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The Wine King

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1972, President Nixon took Schramsberg sparkling wine on his historic 1972 visit to China. Any other winemaker would have taken out newspaper ads, staged a grand dinner party or put out flowery press releases hoping for headlines. But Schramsberg’s Jack Davies did nothing at all.

This is just one reason that Davies, one of Napa Valley’s most dynamic leaders and a man known by his fellow winemakers as the conscience of the wine industry, is practically unknown to the general public.

Many know the great image-making of Robert Mondavi and the great wine-making of Andre Tchelistcheff and dozens of others. But Davies has always declined the limelight, and outside this narrow valley, his name just draws puzzled looks.

Even so, Davies and his wife, Jamie, founders of the sparkling wine house Schramsberg, deserve a huge share of the credit for making Napa Valley a world-recognized producer of fine wine.

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It was 1965 when Davies decided to move his family to Napa Valley and open a winery. Davies, who received an MBA from Harvard and had held various management positions, was then vice president of Ducommon Inc., an international industrial management and supply company.

“Jamie and I wanted to be in a business to make something together,” Davies says, “something other than gypsum wallboard [one of Ducommon’s major products], something artistic.”

They acquired a run-down winery with a rickety home and had to chase bats out of both.

It was a dreary time for the valley. Now-bustling State Highway 29 was a little-traveled country road. The county had just a dozen wineries and no international acclaim.

“In the mid-1960s, Napa Valley was a depressed agricultural area with prune trees, apricots, walnuts and hay fields,” recalls John Trefethen, owner of Trefethen Vineyards, who got to know the Davieses in 1968 when he and his wife, Janet, began farming vineyards in Yountville, Calif.

It took a visionary to move here then. Warren Winiarski, who later founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, was the only other winemaker of note to move here in 1965, and his first job (he had left a position as a professor at the University of Chicago) was pulling hoses for Lee Stewart at the old Souverain Winery. There was no Robert Mondavi Winery; Robert was still working with his brother, Peter, at Charles Krug.

“What wineries were here were all in a state of disrepair, and the wine industry was very small,” Trefethen says. “The percentage of [agriculture that was] vineyards was nowhere near the 100% that it is now in the ag preserve.”

The Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, which now encompasses the Napa wine country, was just a concept then--a proposal to make 40-acre parcels the minimum size of land for agricultural purposes. The aim was to protect the wine country from being developed as tract homes.

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Less than two years after settling in the valley, Davies concluded that the ag preserve concept was vital to the continuation of farming here, and he leaped feet-first into the controversy.

“It was a very divisive issue,” Trefethen says. “People who had lived in Napa for a long time were opposed to the ag preserve. They thought land prices would drop if it passed. But Jack saw the need to protect the vineyards.”

Powerful forces opposed the preserve, including John Daniel, the late owner of Inglenook Vineyards and a pioneer in the valley. But Davies went up and down the valley, knocking on doors to get industry and consumer support for the preserve, and he won.

Although he had not been an activist before, Davies says, “We were very eager and willing to get involved with an issue that important. We were very committed to helping preserve the valley.”

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The 1968 passage of the ag preserve is now seen as the major catalyst of subsequent vineyard development in the Napa Valley. For one thing, it stopped cold any thoughts of “ranchette” development.

“It established a base for wineries and vineyards to go forward, with the message that this is an agricultural valley,” Trefethen says. “It eliminated the thinking about trading land for houses. [Residential] land speculation became moot.”

With the adoption of the ag, a public vote on development issues would be now be required. “About 18 months ago, some Texas people bought some land south of the city of Napa,” Davies says. “They had plans to put in a major housing development, with a golf course. Well, because of the ag preserve, they had to go to a public vote. The voters rejected the plan by an 85%-15% margin.”

In 1970, another major controversy arose when the state announced plans to put a four-lane freeway through the heart of Napa Valley. Most vintners viewed the plan as a stake in the heart; developers saw it as a gold mine.

