the rest of the world that he indeed belongs in this position, it will someday be his destiny.

Camp’s conclusion came far too quickly.  In retrospect, have I converted to becoming a sparkling wine fanatic?  Such I cannot claim.  Yet, truthfully my previously closed (Cabernet-maniac) mind is now pleasingly haunted by the sparkling wines showcased in this adventure.  My exposure to Schramsberg’s products in this most fun and informative venue have enlightened me to the true beauty that they possess.   Magid was right.   I really did need this “eye opening” educational experience.   And, I am grateful to Sally, Matt and Hugh for allowing me to be a part of it.  Schramsberg holds a Spring and Fall Camp, and the Fall Camp is just a few short months away…   Cheers!!

Schramsberg Vineyards

Ludwig’s Fine Wine

Culinary Institute at Greystone

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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