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Van der Kamp Cellars - Napa Valley


California sparkling wine captures an amazing 16 medals at major wine competitions

You asked for it, so we got it!! Those of you who have been Gold Medal Wine Club members for over two years may well remember the exquisite Van der Kamp sparkling wines which were featured in the fall of 1992. Incredibly, we still get calls today from members wishing to find more of the 1985 Brut or the 1986 English Cuvée which were featured. To our pleasant surprise, we received a call awhile back from Martin and Dixie Van der Kamp who informed us they were re-releasing a small amount of the 1986 vintage.

Martin Van der Kamp should know winemaking. He grew up in Napa and as a young boy, developed an early enthusiasm for the craft. “While other kids my age were out playing, I was tasting wine and learning winemaking from their dads,” he muses. One of the teachers he befriended was legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who took Martin under his wing. “Andre was not only instrumental in getting my own winery started, he was also a dear family friend and godfather to three of my children,” Martin says fondly.

Martin’s unusually precocious interest in wine landed him a job at sparkling wine producer Schramsberg at the ripe old age of 15. It was a catalyst for what turned into a lifelong passion—pursuing that ‘great bottle’ of California champagne. “From that point on, I never lost sight of what I wanted to do,” says Martin.

In the mid 1970s Martin and Andre began to formulate different styles and cuvées of sparkling wine. In 1981, satisfied at last with their extensive experimentation, Martin produced his first commercial sparkling wine. The wine met with instant success. “I received two calls the same day,” Martin remembers. “One from the Orange County wine competition informing me I had won a Gold Medal; the other from the White House asking me to send the wine for a State dinner. I thought it was a big joke that some of my buddies were playing on me!” he laughs.

A joke it was not. And since that triumphant beginning, Martin has been concocting winner after winner—but in relative obscurity. “At 4,000 cases we’re definitely the smallest sparkling wine producer in California,” says Martin. “This is not a money making venture—it’s a romantic adventure. I love the pursuit.” Martin claims he will never have his own winery facility and will never make a profit producing sparkling wine. “That’s just the nature of the business,” he reveals. “Even the large sparkling wine producers are not making any money at this. The costs are too high,” he insists.

For the first seven vintages, Martin used the facilities of St. Francis Winery to make his sparkling wine. He now uses Landmark Vineyards which built a facility a little closer to the Van der Kamp home in Sonoma county. In 1990 he bought 60 acres of ranch land and has been developing about 30 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon. He is gradually transitioning from all purchased grapes to using just his own. Control of quality is a key factor to Martin. Not only in the grape selection but how the grapes are grown and how the wine is made. For health reasons, no pesticides or chemicals are used to grow the grapes that go into his sparkling wine. Nor are sulfites added during the winemaking process. It is a radical departure from the conventional wisdom that sulfites should be added as a preservative agent. Interestingly, Martin discovered that the carbon dioxide in sparkling wine serves as an excellent natural preservative. As a result, their sparkling wines do not have added sulfites and are not required to carry a sulfite warning label on the bottle.

Van der Kamp Cellars is a true family operation. Martin’s wife, Dixie, helps with the sales and administrative work. Son, Ulysses, is the vineyard manager. And Martin is the winemaker. Their five other young children have also helped at one time or another. Their production will stay below the 5,000 case mark insists Martin. “I’ll make less Brut and augment production with some Pinot Noir,” says Martin. “I’ll focus on strictly aged Brut like the ‘86 vintage featured in your Club,” he adds. “The 1986 vintage Brut is a one of a kind. It’s a blend of 3 kinds of Chardonnay and 10 different kinds of Pinot Noir. There is no other Brut like it on the market,” he says proudly.

In 1959 fifteen-year-old Martin Van der Kamp went to work for Schramsberg Champagne Cellars to learn the basics of sparkling wine production. This was not the first step but rather the culmination of early efforts to graduate into the real world of winemaking. Up until then, Martin’s unusually advanced preoccupation with wine had been helped along by the likes of preeminent winemakers Beringer and Heitz. Instead of hanging out with his school buddies, Martin was learning wine appreciation from their fathers!

The challenge of winemaking captivated Martin and held on with a vengeance. His experience at Schramsberg was an early milestone that set a lasting course throughout his life. He knew that some day he, too, would make a great champagne like Schramsberg—perhaps even better.

After three years of apprenticeship at Schramsberg, Martin jumped over to Beringer Winery to work for his friend Romona Beringer. He was a quick study and soon took over the public relations duties for the winery.

Martin’s wine career took a detour several years later when an opportunity arose to start his own business. He initially started a jewelry distributing company. That endeavor gradually evolved into a ‘business development’ company. Through the company’s extensive nationwide sales force, they help firms plug their products into an existing distribution network. Martin started the company 22 years ago and today is the reason that he can afford not to make any money in the wine business!

The success of this business venture allowed Martin to once again pursue his dream of making the great bottle of champagne. He made several trips to France to visit the top Champagne houses to further his winemaking education. In the process he became friends with Roger Viron, the blending master of Dom Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house in France. Today they still consult with one another on a regular basis.

In 1981 Martin ventured closer to his dream by making his first commercial sparkling wine. “My friends Andre Tchelistcheff and Roy Raymond helped tremendously,” Martin said. “They set me up with all the winemaking equipment and provided consulting help when I needed it,” he explained.

The rest, as they say, is history. Van der Kamp has climbed into the elite category of American sparkling wines. Odds are most of you have never heard of Van der Kamp Cellars before receiving this month’s delivery. But we’re willing to bet that after you taste their superb sparkling wine, you will not forget.



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