Camp Schramsberg

December 20, 2011

Earlier this year I attended ‘Camp Schramsberg’ in Napa Valley. The following is my personal recount of the experience. As we are in the midst of the holiday season, perhaps you will be inspired to buy a few bottles of domestic bubbly such as those produced by Schramsberg.  Cheers, Laura

Camp Schramsberg: an immersion into all things bubbles in Napa Valley

by Laura Conway

Have you ever wanted to impress your friends by deftly opening a bottle of sparkling wine with a saber? You’ll get your chance to do that and a lot more at Camp Schramsberg, a two-day immersion into all things bubbles that Schramsberg Vineyards hosts every spring and fall. Earlier this year I attended their spring session during which I had an insider’s glimpse into sparkling wine production and tasted delicious food alongside a team of wine professionals and enthusiastic consumers.  This event is an absolute must for any bubbles aficionado as it provides a unique learning experience via hands-on involvement with Schramsberg’s owner/vintner Hugh Davies, the winemaking staff, and chef/oenologist Holly Peterson.

Schramsberg Vineyards was founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram and revitalized by the late Jack and Jamie Davies in the 1960s. Their son Hugh now carries the flag promoting the wine both domestically and abroad.  Located in Calistoga, Schramsberg was the first hillside winery to establish itself in the valley and one of the few producers to make sparkling wine. As the winery prospered, they added a Victorian house in 1875 and the property was declared a California Historical Landmark in 1957.

The winery is recognized as a leader in its category, known for its quality and use of traditional Champagne production methods. Grapes are sourced from 90 vineyards from across four North Coast counties to create 12 blends, ranging from their flagship J. Schram tête de cuvée to their entry-level Mirabelle. While most selections are produced from the traditional grapes used in Champagne-style wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Crémant Demi-sec is based on Flora, a cross between Gewürztraminer and Semillon.

Now, back to ‘camp.’  My bubbles adventure was really a fun and educational way to learn about sparkling wine, from the vineyard to the final dazzling beverage that pairs so readily with food both sweet and savory.  The event was hosted at Meadowood Napa Valley Resort and Schramsberg Vineyards. Over two and a half days the activities were numerous and well choreographed. These included vineyard pruning, a tour of the winemaking facility, a session to experiment with blending wine components, time to hone our riddling technique (systematically turning the bottles to move the yeast sediment into the neck), a dosage tasting to compare final sweetness levels in the wine, a walk through the subterranean caves where the bottles age, a lesson in sabering to master the opening of bubbles with flair, a study in food and wine pairings, and a team competition to create the most compelling seasonal menu featuring Schramsberg’s wines.

The camp was truly an epicurean treat beginning with a welcome reception featuring oysters and other delicacies, followed by a reception dinner in the winery’s caves.  The extensive maze of tunnels through volcanic rock was originally built with the help of Chinese laborers (another reminder for me of California’s early history and the westward expansion).  This first meal was a festive way to meet my fellow participants as it was held in an atmospheric candlelit cavern that immediately set the tone for the next few days. The first course contrasted a 2004 Brut Sonoma Coast with a 2006 Brut Anderson Valley served alongside two styles of scallop preparations.  Next, the duck main course and cheese selection were matched with Schramsberg’s 2008 and 2004 J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery’s more recent foray into still wine production.  Chef Holly Peterson made the event a gustatory experience that allowed guests to consider how the elements of the food and wine complemented and contrasted one another.

On our first full day, the dizzying lineup of events in the vineyard and at the winery was punctuated by gourmet meals at the luxury resort Meadowood. Lunch, for example, featured Pear and Leek Soup with Pear and Celery Garnish, Roasted Capon on Black Truffle Gnocchi served with Foie Gras Glaze, and Apple Torte with Cream Cheese Frosting served with Caramel ice cream. The first two courses were paired with Schramsberg 2004 Extra Brut while dessert was served with the sweeter 2007 Crémant Demi-sec.

Besides meals we had three food and wine seminars, the first explored Chardonnay based sparkling wines, while the second focused on desserts, and the third examined Pinot Noir based sparklers. We saw how pairings are not only susceptible to personal preference, but how certain ingredients can change our perception of a wine. The first seminar examined a 2007 Blanc de Blancs, 2007 Querencia Brut Rosé, and 2004 J. Schram. Tasting the Blanc de Blancs with a lemon wedge we saw how the lemon reduced the perception of acidity in the wine by its own intense acid level whereas the sugar in a choux puff made the Rosé and J. Schram selections seem more acidic. While tarragon was a flavor that overpowered the selections we learned that fragrant coriander is a great pair with Chardonnay-based wines. My personal favorite combination was the seared Ahi Tuna with Lemon Aioli paired with the J. Schram because of their similar rich body weights and way the J. Schram’s acidity cut through the aioli creaminess.  The dessert seminar focused on sugar and acid levels in the wines and how they could be juxtaposed with a tray of desserts. The wines included a 2007 Crémant Demi-sec, 2007 Blanc de Blancs, and 2007 Brut Rosé. Two of the observations were that the chocolate mousse did not find any good sparkling pair and that our strawberries tasted best when consumed with similar fruit flavors as in the Rosé. Finally the Pinot lineup solidified the pairing rules that we were observing: 1) bitter plus bitter equals more bitter, 2) higher acid food makes a wine’s acid less perceivable, 3) food with more sugar makes a wine’s acid more noticeable, making it seem sour.

In addition to the great meals, tastings and seminars, we had the opportunity to get our hands dirty and feet muddy while pruning in the vineyard.  This was followed by an exercise in crafting wine blends where I had to put my nose and palate to work. I could see my personal preferences come into play but also the challenge in winemaking to craft the best possible product. Besides having a lot of fun over these couple of days, I thought this camp was a great way to meet other sparkling wine enthusiasts and members of the industry. I appreciated the smooth operations and well-planned itinerary as well as the energy from my fellow participants. The camp culminated in a dramatic menu competition that brought some amazing creativity as well as lots of laughs.  My time with the team at Schramsberg taught me that their wines are not only well made but that the winery values creating a warm and authentic consumer experience. My advice: become a future camper, but at the very least visit their caves and enjoy the delicious wines. Santé!