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“The freeway would have gone right straight up the middle of the valley, with two or three overpasses,” Davis says. “It would have turned around everything. It would have enhanced development. It would have destroyed the entire character of the valley.” Davies envisioned gas stations, fast-food outlets and convenience stores.

So, while others were more vocal, Davies, working behind the scenes, succeeded in getting then-state Sen. Peter Behr to take Napa County out of the highway plan.

The Davieses became embroiled in many other issues during the next 15 years. In 1986, came one of the most contentious controversies in valley history, another land-use question: What is a winery?

At the time, some wineries wanted to stage concerts and plays, do art shows and other non-wine events. Mike Martini, winemaker at Louis M. Martini Winery, was then president of the Napa Valley Vintners. He recalls: “Jack’s position was, in defining a winery, you had to define where tourism fits in. Jack put together a policy statement defining tourism and then he took it to the Federal Trade Commission to make sure we weren’t in jeopardy of violating trade regulations.”

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“Voices were being raised on both sides,” recalls David Graves, founder of Saintsbury Winery. “Things got very heated over what a winery really was, and Davies was the only voice of reason.”

“I did walk down the middle,” Davies says. “You have to see each winery’s point of view and try to accommodate everyone if you can.”

Davies says he drafted the policy statement after talking to key people. “Because of our involvement with the ag preserve, we felt we had a good idea about the feeling of a great many people in the valley as to what sort of character was best for this area.”

“Yeah, there was a lot of noise about that issue,” Martini says, “but we all agreed that we didn’t want an amusement park atmosphere here. And Jack got it [right].”

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Davies says his plan, which was adopted by the county planning commission, respects wineries’ rights to do reasonable promotional activities but limits major activities that have a detrimental effect.

Of course, the battles aren’t over. “There are still some people who would like to expand the roads and do other things that would destroy parts of what we have built. Small battles are always going on to break it down,” he says, “but there are plenty of people here to protect it.”

In the last few months, Davies has been stricken with an as-yet-unnamed degenerative nerve ailment that has left him weakened. It’s a trying time for the Davies family, but in an interview, Davies said he hopes the drugs he has begun taking will stop the degeneration.

His spirit and determination remain evident. At 74, he still heads his world-famous sparkling wine company (production: 30,000 cases a year). Just two weeks ago, he chaired a board meeting.

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Tucker Catlin, now general manager of Juliana Vineyards in Napa Valley, says the best word to describe Jack Davies is “decorum.”

“I really love the guy,” he says. “He has a good heart and a great head. He’s a rare soul. It was a growth experience to work with Davies. He stretches your limits, and at the same time he’s restraining himself.

“Jack defined the Napa Valley wine culture. He never undervalued the importance of a handshake, and he never hung around for the praise. He is magnetized by the intellectual part, and when it comes time to take credit, he’s onto another project.”

“Imagine yourself thinking about what you’re going to name your winery in 1965,” says Stu Smith, co-owner of Smith-Madrone Vineyards. “Most people name it after themselves. But Jack and Jamie didn’t name it ‘Davies,’ as others might have done.

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“What did Jack’s mind, heart and soul come up with? A bow toward history, toward context, toward the land, toward Robert Louis Stevenson’s [book] ‘Silverado Squatters,’ toward poetry. He named it after Jacob Schram, who founded the property in 1862.

“That’s what Jack wanted to say. That really says Napa Valley.”

In a 1979 interview, Jack Davies rose from his easy chair in the cavernous front room of his ancient Victorian home, strolled in an arc and addressed the question of why the entrance to his winery was marked only by a small, unobtrusive sign that says simply “Schramsberg Vineyards.”

“We’ll never have a flashing neon hand pointing the way up here,” he said. “It may be OK for others, but not for us.”

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Last week, Davies smiled when reminded of that story. “Still no neon,” he said.


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