Napa Valley is renowned for its stunning vineyards and incredible wines. Charles Krug, the first official winery in Napa Valley, began planting grapes in 1861. German immigrant Jacob Schram soon followed his efforts. Jacob planted his first grapes in 1862, making Schramsberg Vineyards the second oldest winery in the Napa Valley.

The Early History of Schramsberg Vineyards

On a recent visit to Schramsberg Vineyards, I spent the day chatting with the Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Financial Officer Fred Zammataro and Marketing and E-commerce Manager Matthew Levy. Fred explained the early history of Schramsberg Vineyards.

Jacob Schram and his wife Annie
Jacob Schram and his wife Annie

The Founder of Schramsberg Vineyards

Jacob Schram was born in Pfeddersheim, Germany, in 1826. In Germany, young men turning 16 must enlist in the Army, so in 1842 Jacob left Germany and took a boat to the United States where he studied to become a barber.

Jacob met Annie, his bride, in New York, and they traveled to California in 1849. Here he set up shop on what is now Montgomery Street in the financial district of San Francisco. When Jacob and Annie moved to San Francisco, it was still a relatively small city. According to Wikipedia, “The Gold Rush began in January 1848, and San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a city of about 36,000 by 1852.

As time went by, many affluent men sat in Jacob’s chair. These were not prospectors but businessmen who thrived in the growing city. They owned hotels, stores, saloons, and other profitable yet less respectable establishments. These men would chat with Jacob regarding financial opportunities while getting their hair cut and/or a shave. Jacob soon parlayed his money, and during his travels to Napa Valley, he fell in love with the area and purchased 400 acres in Calistoga. Fred said, “Can you imagine your hairdresser today trying to buy 400 acres in Napa?”

Entrance to Schramsberg caves
Entrance to Schramsberg caves

The First Hillside Vineyards

With only one other vineyard in the area, why did Jacob establish his vineyards on the hillside known as Diamond Mountain instead of on the lowlands where it would be easy work? The answer lies in Jacob’s roots. Where he grew up in Germany, grapes grew on steep, terraced hills. Jacob knew that stressed vines produce exceptional grapes. The winery grew over the years, and soon he had more than 30,000 vines.

Schramsberg Vineyard caves
Schramsberg Vineyard caves

The First Caves in Napa Valley

Jacob understood that Napa Valley often endured hot summers and substantial amounts of wine could be lost from the heat. Between 1863 and 1869 approximately 15,000 Chinese workers helped build the transcontinental railroad. After the railroad’s completion, Jacob hired a team of Chinese workers to build a cave structure on the vineyard property. Picks and shovels were used to dig the cave; it was all hand-dug without dynamite. Jacob stored and aged his wine in the cave.

Schramsberg wines

The Rebirth of Schramsberg Vineyards and a New Label

The winery did well producing delicious sparkling wines, but after many years the business fell into disrepair. However, in 1965 Jack and Jamie Davies purchased Schramsberg Vineyards and brought sparkling wine production back to life. The couple also began making cabernet sauvignon and pinot noirs under the Davies Vineyards label. Today, Hugh Davies, son of Jack and Jamie, is the owner of both Schramsberg Vineyards and Davies Vineyards.

Schramsberg wines

The Current Operations at Schramsberg Vineyards

Today, Schramsberg Vineyards is busting at the seams. Owner Hugh Davies said, “We are using every corner of our facility.” Hugh explained how they separate the juice. Grapes from every vineyard and block are divided into individual lots. The fruit is all hand-picked, and each lot gets separately placed into the Bucher, known as a bladder press. The free run-off is what Hugh calls “The good stuff.” These “best” lots go into the J. Schram Blanc and J. Schram Noir; these are Schramsberg’s top sparkling wines. After finishing the free run-off, the bladder turns a few times, and the pressure is set to two bars to squeeze out the remainder of the juice.

This juice is reserved for the next level of Schramsberg sparkling wines and sold to other wineries. The reserve stock is used for non-vintage blends and stored for later use. The 130-140 lots of juice collected is turned into approximately 300 lots; some juice goes into stainless steel containers while other juice makes it into French oak barrels. Juice in some oak barrels will be inoculated with lactobacillus culture, initiating malolactic fermentation. Different juices with varying preparations are blended to make Schramsberg’s 16 sparkling styles each year.

Tasting at Schramsberg
Tasting at Schramsberg

The Schramsberg Sparkling Style

Some wineries change styles regularly. Everyone involved with Schramsberg believes in sticking to their successful style of sparkling wine. Fred said, “With sparkling wines, you can get button-holed into a house style, and you hang your hat on it. That is what you are proud of, like a chef known for a signature dish. If you hire a sous chef, you don’t let that person go crazy and change your dish because that dish is what put you on the map.”

Stacking bottles in the cave at Schramsberg Vineyard
Stacking bottles in the cave at Schramsberg Vineyard

The Schramsberg Vineyards

Several old buildings, along with most of the newer ones, survived recent fires thanks to the hard work of the local Fire Department. These older buildings made it onto the National and California Historical registers: the beautiful home built in 1875, the historic barn built in 1884, and the carriage house built sometime in the 1880s.

During my visit, it was fun to look at the older buildings, taste wine under the shade of the old trees in the grove, and learn about the bronze frog at the winery entrance.

The Unintended Icon OutFront

Just in front of the winery entrance is an enchanting pond with a bronze sculpture of a frog. Jamie Davies was a fan of art, and in 1990 she commissioned Larry Shank to make a sculpture for the winery. Winemakers have always had a bit of celebrity status, but another staff member, typically behind the scenes, is managing the caves. This person is known as “The Riddler.” The riddler works tirelessly to eliminate the dead yeast from every bottle of bubbles, as that yeast can affect the end product.

Fred told me the history of the sculpture “The Riddler’s Night Out.” When Jamie commissioned the artwork, Ramon was the current riddler. Larry decided to immortalize Ramon. He sculpted a frog dressed to the nines wearing a tuxedo and bow tie. In his left hand is a bottle of J Schram, the winery’s finest bubbles. In his right hand is a glass raised up against the moonlight. The frog is ecstatic, kicking up his feet with his head thrown back, mesmerized by the stream of bubbles rising to the top of his glass as he admires the clarity of his handiwork.

Although Jamie never intended this sculpture to be more than a decorative piece of art, this whimsical creature has become Schramsberg’s little icon over the years. He is a beloved member and representative of Schramsberg Vineyards.

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Tracy Ellen Beard is a freelance writer and photographer based in Vancouver, Washington. She contributes to Luxe Beat Magazine, Communities Digital News, Wander With Wonder, and several other magazines. Her stories focus on luxury and adventure travel, fine dining, wine, nonprofits, and alternative medicine. Tracy shares a unique perspective on the world, which comes from both her personal travels and her excursions as the founder and past president of an international children’s nonprofit. Her fifteen years of experience writing in various genres has added to her expertise. She is a member of the AWAI (American Writers and Artists Inc.) and the ITWPA (International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance).