It is easy to miss the sign marking Schramsberg Road while zooming north on Highway 29, just outside the town of St. Helena. Though Schramsberg is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley (established by German immigrant Jacob Schram in 1862), it is not by any stretch of the imagination the most opulent or advertised. You can see the neighboring V. Sattui castle from across the valley, and you have to be blind to miss the historic Beringer property on the edge of town, but on any given day a good percentage of the calls to the Schramsberg front desk are from would-be visitors parked on the side of the road in Calistoga, wondering where they went wrong. I know because I used to answer that phone.
The reason Schramsberg doesn't need a big sign or a castle is simple: méthode Champenoise, and the tradition of style and class that Shramsberg's founders, the late Jack and Jamie Davies, built into the brand over the years. The Davies' purchased the old Schram property as a fixer-upper in 1965, and by 1972 had given it new life as the first winery in America to produce sparkling wine by the same method as in Champagne, using the traditional Champagne grape varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Visitors to Schramsberg's historic wine caves (the original caves were hand-dug in the late 1800s!) get to witness first-hand the labor-intensive steps of sparkling wine production, including the process of riddling the bottles to concentrate the dead yeast cells for removal during disgorging. At Schramsberg, riddling is still done by hand.
While the idea of a cave-dwelling riddler spinning still wine into sparkling has a certain fairy tale quality to it, you can't produce first class bubbles without starting with a first class wine, and Keith Hock is the man we have to thank for that. Keith oversees everything that happens in the winery, from crush through primary fermentation and the all-important step of assembling the cuveés (assemblage) which are the final blends that get bottled and undergo the rest of production in the bottle. Since each vineyard source delivers unique fruit each vintage, and Schramsberg produces vintage sparkling wines each year (with the exception of the nonvintage Mirabelle line and the ultra premium J. Schram Brut Rosé, which is only made in exceptional years) Keith must craft final blends made from individually fermented blocks that are reflective of the vintage but stay true to the style of the wine for which they are destined, from the flagship Blanc de Blancs to the premium J Schram.
We are thrilled to welcome Keith to our San Francisco tasting bar this Thursday, February 10 at 5 p.m. and to our Redwood City tasting bar this Friday, February 11th at 5 p.m. for special Pre-Valentine's Day Bubbly Tasting. In anticipation of the occasion, we thought you might want to get to know the man behind the bubbly a little. Here, Keith dishes on bubbly, biking, and where to get a good bite off-the-beaten-path in Napa:
Behind the Wine: Winemaker Interview with Keith Hock
K&L: How did you get into the wine business?
KH: I was living in France racing bicycles for a French cycling team. The team Soignier educated me on the wines from the different growing areas in France, however, it wasn’t until I moved back to the US, and to Napa, CA that I discovered that I could earn a degree in winemaking.
K&L: How long have you been making wine at Schramsberg?
KH: I have been with Schramsberg since 2002.
Did you always want to make sparkling wine?
No, I have worked for several other wineries. However, I enjoy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so Schramsberg is a perfect match.
What are some winemaking challenges unique to sparkling wine production?
The challenge with making sparkling wine is that it’s a labor intensive product, where each bottle of wine has to be touched numerous times prior to the wine being released for sale.
What makes Schramsberg unique?
Schramsberg is unique for several reasons: there is the history of the property, being the second oldest winery in Napa Valley, in addition to our caves and hillside vineyards. We have stayed true to the mission that Jack and Jamie Davies set out to do in 1965 when they re-established Schramsberg as a sparkling wine house--making the absolute best vintage sparkling wines year in and year out. There is a tremendous amount of pride, respect and heritage that goes into each and every bottle of Schramsberg wine!
What did you drink last night? (Or the last time you had a glass of wine that wasn’t your own?)
Last night I had a glass of Argentinean Malbec, Tierra Secreta.
What’s your position on wine-pairing and what do you like to pair your wines with?
Wine and food are a natural. Pairing brings out flavors in both the food and wine that aren’t there without the other. Sparkling wine and Kettle style salted potato chips are a savory pairing! (Thanks for the tip!)
What are some of your favorite restaurants?
We are fortunate to have so many fine restaurant in the Napa Valley, a few new ones that I like are Bistro Sabor, it casual and fun, [and] ZUZU for tapas. There are too many to name, "spoiled" comes to mind when I think of all the restaurants.
What advice do you have to offer people just getting into wine?
Don’t be afraid, be open-minded and try any and everything. Wine is an exciting and interactive experience.
Visit the K&L Local Events page for updates on this event and to check out all upcming K&L events and tastings!
We look forward to seeing you!