On the 20th anniversary of Woodstock, people asked, "Where were you?"
Some people ignored Woodstock to scour the countryside looking for cult wines--pleading and cajoling to get their hands on wines like Schramsberg Champagne and David Bruce Chardonnay.
Cult wine once was a big deal with wine lovers. Two decades ago, a handful of wineries made tiny quantities of great wines that got word-of-mouth plaudits and generated intense competition to get a bottle or a case.
Today We Gloat
Today it's different. We gloat over getting a bottle of Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet or Ferrari-Carano Reserve Chardonnay. Diamond Creek recently sold out its limited-production Cabernet designated Lake, a wine that carries a $100 price tag. These are modern-day cult wines.
But today there are at least lots of cult Chardonnays (Grgich, Chalone, Sonoma-Cutrer, Au Bon Climat among them) and dozens of cult Cabernets (Dunn, Spotteswood, La Jota, Jordan) and Pinot Noirs (Calera, Chalone, Etude). So it's possible to own a cult wine without much difficulty. (Jordan sold almost 80,000 cases of wine last year.)
But in the early 1970s, as California wine became an intriguing and exciting collectible as well as a grand taste experience, very few wines took on cult status, and they were truly limited in production. Stony Hill and Hanzell Chardonnays and Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels were hard to obtain and achieved that status.
Few Thousand Cases
Among the highest-image wines were those from Schramsberg and David Bruce. Finding a bottle on a retail shelf was a serendipitous moment inducing euphoria. Neither made more than a few thousand cases.
It was a bit surprising, then, when I discovered that both Schramsberg and David Bruce were celebrating their silver anniversaries; both have been in business for a quarter-century.
And although Swan, Hanzell and Stony Hill wines remain limited in production, Bruce and Schramsberg have grown with the demand. One might assume from this that quality has been compromised, but I recently went through the two wineries' offerings and discovered that both have kept abreast of the latest technical changes in the industry, and that both are making wines that if anything are better than what they did in the past. Ironically, one helped the other improve.
One fact is true for both wineries. For some years in the 1970s, neither improved. As they grew, quality grew erratic. But in the last three years, both wineries have stabilized, eliminating wines that were simply off the mark. Bruce and Schramsberg have grown more consistent, less erratic than they were a decade ago.
Napa Valley-based Schramsberg, which makes only sparkling wine, has had to adapt to a shrinking supply of top-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes; both varieties are in demand. To cope with this, Jack Davies has developed a unique method of payment to growers.
Price of the Wine
Using an "evergreen" contract arrangement, Schramsberg pays growers based on a formula pegged directly to the price of the wine into which the grower's grapes go. Prices are "always higher than the Napa Valley average," said Davies.
Moreover, Schramsberg continues to experiment, first under wine maker Greg Fowler (who came on board in 1980) and now under Alan Tenscher, Fowler's successor in 1987.
Experimentation led to use of malolactic fermentation for small lots of wine (converting stronger acid into weak acid, which softens the wine), the dropping of sulfur dioxide use during production, and trying small quantities of grapes from other regions (such as the central coast and Mendocino) for complexity.
Handling the Grapes
The greatest change is in the handling of the grapes. In 1982, Fowler discovered that the standard method of dumping grapes into the press wasn't gentle enough, and that if he used a suction device--like a huge vacuum cleaner--he could dump the fruit into the press with less damage.
"I got the idea from David Bruce," said Fowler, who is now head wine maker for Domaine Mumm, across the Napa Valley. "The original idea came from Germany, where they use it to unload botrytised grapes.
"The big drawback is that it's slow, but it gets the fruit into the press with a minimum amount of damage to the fruit, without tearing the skins and beating up the stems."
The first wines to see this gentler method were from 1982, and Davies now has ready for release a small amount of a great wine from that harvest, and it's a wine new to the Schramsberg line.
The 1982 Blanc de Noirs Late Disgorged ($25) is a marvelously complex, rich wine with deep Pinot Noir character and as much Frenchlike elements as I have seen in a California wine. The extended time on the yeast, en tirage as the French say, is the key to this superb wine.
Similarly, Schramsberg's 1984 Blanc de Blancs Late Disgorged ($23) is an exceptional, deeply complex wine, one of the best I have tasted.