Camp Schramsberg

Sleep-away at a heritage Napa winery is definitely something to write home about

“Same seats!” Whoever said it as we playfully piled onto the damp shuttle bus was probably only half-kidding. We had buddied up pretty tightly since our arrival dinner in the Schramsberg wine caves Sunday night, hosted by CEO Hugh Davies.

In 1965, the year Davies was born, his parents rescued Schramsberg, the foundering remnants of one of Napa Valley, Calif.’s 21 pioneering wineries, largely fallow in the wake of Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. One hundred fifty years since German immigrant barber Jacob Schram established it in 1862, Schramsberg today thrives as one of America’s finest sparking-wine houses.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Camp Schramsberg, but only the sixth spring session. So while next week’s class is all about the harvest, our two-day spring class focused on the beginning of the cycle. We started by visiting the Tognetti chardonnay vineyard in the Carneros region for a hands-on spring maintenance with owner Jack Tognetti.

Dawn broke as we pulled away from Meadowood Napa Valley resort, our home away from Schramsberg, cupping hot to-go coffee against the March chill. We spotted the hot air balloons hovering over the valley floor, and wiped condensation off the windows to see the sun glinting off puddles between the overgrown vine rows.

Los Carneros is the only appellation shared between Napa and Sonoma, “a slice of Burgundy,” Davies declared it. We pulled up to meet Tognetti, who wore head-to-toe denim with work boots and gloves, and bore the hard-earned, leathery look of a farmer. Pointing to a neighboring field—another name that appears on wine labels—Tognetti told us how much he paid for it, then how much he sold it for a decade later (much more than 10 times his investment). “I enjoy farming,” he said flatly, then burst into hearty laughter.

Davies demonstrated to our hodgepodge of restaurateurs, hotel staff, sommeliers, journalists and wine enthusiasts exactly how to prune off last year’s canes and leave the desired number and orientation of spurs for the new canes to grow. He distributed shears, and over the next hour we tidied up A few rows of desiccated brown vines, tumbleweedy tangles of spent canes flailing helplessly without their leafy cover. The vineyard workers kept their distance (we must have been a sight), but no doubt had to make a pass or two after our group.

Inside the twisted, dormant trunks and cordons slept the potential of the 2012 vintage. The grapes being harvested from those vines this fall will likely be used in the J. Schram, Brut Napa Valley Carneros, and the house flagship blanc de blancs. According to the family legend, it was Robert Mondavi who is said to have helped Jack Davies, Hugh’s father, get the chardonnay for that first blanc de blancs vintage in 1965. “If you succeed, Jack,” Mondavi reportedly said, “we’ll all succeed.”

After the pruning workshop, we attended a blending seminar led by Davies with enologist Diana Sheffield and winemakers Keith Hock and Sean Thompson on the 2011 Brut Napa Valley Carneros. The individual component samples were still young, raw and enamel-peeling tart—hardly the elegant finished product we would later savor over lunch. Like Tognetti’s vines, they had to be appreciated for their potential. Our class voted on the winning blend—only time will tell if we hit the mark.

Schramsberg Camp also includes learning about wine pairing and sabrage (bottle-sabering) from chef/instructor Holly Peterson, riddling with veteran riddler Ramon Viera, and touring every part of the operation, from the loading dock that is already now busy with the 2012 harvest to the darkest recesses of the 19th-century wine caves dug by Chinese laborers. And we dropped in on the ladies who carefully shine the bottles that will soon bring cheer wherever there are celebrations, even the work-a-day ones.

Our graduation was itself a celebration. We were now ambassadors of American sparkling wine, released back to the world to spread the word: American sparkling wine—and Schramsberg in particular—is a fantastic collaboration between humans and nature.

Incidentally, if you don’t enjoy that 2011 Brut Napa Valley Carneros blend when it hits the market in 2015, I humbly apologize. But I think you will.