Tag Archives: Thompson Seedless

60 Second Wine Review — Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine from California.

The Geekery

Schramsberg blanc de blancs sparkling wine

Schramsberg began in 1965 when Jack and Jamie Davies, inspired by a long lunch with legendary vintner Martin Ray, bought the derelict winery, house and caves of 18th century German immigrant Jacob Schram on Diamond Mountain.

The Davies wanted to distinguish themselves from other Napa wineries and focused on sparkling wines. At the time, only Korbel in Sonoma and Kornell in Napa were making sparklers. Instead of using Champagne varieties, these other wineries were using grapes like Thompson Seedless, Colombard and Chenin blanc.

Their first release was a 100% Chardonnay 1965 Blancs de Blanc. James Conway notes in his book Napa: The Story of an American Eden that the Davies got the grapes for their sparkler by purchasing Riesling from Jerome Draper on Spring Mountain and then trading with the Mondavis of Charles Krug for Chardonnay.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon shared the 1969 Blanc de Blancs with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for the historic “Toast to Peace” between the two countries during Nixon’s famous trip to China.

The Chardonnay for the 2014 vintage was sourced primarily from Napa (66%) with 31% from Sonoma and 3% from vineyards in Marin County. Primary fermentation was done in barrel with full malolactic. The wine was then aged over 2 years on the lees before being bottled with a 9.5 g/l dosage. Around 34,850 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

The racy citrus notes, pastry dough and baking spices remind me of key lime pie.

Medium intensity nose. Reminds me of key lime pie with the mix of citrus, pastry and baking spices.

On the palate, the key limes carry through and are amplified by the medium-plus acidity. Moderate mousse holds the lively acidity and crispness. The pastry and baking notes become more muted and fade quickly with the finish.

The Verdict

At $30-35, this an enjoyable sparkler but admittedly doesn’t wow me for the price.

It’s well made but there is not much that sets it apart from sparklers under $20.

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The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

As California Wine Month comes to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on the men and women who have made California what it is today.

Folks like Agoston Haraszthy, H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Josephine Tychson, Louis M. Martini and, in more modern history, people like Andre Tchelischeff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Robert Haas, Donn Chappellet, Fred and Eleanor McCrea and Dick Grace.

Truthfully, the list could go on ad infinitum because the history and story of California wine is truly a patch work quilt of individual dreams and efforts.

But I’m willing to bet that if you asked most wine lovers to list some of the influential figures in California wine history–only the truly old timers and the geekiest of wine students would mention Martin Ray.

Which is remarkable considering the modern legacy of all “the Martians” that came after Ray.

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

In the link above, wine economist Mike Veseth highlights the dichotomy in thought of two post-Prohibition wine pioneers over what the “idea” of wine should be–a topic he greatly expands upon in his 2011 work Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Philip Wagner, who founded the Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, bequeathed the Wagnerian ideals of wine being an everyday commodity–much like any other food and beverage–that should be affordable and accessible. As Veseth notes, the existence of “Two Buck Chuck” is a very Wagnerian model. However, Wagner’s idea of everyday affordability wasn’t just limited to bottom of the barrel prices.

Photo from Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

Martin Ray, on the other hand, thought that American wine should aim high and not settle for just being a commodity like milk and grains. Inspired by the great wines of Europe, the original “Martian” was convinced that California had the potential to reach similar heights.

Post-Prohibition Blues

As Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2: From Prohibition to the Present, the American wine industry was in a bit of a funky, cloudy haze in the years after the repeal of Prohibition–just like many of the wines of that period.

The goal of most post-Prohibition wineries was cheapness and quantity with quality being a distant third. In chapter 4 of his work, Pinney quotes UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s 1940 letter bemoaning the fact that many producers ignore their vineyards until late in the harvest season, letting the grapes go far past their ideal harvest time and producing wines that were “…heavy, lacking the essential fruit quality and frequently have an overripe grape or raisin taste.” Beyond the poor condition of the fruit, Amerine noted, in the winery this often led to the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Amerine’s letter (as quoted by Pinney) would go on to say:

Aside from [Martin] Ray you would be amazed at how few of our growers or vintners have the least conception of these facts. This is one of the recurring reasons for the lack of quality (or even drinkability) of California wines.

— Maynard Amerine’s October 20th, 1940 letter to Julian Street as quoted in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America, Volume 2

Martin Ray was different.

 

A protégé of Paul Masson, Ray grew up near Masson’s vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

While today his name is synonymous with low quality jug wines made by Constellation Brands, Paul Masson was a pioneer in his own right aiming to make high quality sparkling wines in the style of his homeland of France–even importing his own cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines from Burgundy (likely from his friend Louis Latour’s vineyards).

During the Great Depression, Martin Ray quit his career as a stock broker to joined his neighbor Paul Masson at his winery. Falling in love with the industry, Ray bought the Paul Masson winery in 1936.

