Bay Area Bubbles: A Visit to Schramsberg’s Candlelit Tasting Cave
“When I imagine what the Champagne wineries in France look like, my brain inevitably pictures old caves where the bottles and barrels of wine sit and age.Thankfully here in the Bay Area, there is a place where I can get my fill of that Platonic ideal: Schramsberg in Calistoga.
“Schramsberg sparkling wine has been around since 1965, when Jack and Jamie Davies bought and revived the property. The land and Schramsberg name came from Jacob Schram, a German immigrant who started making wine there in 1862. Since there was no way to control the temperature for properly aging his wine, Schram had two tunnels dug into the hillside totaling one mile in length with the capacity to hold 2.7 million bottles.
“Unlike table wine that spends time aging in barrels, the development of flavors in good quality sparkling wine happens entirely in the bottle. When the bottles sit aging, they are said to be en triage. This process where the wine sits in contact with yeast is key for building complexity (less astringency and floral components arise here) and richness in texture, including decreasing bubble size.
“As you walk through the caves at Schramsberg, you’ll see bottles stacked along the walls everywhere, in fact so many and so well-organized I mistakenly assumed they were props. Walking further along the tour, we came across a pair of workers who where manually unstacking a vintage that was ready for riddling (removing the dead yeast).
“Like most sparkling wine producers, the riddling mostly happens mechanically on gyropalettes, but due to the unique shape of the J Schram bottles, a full 25 percent of production needs to be hand riddled.
“The grapes are mostly pinot noir and chardonnay from Carneros, Sonoma coast, and Mendocino, and just like in the French Champagne houses, Schramsberg uses beet sugar in the dosage rather than the cane sugar that most local producers use. Either way, their sparkling wines are fantastic.”
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