© 1998 JDM Enterprises
MODERN NAPA PIONEER GONEby Jerry D. Mead
Wine hobbyists are sure to recognize the name Jack Davies. Many more know the name of his famous product, Schramsberg Champagne. Davies died in his sleep on March 10, 1998
He was a gentleman...a visionary, a pioneer, a good businessman, a citizen who understood politics while never running for office, and a driving force behind the Napa Valley as we all know it. Davies was a prime mover in creating the agricultural preserves that kept tract houses out and vineyards in, stopped a 4-lane freeway from chewing up the heart of the valley and was involved in many other social and political issues that affected either Napa Valley or the wine industry in general. But always quietly and from behind the scenes.
Davies, along with wife Jamie, was among the first wave of new vintners to migrate to Napa Valley in the mid-sixties and early 70s. With the help of some investors, the Davies bought the pre-Prohibition estate of one Jacob Schram in 1965. The first vintage was 1966, and when the new crusher broke down Jamie took off her shoes and finished up the old-fashioned way.
Jack and Jamie were always a team. It's overwhelming to think of the literally thousands of visitors she must have entertained over the years while raising three sons and doing other winery related work.
Jack supervised the replanting of old vineyards on the mountainous property to the classic grapes of Champagne, France: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. The sparkling wine that was to be named Schramsberg after the estate's founder, was the first in California to be made entirely from those classic varieties.
For historical perspective, at that time only two other vintners were seriously producing bottle-fermented, classic "Methode champenoise" bubbly, Korbel (in Sonoma County) and Hanns Kornell in Napa. Weibel in Mission San Jose made a small quantity of bottle-fermented champagne, but its volume was in inexpensive tank-fermented bubbly.
If you'll forgive me a small aside, on one of my first visits to Napa Valley, more than 30 years ago, I mentioned to someone that I had both Schramsberg and Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars on my visit list. I can't remember who it was, but I'll never forget what he said, as it turned out to be downright prophetic: "If Hanns Kornell had Jack Davies grapes, or if Jack Davies knew as much about making champagne as Hanns Kornell, we'd have two great champagnes in Napa Valley."
Davies learned quick.
On that first visit with the Davies, Schramsberg was already an underground favorite, being hand sold from a few specialty wine shops in Southern California where I then lived. Few bottles ever made it to the shelf, as they had all been reserved in advance by in-the-know customers. In fact Davies had nothing to sell at the winery itself when we were there in the late sixties.
One visits Schramsberg (then and now) only by appointment, and even with detailed directions you always wonder if you've gone astray. There are no giant signs pointing to Schramsberg and the winding two-lane (well, almost) road up the side of the mountain through a near jungle of foliage, does nothing to assure you you're on the right track.
The first sign that you might be headed to a winery is a few clearings with neatly manicured vineyards.
And then you are there, in front of the century-old estate house in which Robert Louis Stevenson once visited and wrote about the wines and that has been the Davies home for nearly four decades.
Off to the side are now modernized and expanded caves, originally built by Chinese labor and which still had dirt floors when I first visited.
In 1972 our underground favorite became almost impossible to buy, even when you knew the manager of the wine shop. President Nixon took 13 cases of Schramsberg to the historic meeting in Peking with Premier Chou En-lai. The media spread the word and every existing bottle of Schramsberg bubbly of any kind evaporated from the marketplace overnight.
Schramsberg's list of firsts go on and on, being the first American winery to make "Blanc de Blancs," "Blanc de Noirs," and "Cremant," the latter being a slightly sweet, low carbonation, dessert style.
When Schramsberg released its "tete de cuvee" (literally, "top of the line") champagne called J. Schram in the early 90s, a new level of quality was achieved. At the 1994 New World International Wine Competition, 1988 J. Schram was the winner of the American Airlines Trophy for New World Grand Champion and the Thornton Winery Trophy for Best New World Champagne, and then went on to win gold medal after gold medal, plus several more sweepstakes awards at competitions everywhere, including at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London.
While creating this great wine, Davies had asked literally dozens of experts to sit in on taste trials with the winemaking staff, in each case comparing the new entry to some of the most expensive and famous French products.
Davies personal achievements and list of titles is extensive, including heading up the first California wine investment in the EEC (a new winery in Portugal), wrote the sparkling wine chapter for the University of California's "Book of California Wine," and co-wrote with Jamie "Sparkling Harvest, The Seasons of the Vine."
He was Chairman of Wine Institute, a director of California Wine Commission and Winegrowers of California, among many other titles.
Davies died of a debilitating neuromuscular disease that robbed his body of strength while leaving his mind clear. It had to be the ultimate frustration for a man who was always a doer.
Davies is survived by his wife Jamie and three sons, Bill, John and Hugh. More award-winning wines next week. You may reach Jerry Mead's office at (800) 845-9463 or E-mail: winetrader @aol.com