Seeing the poor quality that dominated the post-Prohibition wine industry, Ray made it his personal mission (a fanatical obsession as Pinney describes) to bring back the quality levels and standards that trademarked the industry in the Pre-Prohibition days of Haraszthy, Krug, Lily Langtry, Tychson, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum and Georges de Latour.

The Best Of Intentions, The Poorest of Results
Photo from the California Historical Society. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US

A 1935 advertisement for California port with a hefty 18-20% ABV.

But he had an uphill battle with the legacy of bootlegging, speakeasies and moon-shining leaving American drinkers with a taste for things strong and sweet.

Many of the California wines that dominated the market were often fortified with brandy and sweetened up with the use of raisins or very late harvested grapes made from Muscat, Thompson Seedless and Sultana. Thomas Pinney notes those three grapes represented nearly half (44%) of the 1941 vintage alone.

The nature of the industry and a devastating winery fire were too much to overcome. In 1942, Ray accepted an offer from Seagram’s for the Paul Masson brand and what was left of the winery.

The Sky’s The Limit

However, rather than retire, Ray tried his hand again in his fanatical quest for quality. Purchasing land on the hilltop across from the old Paul Masson vineyards, Ray transferred many of those Burgundian cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to plant what is now known as Mount Eden Vineyards–2000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley. His widow Eleanor Ray and their daughter, Barbara Marinacci, detailed Ray’s passion and goals in their book Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray which is a great read for folks wanting to know about this pivotal time in California’s wine history.

By Radicaldreamer29 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Martin Ray vineyard was renamed Mount Eden in 1972 with the legendary Dick Graff and Merry Edwards making the first few post-Ray vintages. Today Jeffery Patterson tends to these grapes.

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense in making Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines that he felt could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

After the grapes were harvested, he rushed to get them crushed and fermenting within an hour of leaving the vine in order to minimize the degradation of quality and exposure to spoilage bacteria.

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in cellar until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

Recognition, at last?
Photo a derivative of photos on Wikimedia Commons uploaded by self under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately by the time Steven Spurrier was touring California to select wines for his famous tasting, the wines of Martin Ray were fading into obscurity.
S

Ray’s efforts and dedication to quality allowed him to ask for and receive some of the highest prices in all of California at the time–$2 a bottle.  Martin Ray wines were even served at the White House for both Johnson and Nixon.

However, Ray still had the cards against him. Many American drinkers of dry wines were more apt to look eastward towards Europe than to the home grown products of California. The costs and expenses of his quality-driven style–plus some bad business decisions with investors–caused Martin Ray to lose his winery in 1970. The new owners did allowed him to spend his remaining years living in a house below the vineyard.

He passed away in 1976–the same year that the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting took place. It seems both fitting and tragic that the moment when Martin Ray’s passion and vision were actualized was when he left this earth.

That year, American wines truly did compete with the best that Europe offered.  The embrace of American consumers came shortly after.

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

Following the Judgement of Paris, the California wine industry entered a boom period of prosperity and acclaim. In the dust, the name of Martin Ray continued to fade into obscurity until 1990 when a young entrepreneur named Courtney Benham stumbled upon a warehouse in San Jose that contained 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines along with Ray’s letters and winemaking notebooks.

That same year Courtney Benham had founded Blackstone Winery with his brother Derek. Intrigued, Benham inquired with the family of Martin Ray about acquiring the rights to Ray’s name.

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

In 2001, the Benham brothers sold Blackstone to Constellation Brands for $140 million and in 2003 acquired the historic Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley to be the new home of Martin Ray Winery.

Blackstone’s winemaker Dennis Hill made the first vintages of the new Martin Ray wines until the 2001 sale. Then Bryan Davison succeeded him. The new winery building in 2003 saw the hiring of Bill Batchelor. The brand expanded to with the introduction of sister labels, Angeline and Courtney Benham Wines.

Batchelor eventually left Martin Ray in 2017 to take over the winemaking operation of Gundlach Bundschu. He was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lindsey Haughton who has been with the winery since 2012. Prior to joining Martin Ray, Haughton worked harvest at Heitz Cellars in Napa and studied at Fresno State University. While at school, she worked at Engelmann Cellars.

The Wines

2016 Martin Ray Sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley ($16-20)

100% Sauvignon blanc sourced from vineyards mostly in the Green Valley of the Russian River.

High intensity nose. Very intriguing mix tropical citrus fruit like starfruit and pomelo with richer honeydew melon and subtle grassiness. It’s not as green as a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but the nose is as intense as one.

On the palate, the citrus notes hold court and add a lemony note. Medium-plus acidity is mouthwatering and fresh but doesn’t stray into tartness. Good balance with medium bodied fruit. Moderate finish brings back some of the honeydew notes.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Pinot noir ($23-28)

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

100% Pinot noir sourced from the Ricioli and Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.

