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King Harvest

Bringing in the grapes with a master winemaker

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The frenetic sound of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee played in my head as we flew down Napa Valley.

I was riding shotgun (and white-knuckled) with Craig Roemer, winemaker and vineyard manager for Schramsberg Vineyards, the sparkling wine house in Napa Valley. We were visiting vineyards during the heated and hectic days of early September's harvest, checking out the sugar, acids and pH balance of the grapes destined for Schramsburg's fabulous bubblies. Since I avoided science classes like the clap during college, I didn't know the difference between pH and pHat. But Craig, down-to-earth and seemingly calm amidst the chaos, patiently explained that a correct pH level at harvest prevents the grape juice from getting polluted by bacteria.

Schramsberg sources fruit from over 80 different vineyards, covering four counties. The tireless Roemer scouts potential vineyard sites while training for cycling races, and he speaks of the vineyards like friends, touching and tasting the grapes like a politician shaking hands at a rally. He even gets wistful when describing certain plots of land -- and confesses he downplays the quality of some of the fruit to prevent other winemakers from sniffing around. You can feel the indomitable passion he has for his craft.

I go groupie when he talks. Winemakers are my rock stars; Bono's got nothing on this one.

This year, the harvest is two weeks late, due to a delayed spring/summer season across northern California, but chardonnay was pouring in while I watched. Craig gets up early and goes home late for about six weeks, heralding in this year's fruit like a sergeant major. Sparkling wine grapes are picked earlier to achieve more acidity and less sugar. But they are still considered ripe enough to eat, by our standards. You haven't lived until you've tasted the syrupy sweet taste of freshly crushed grapes. Add some yeast to start fermentation and a week later the juice tastes bracingly zesty with a distinct watermelon flavor. The day after, aromas evolve into passion fruit, lime and quinine -- no hint of watermelon remaining. Then in about two weeks, when the yeasts have eaten themselves to death, the liquid has developed a distinctive sparkling wine taste, like Grandma's homemade wheat bread slathered with bitter lemon jelly. From there, the wine spends six months in a stainless steel tank then gets bottled for its second fermentation to create the signature bubbles.

This winery was established in 1965, when Jack and Jamie Davies founded Schramsberg during the wine boom in Napa Valley. They took over a ramshackle property in Calistoga that German immigrant Jacob Schram founded in the mid-1800s and began shaping a product no one else was creating -- quality California sparkling wine. They did something right; in 1972, Richard Nixon carried their 1969 Blanc de Blanc sparkler to China with him. Many other presidents have served Schramsberg since then, but perhaps the biggest milestone came in 2005, when the French ordered 28 cases. The stuck-up birthplace of bubbly ordering California sparkling wine? Now that's big.

And Craig made it happen. Right about now, his wife is probably getting to see him again. The bumblebee can finally get some rest and maybe pop open the fruits of former years.

Recommended Wines

Schramsberg J Schram 1999 Their signature high-end wine, the one all the grapes yearn to become. Soft, creamy and absolutely dreamy. Very dry. Baked bread, tart green apple and some tropical fruit seduce your tongue. Flawless wine. Expensive, but worth it. Sw = 1. $80. *****

Schramsberg 2003 Brut Rosé Dry yet fabulously fruity with vibrant strawberry, elegant cherry and a dash of allspice. Sounds odd, but it works. Sw = 2. $36. ****

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana..

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