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Resurrecting Napa history — Bill Davies wines are a 'fresh take on old times'

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Bill and Abbie

Bill Davies and his daughter, Abbie, with the new Billy D and Ramble wines. 

For decades two of the Napa Valley’s most endearing people were the late Belle and Barney Rhodes, who planted Martha’s Vineyard with Cabernet and who hosted dozens of visitors long before the valley made world-class wine.

In the early 1980s, Belle told me a charming tale about one of the valley’s early successes — a white wine called Green Hungarian. It was made by Souverain in Rutherford (later renamed Burgess Cellars) by pioneering winemaker Lee Stewart.

It was an unlikely success since the obscure grape Green Hungarian is rather ordinary. The wine was pale, sweet, and lacked distinction.

“I ran into Lee in a market some years ago,” Belle told me, “and I said to him, ‘Lee, I just tasted your latest Green Hungarian and it’s the best you’ve ever done.’

“And Lee said, ‘Belle, I’ve just discovered the secret to making great Green Hungarian. The less Green Hungarian you put in it, the better it is!’”

The story came back to me last week during a chat I had with Bill Davies, the scion of the late Jack and Jamie Davies, the founders of sparkling wine house Schramsberg.

One of Napa Valley’s earliest iconic wineries, Schramsberg was the first Napa winery to produce premium (French-method) sparkling wines. They were so exemplary that they were among the first to put the valley on the world’s wine map and were taken to China by President Richard Nixon.

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Bill Davies

Bill Davies, the son of Jack and Jamie Davies, has released his new wines, which harken back to the styles and varieties popular when he was a boy growing up at Schramsberg Vineyards. 

(Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon had already set a quality standard for the valley’s red wine image, but long ago the grape’s name was seen as unpronounceable — so much so that the company called it “Beaulieu Vineyard Burgundy”!)

Growing up at Schramsberg and working in the ancient, hand-hewed caves, Bill Davies tasted his share of, and gained an appreciation for, very dry wine — not the “faux dry” of so many soft, flaccid wines these days.

Davies also got a taste of most of the wines then extant in the area, which included the likes of French Colombard, Charbono, Gamay Noir, Carignan, Flora and Barbera.

In our wide-ranging chat, Bill said he loved the diversity of the valley back then — and he also liked the honest, crisp, lower-alcohol wines of the period that went so well with food.

He also made some disparaging remarks about some of today’s soft wines with high alcohols, low acids, and residual sugars that appeal to the same people who order their Starbucks’ “coffee” drinks with seven shots of hazelnut “flavoring.”

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Ramble Chenin Blanc

Ramble Chenin Blanc.

I think of such buyers as the philosophical equivalent of those who bought Lee Stewart’s Green Hungarian.

His remarks were melodious to my auricles and led me to truly appreciate two new brands that Davies has just released. A reason is that all of the wines rely on grapes that long ago fell out of the mainstream — grapes that thrived about 1943 when Lee Stewart bought established his winery here.

Two more reasons that the projects are special to me: all the wines are dry and all have low alcohols.

What marks the two new brands, called Ramble and Billy D, is that the grapes used include Carignane, French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Gamay — but thankfully not Green Hungarian!

The brands are parallel: they try to recapture some of the rapidly vanishing history of Napa Valley. It’s a look back to a time when Napa was a nascent wine culture.

In the line of wines that he calls Ramble, there is a 2019 Chenin Blanc, which through the early 1980s was still grown in the valley (a tiny amount still flourishes) and which made an excellent off-dry white wine

“I have a lot of nostalgia for that period,” said Bill, “so doing this was like going back to my roots.

“One of the grapes that got me going on this was Chenin Blanc, which was still very popular here in the 1960s and ‘70s. There must have been a reason why those varieties were growing around here in the ‘60s and ‘70s. (Napa) made some very fine Chenin Blancs back then.”

He found old-vine Chenin Blanc grapes (planted in 1944) in Mendocino County for his dry Chenin Blanc. It’s bottled under the Ramble label.

“Chenin makes a great light wine around the world. It’s an important grape in the Loire Valley and in South Africa, and we’re exploring different ideas on how to make it in the future.” His 2019 Chenin has 12.9% alcohol.

For his Ramble rosé, Bill chose Gamay Noir, which he’s calling Valdiguie Rosé, using the grape’s synonym. It has 12.2% alcohol.

“My family used Gamay for the (sparkling) Cuvée de Gamay that we made. It was on the wine list at Chez Panisse.”

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wine bottle shot

The Ramble Valdiguié Rosé and the Bill D Mountain Barbera. 

Ramble’s red wine homage to the past is Carignan, a grape Billy called magical.

“For the Billy D wines, what appealed to me was to turn to these long-time lost varieties, and I really liked the great acid in French Colombard — a grape that has excellent acidity.”

“I’ve always had a penchant for higher acidity in wines, and the Colombard is really light and tasty.

“Also, I loved the old Louis Martini Mountain Barberas,” he said but he couldn’t find that variety planted locally, so he went east to the Sierra Foothills and found some excellent older vine material that made excellent red wine with great acidity.

“Our Barbera is my style of wine,” he said, “brisk and crisp — not that overwrought, syrupy, Mega-purple stuff you see all over the place these days.”

He called his two lines “a fresh take on old times,” and he said he is continuing to seek other grape varieties that were more popular in the past than they are today, along with methods for producing wine and haven’t been explored in decades.

The Ramble wines are all in traditional 750 mL bottles, but the Billy D wines are all in either 500 mL bottles or 1-liter bottles.

Prices are fair. Ramble 750s include 2019 Valdiguiué Rosé ($22), 2019 Chenin Blanc ($24), and 2019 Carignane ($28). Billy D 500s include 2019 French Colombard, 2019 Daydreamer Rosé (1.5% alcohol, $11), and a 2019 Sierra Foothills Barbera ($13).

The BillyD 500s are screwcapped.

Both lines are so new that retail availability is still spotty. They are available on line, https://www.billydwines.com/

Davies also soon will announce a new line of imported wines from his third project, Longitude Wines.

Wine of the Week

2019 Ramble Carignan, Mendocino County, “Buddha’s Dharma” ($28): A hint of laurel leaf adds distinctiveness to the tart cherry nose. The crispness of this wine is due in part to its low alcohol (12.0%)! It is from 60-year-old vines and its bone dry. It reminded me of a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc.

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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.