WOW! High, high intensity nose. Mix of dark cherries with red raspberries and some subtle dried floral and earthy notes. With air those earthy notes become more defined as forest floor and cola nut.

On the palate the red fruit comes out more than the dark but feels weightier with medium-plus tannins. Noticeable vanilla oak also brings spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to the party. Medium-plus acidity is very lively and balances the weight of the medium body fruit. Long finish lingers on the juicy fruit at this point. It will become even more complex as the baby fat of oak fades and the floral and earthy notes develop.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-22)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Dry Creek Valley.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruits of black currants and blackberries. More noticeable oak on the nose with toasty vanilla and some clove.

On the palate those jammy dark fruits come through with medium-plus body weight. Ripe medium-plus tannins holds up the fruit and contribute to the smooth mouthfeel with the vanilla. Medium acidity gives some balance but has me wishing for more. Reminds me a lot of the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Moderate length finish continues with the dark fruit and vanilla oak.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the modern incarnation of Martin Ray seems to combine the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” ideals. These wines offer affordable everyday drinking of very good quality.

I know that not every household has $20 wines as their everyday drinkers. But compared to many higher priced $30-40 bottles, these wines certainly make that kind of quality level more attainable.

Compared to many Napa and New Zealand Sauvignon blancs over $20, this Russian River Sauv. blanc is extremely tasty and vibrant.

The Pinot noir, in particular, is outstanding for the price with single vineyard designates from the legendary Sangiacomo vineyard rarely dropping below $35. The Ricioli and Foppiano vineyards in the Russian River Valley also tend to fetch higher prices.

While the Martin Ray lineup certainly does include more expensive wines from the Diamond Mountain District and Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, I don’t think the original Martin Ray would balk at these more affordable bottles from Sonoma.

 

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The Legend of W.B. Bridgman

With more than 900 wineries producing over 17.5 million cases, the future of the Washington wine industry looks bright.

But as we wrap up Taste Washington Wine Month, it would be remiss not to take a look at a pivotal figure of the past who put Washington on the path to such a future–A Canadian ex-pat from Sunnyside, Washington named William B. (W.B.) Bridgman.

Early History and Irrigation Laws

Born in 1877, W.B. Bridgman grew up on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario where his family grew Concord grapes. Ronald Irvine notes in The Wine Project that it was at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota where Bridgman met Walter Hill, son of railroad tycoon James J. Hill. To help pay his way through law school, Bridgman became a tutor for the younger Hill. This arrangement led Bridgman to accompany Walter on a rail journey to the Pacific Northwest in 1899.

Intrigued at the opportunities in this new frontier, Bridgman found work at a local irrigation company. He settled permanently in the Yakima Valley in the town of Sunnyside–about 175 miles southeast of Seattle. An expert in irrigation laws, Bridgman wrote many of the early statutes that outlined access and development of irrigation usage for agriculture in Eastern Washington. Several of his laws are still on the books today.

Due to the rain shadow effect of the Cascade Mountains, a significant portion of the central basin of Eastern Washington averages only around 8 inches of rain a year–most of it in winter months. To grow grapevines that often need 3 to 6 gallons of water a week during the heat of summer to avoid heat stress, the development and use of irrigation proved vital to the growth of viticulture in Washington.

Planting of Harrison Hill and Snipes Mountain

Settling into Sunnyside, Bridgman was elected mayor twice. Then, in 1914, he purchased land on two uplifts that are today separated by Interstate 82. Among the first vines he planted on Harrison Hill were Black Prince (Cinsault), Flame Tokay and Ribier. In 1917, he planted Muscat of Alexandria and Thompson Seedless on Snipes Mountain.

Map a derivative from Washington State AVA map provided by the Washington State Wine Commission for public use.

The Snipes Mountain AVA with a rough approximation of the location of Harrison Hill and present-day Upland Vineyard bisected by Highway 82.

Eventually, Bridgman expanded to plant Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan, Mataro (Mourvedre), Pinot noir, Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Black Malvoisie and many other varieties.

In the early years, Bridgman mostly sold grapes to Italian and Croatian immigrants in Cle Elum and Roslyn. But when Prohibition was enacted in 1919, Bridgman saw demand skyrocket.  A “loophole” in the legislation permitted up to 200 gallons a year of self-made wine. This essentially produced overnight what Ronald Irvine describes as “a nation of home-winemakers.”

Upland Winery

Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2 that by the end of Prohibition, Bridgman had over 165 acres of vinifera planted. He decided to open a winery in 1934, hiring German winemaker Erich Steenborg. A graduate of the famous Geisenheim Institute, Steenborg had worked for several wineries in the Mosel.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Soil sample from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

At Steenborg’s urging and with his connections, Bridgman brought in around a half million cuttings of Riesling, Sylvaner, Gutedel (Chasselas), Blauer Portugieser and Müller-Thurgau vines. (Incidentally, Irvine notes that most of the Riesling cuttings that Upland brought in turned out to be Scheurebe.)

