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Obituaries

Jack Davies; Pioneer Napa Valley Vintner

March 11, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Davies, an internationally respected pioneer of modern quality winemaking and the production of sparkling wine in the Napa Valley, died Tuesday. He was 75.

Davies, who with his wife, Jamie, founded Schramsberg Vineyards in 1965, died in his sleep in his Victorian vineyard home near Calistoga, Calif. He had suffered for the past year from degenerative nerve disease.

The management consultant turned vintner earned international fame in 1972 when President Richard Nixon took his Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 1969 to China. Nixon used it to toast Chinese Premier Chou En-lai on the renewal of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations.

Long considered by fellow winemakers as the conscience of Napa Valley, Davies was a Harvard MBA when he turned to growing grapes in 1965. He gave up a lucrative position as vice president of Ducommon, an international industrial management and supply company, to buy an abandoned vineyard in the valley that he was to make famous.

"Jamie and I wanted to be in a business to make something together," he told The Times last fall, "something other than gypsum wallboard [a Ducommon product], something artistic."

Chasing bats out of the rickety house and caves once used by Chinese laborers, the couple moved into a winery founded by German immigrant Jacob Schram in 1872. No wine had been produced there since 1911.

With characteristic modesty, Davies named the winery for its founder rather than himself. Although he personally drove Nixon's cases of champagne to Travis Air Force Base for shipment to China, Davies never advertised his international diplomatic coup.

"We'll never have a flashing neon hand pointing the way up here," he once told The Times. "It may be OK for others, but not for us."

Wine writers found out anyway and quickly came to appreciate the artistic something--champagne--that the Davieses set out to produce. Davies set Napa Valley precedents--he was the first to use Chardonnay grapes to make champagne, the first to vintage-date blancs de blanc, the first to release a vintage reserve champagne.

Davies also became an influential activist. He spearheaded the drive to win adoption of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve in 1968, which prohibits any agriculture parcel smaller than 40 acres and provides for a public vote on proposed development. The measure blocked "ranchette" vineyards and a housing and golf course development.

In 1970, Davies blocked a proposed four-lane freeway through the heart of Napa County.

In 1986, he was instrumental in resolving a dispute over whether wineries could stage concerts and plays and other non-wine events. His plan was adopted by the county Planning Commission and permits reasonable promotional activities but limits any events considered detrimental to the valley.

In addition to his wife, Davies is survived by three sons, Bill, Hugh and John; a sister, LuAnne Davies of Beverly Hills, and one grandson.

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