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. It's a romantic image that is most likely divorced from the economic reality of large-scale production required to export the bubbly around the world.
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 Davis 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.
Lou Bustamante The caves at Schramsberg with bottles of sparkling wine aging
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.
Lou Bustamante J Schram bottles in the process of being 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. Stylistically it seems more philosophical than for taste (well, my palate can't distinguish between cane and beet sugar). Either way, their sparkling wines are fantastic, and taste even better if you get lucky enough to have your group's tasting inside the caves by candlelight.
Lou Bustamante Tasting inside the caves at Schramsberg
If not, or if you have a fear of caves and lichen, the main tasting room works well too. A splurge for sure, but one worth seeking out.
Lou Bustamante The main tasting room
Location: 1400 Schramsberg Rd. Calistoga
Tours: $50, offered daily at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m, 1:30 p.m, and 2:30 p.m., includes tasting. By Appointment only
Tastings: By appointment only
Approximate number of wines in the tasting: Four
Price range for sparkling wines: Most in the $39-$110 range, with special bottlings more
Yearly production (in cases): 65,000
Picnic tables/food available: No picnic tables, eat before you arrive
Best for: Small groups (tour sizes are maxed out at 12 people) looking for an elegant splurge
Don't miss this on the way to visit: Woodhouse Chocolates in St. Helena to complete your indulgent afternoon