Making wine sparkle like Champagne: Camp Schramsberg step-by-step in pictures

sculpture at Schramsberg WineryThey say the best experiences can’t be bought, but these words sometimes ring wrong. Lucky people in the wine trade enjoy the best the industry can provide – lavish dinners, winemaker one-on-ones, etc. and wineries are more than willing to accommodate the people who have influence over their bottom line. But few wineries invite the consuming public into their inner folds (ironic, isn’t it?). But Schramsberg, an historic sparkling winery in Napa Valley, has done just that twice a year since 1996 with Camp Schramsberg, a program designed to immerse wine lovers in bubbly. This is part one of two in a series.

During the three day program in the fall, they obviously emphasize harvest activities, bringing in the grapes, crushing and fermenting them. In the spring, the program emphasizes vineyard activities and blending the different cuvees, or vats, of wine. Either one, however, is a boatload of fun. Even after being a “member of the wine trade” for ten years, I learned a lot about the sparkling wine process, through hands-on experience. This is my version of making sparkling wine, in pictures:

Grapes for sparkling wine are picked weeks earlier than “still” wine grapes, while their sugar is low and acidity is still high. For the 2010 harvest, grape picking began two weeks later, due to the unusually cooler weather throughout the North Coast of California.

Row 1 of these photos took place in Napa Valley’s Carneros region, in the Tognetti Vineyard which has been supplying grapes to Schramsberg for years. Pic #1: Me, with horrible form, picking Chardonnay grapes. #2: When harvesting grapes, the pros use little scythe-looking instruments but Campers used clippers… safer for our virgin fingers. #3: Hugh Davies, President and CEO of Schramsberg, was our host for the entire three days (yes, we felt important) — he’s telling us about the harvest and the soils in Carneros. #4: We harvested almost a ton of grapes in about an hour… with 29 people at the task. The seasoned vineyard workers put us to shame though… they’re like 10 times faster.

Row 2 is at the Schramsberg winery crushpad and inside the tank fermentation room. Pic #1: These Pinot Noir grapes were harvested in Marin County, south of Sonoma County. Pic #2: Tasting the freshly pressed, “free run” (first juice, normally pressed simply by the weight of the grapes) from the Marin County fruit. Free run generally represents 60 percent of the juice. #3: We headed to the winery, where Hugh led a tasting through samples of “wine” at varying stages of the fermentation process. Pretty sweet until about a week into the process; #4: A finished Pinot Noir with some malolactic fermentation already started. It tasted like really acidic strawberry yogurt.

Row 3. The same day, we head to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to learn not how to make wine, but how to open it with flair and panache. With a sword. #1, #2, #3: Fantastic chef/wine educator Holly Peterson teaches me how to saber a bottle of sparkling wine. Easier than it might appear. These unflattering photos motivated me to slow down with the eating and drinking… after I got home. By the end of Camp, everyone in the group had sabered a bottle. We drank all this bubbly with lunch – 2007 Blanc de Blancs; #4: Actually taken at the winery but thought it was cool and appropriate for this row of photos. This is a good post about how to saber a bottle yourself.

The afternoon was filled with food and wine pairing education with Holly Peterson and the basics of flavor and aroma. Among the wines we tried was a 1994 Reserve Schramsberg. Earthy, buttered almonds and a whiff of sherry. So different. Whoa!

Since this post is getting kinda long, I’m going to make this Part 1 and finish it up tomorrow. Check back for pictures about the cave aging process, riddling (including a video of a professional riddler), dosage and capping.

Read part two.

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