So I read the headline in last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle, “Bitter Harvest: Soap Opera-Style Feud Splits Wine Dynasty, Stuns Napa Valley,” and the story was a salacious one: an elderly matriarch who may or not have dementia, and may or may not be playing favorites among her children, and may or may not be depriving one of those children of his rightful share of the family estate. The piece caught my eye because I have a special fondness for Schramsberg—I write about its wines with regularity—and my fondness dates back almost to the day I could drink legally. Right after I graduated from college, and committed to savoring life while I could, I met a pretty girl and fell in love. Her name was Julie—we’re still friends—and back then we drove around California a lot, in my truck. We slept on beaches near Mendocino and we took long walks at Point Reyes; we foraged for mushrooms in the redwoods and backpacked in the Sierra. She wanted to be a chef, and she introduced me to a lot of great food.
On one of those peripatetic California road trips, we were passing through the Napa Valley, where my Uncle Jim was a sales rep for Trefethen and Schramsberg. I’d been rock climbing a lot with Jim, and he was helping me get started as a surfer, so he was well aware of my travel schedule and he arranged winery tours for me at both places. This felt pretty special at age 21, with my girl. I still remember the cool air and clean, woody aroma of the winemaking rooms at Trefethen. I remember also the tour of the caves at Schramsberg. Julie and I loved being shown into those underground caverns, and because we were young lefties, we tried to decide how we should think about the fact that low-paid Chinese laborers had done all the digging. (No conclusions, just a kind of obligatory musing.) As we left Schramsberg that day, our gracious guide gave us a bottle of blanc de blancs, which I’m sure we opened on a beach somewhere that very night.
I also remember hearing that Schramsberg had been served at the White House, and that Nixon had brought some to China; this made me proud, by association. And when I began buying bubbly again for myself, a couple of years ago, I turned naturally to my old friend. I’ve since become a committed fan. I try always to have a few bottles in my cellar, and the only occasion I need to open one is a desire to drink sparkling wine and at least one other person who is in the same mood.
So I read the Schramsberg article intently, eager to learn something about a place I consider an important star in my personal wine firmament, a landmark on my mental map of the California I love. And here’s what I felt I learned about Schramsberg: nothing, except that human beings own the place. There isn’t a family on Earth immune to these sorts of tensions: Wealth always threatens to have a divisive effect on children—somebody always feels that he isn’t getting his share. The only difference here is that the winery is one of California’s finest, and it remains closely held by one family, and so any back-fence gossip can be blown up into a catchy headline. Hey, it certainly got my attention, but it didn’t stop me from buying yet another bottle of Schramsberg’s blanc de noirs, just so I’m ready the next time the mood strikes.