Named Upland Winery, Bridgman and Steenborg desired to make dry European-style table wines from vinifera grapes. However, post-Prohibition wine drinkers favored sweet dessert and fortified wines made from a mix of vinifera, hybrid and labrusca grape varieties.  To pay the bills, Upland produced “ports” and “sherries” to meet market demand.

When Steenborg left in 1951, Bridgman hired Marie Christensen, the winery’s lab assistant, to take over winemaking. Her promotion made her the first woman in the state to head winemaking at a major winery.

Changing Markets and Challenges

Dealing with market forces that favored sweet and boozy wines eventually proved too much for Bridgman. He sold the winery in 1960 to George Thomas. Thomas changed the name to Santa Rosa Winery.  The winery continued to operate it in some degree until shuttering in 1972.

Today, the Newhouse family own the old buildings of Upland Winery and vineyards, having purchased the property in 1968.  Several of Bridgman’s original 1917 Muscat of Alexandria vines are still producing grapes. Paul Gregutt speculates in Washington Wine that these may be the oldest Vitis vinifera vines in the state.

In addition to selling grapes from Upland Vineyard to over 20 different wineries like Betz, DeLille, Pomum, K Vintners and Kerloo–the Newhouses produce wine under Todd Newhouse’s Upland Estate and Steve Newhouse’s Newhouse Family Vineyards made in partnership with Ron Bunnell.

Influence on the Washington Wine Industry

Grenache made by Kerloo Cellars from Upland Vineyard.

If Dr. Walter Clore is the “Father of Washington Wine,” W. B. Bridgman can rightfully be called “the Grandfather.”

After Prohibition, Bridgman and his Upland Winery were charter members of the Washington Wine Producers Association. Founded in 1935, Bridgman was the only charter member from the east side of the mountains as most of the winemaking during that period was done on the west side of the state by fellow charter members St. Charles Winery and Davis Winery on Stretch Island, Wright Winery in Everett, Werberger Winery on Harstine Island and Pommerelle Winery in Seattle.

In Goldendale, Bridgman advised Samuel Hill (who married Walter Hill’s sister, Mary) to plant a mix of vinifera and American hybrids developed by Thomas Volney Munson in what is now Maryhill in the Columbia Gorge AVA.

Dr. Walter Clore

Pinot gris from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

In 1940, Bridgman encouraged a young horticulturalist from Washington State University named Walter Clore to plant wine grape varieties at the Irrigation Experiment Station in Prosser. With Bridgman supplying many of the initial vine cuttings, this experimental vineyard would eventually become known as “The Wine Project” and include over 250 different varieties of vinifera, hybrid and American wine grape varieties.

Observing the success of several varieties in the vineyard, Clore authored academic papers extolling the viability of a wine industry in Washington State. Spurred on by the results of Dr. Clore’s work, the Washington wine industry today is responsible for more than 27,000 jobs. Overall, the industry has an economic impact of nearly 15 billion dollars for the state.

Associated Vintners

In 1954, W.B. Bridgman sold grapes to a group of University of Washington professors making wine under the name of Associated Vintners. Impressed by the wines produced by Lloyd Woodburne, Bridgman gave the young academics advice and encouragement in their endeavors. In 1960, Bridgman met with the AV group in Seattle to discuss the future of the Washington wine industry.

That meeting would lead to a long term contract for grapes. This eventually turned into Associated Vintners purchasing the 5.5 acres Harrison Hill Vineyard in 1962 from Bridgman. Uprooting most of the older plantings, AV replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other red grape varieties. While Associated Vintners is now known as Columbia Winery and owned by Gallo, those Cab plantings at Harrison Hill Vineyard (managed by the Newhouse family) are today some of the oldest and most prized plantings in the state.

Legacy Today

A Columbia Valley Syrah made under the W.B. Bridgman label by Precept Brands.

William B. Bridgman died in 1968 at the age of 90, leaving a last imprint on the Washington wine industry even as his name has faded into obscurity.

Beyond the irrigation laws he authored that allowed viticulture to prosper, the roots of Upland Vineyard and Harrison Hill Vineyard continue to produce world-class wine grapes. The first Chardonnay in the state was planted here. Mike Sauer used cuttings from AV’s replanting of Harrison Hill to plant Red Willow Vineyard in the 1970s.

To help keep the name of Bridgman alive, Washington Hills Winery (co-founded by Brian Carter) created a select line of wines in 1993 to honor the pioneer. When Precept Brands acquired Washington Hills in 2003, they kept the Bridgman Cellars label and today still produce wines that bare the name and legacy of W.B. Bridgman.

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