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Schramsberg Vineyard's Davies Scrambles to Stay Ahead of the Pack

August 21, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

"I always run scared," said Jack Davies, owner of Schramsberg Vineyards, when he was in Los Angeles last week vigorously promoting his California champagnes--considered by many as this state's premiere sparkling wines.

This effort at nurturing already firmly established public support was much more an exercise in salesmanship than an economic necessity. For 20 years, the total Schramsberg production has sold out almost immediately after being released from the winery's bottling line.

Not only is this Napa Valley operation financially successful, but it also has received numerous blessings from the White House. These distinctively labeled champagnes have been served at official functions with some frequency in all of the last four administrations.

Wine Diplomacy in China

Included in this host of glittering state dinners is one of the most spectacular uses of a California wine. In 1972, then-President Nixon hosted Chinese officials, Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premiere Chou En-lai, at a dinner in Peking when the United States opened diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. The wine served during the toast formally renewing ties between the two countries was Schramsberg's 1969 Blanc de Blanc.

And how popular is Schramsberg away from the diplomatic circle?

Well, as Davies tells it, in the last year he has turned down a request for 25,000 cases from a leading hotel chain and would fill only one-third of a $1-million order from a large wholesale firm. Furthermore, he refuses to sell to the 42-store Liquor Barn chain. All three moves were done so that the retail outlets that have been faithful to the winery through the years would continue to be amply supplied.

"It's not easy to pass up a $600,000 order, but we have to work closely with the people who have helped us from the start," Davies said. "I try to really stay with the commitments we've already made because if I opened accounts with everyone that wanted Schramsberg then I couldn't serve anyone properly."

Schramsberg Vineyards was founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram, a German immigrant. However, the operation was abandoned for several decades beginning in 1911. The neglect ended when Davies purchased the property in 1965.

30,000 Cases Annually

The winery now produces about 30,000 cases annually and has always known steady growth in the premiere champagne category. The success has come despite prices that range from between $16 to $26 per bottle.

However, things may not always look so celebratory. There is substantially more competition in the wine world than when Davies first acquired the serene hillside property with man-made caves serving as underground cellars. More than 25 different California companies are now producing sparkling wine. An additional half-dozen French and Spanish firms have also financed champagne operations in the state.

"All of our competitors are out there anxious for attention. We don't think that just because we were one of the first that we don't have to work," he said while attending a Sunday brunch in his honor at Pasadena's Parkway Grill.

Davies' recent Southern California visit was meant to draw attention to his four current releases: 1981 Blanc de Noirs and 1983 releases of Blanc de Blancs, Cuvee de Pinot and Cremant Demi-Sec. All of the wines are decidedly lighter in style than previous versions, a change that Davies said mirrors today's evolving consumer tastes.

He is most proud of the stylish Blanc de Noirs, but easily turns the discussion to little-known Cremant, ostensibly a dessert wine with half the carbonation of most champagnes. But it is difficult to interest people in a slightly sweet sparkler with only subtle effervescence. Even so, the resistance hasn't deterred him.

Cremant for Reagan

Davies' most convincing conversion occurred during the planning stages for President Reagan's second inauguration. At the time, he was contacted about serving a Blanc de Blanc with a dessert course of praline mousse at the luncheon immediately after the oath-of-office ceremony. He offered instead the Schramsberg Cremant, but was told that those in charge of the meal were not interested.

"We suggested the Cremant because that is its place--as a dessert wine. They said no and added that people in Washington didn't like sweet wines. We then suggested a taste test, to which they agreed. Several days later, the event planners called back, said we were right and they ultimately served the Cremant to the President."

Despite his occasional successes with Cremant and desserts, Davies said there is a limit to all the talk about meticulously pairing various wines with certain meals or courses.

"This wine and food thing," he said, "can be carried to ludicrousness."

A Brandy Upgrade--Champagne was not the only beverage being touted last week by Davies. He offered, at a particularly boisterous tasting sponsored by the Les Amis du Vin's Glendale chapter, the first release of a brandy produced in a joint venture between his firm and Remy Martin of France.

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