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Van der Kamp Cellars

Sonoma County region

Van der Kamp has climbed into the elite category of American sparkling wines

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. This re-release is made from the same base wine as the famed 1986 English Cuvée. This spectacular wine has perhaps garnered more awards and praise than any other California sparkling wine in recent memory. It captured an amazing 16 medals at major wine competitions, including numerous Gold Medals and the prestigious U.S. National Champion award at the World Wine Championships. So, after we caught our breath, we quickly jumped at the chance to feature this legendary wine once again.

“All my life I’ve been striving to make ‘The Great Bottle’ of California sparkling wine. I believe the 1986 vintage may be it!” exclaims owner, Martin Van der Kamp. Indeed, the 1986 Brut Reserve is a fresh, lush, toasty wine full of complexities. After 6½ years of aging on the yeast, it is one of, if not the most aged Brut on the market today. “Most California sparklings are not made to age well,” says Martin. “The difference is in the grapes,” he adds. “We highly scrutinize our grape selection, looking for only the best quality fruit from very small, select vineyards. We’re after fruit from low-yield, well-exposed vineyards, similar to those of France. The berries are smaller but more intensely flavored,” he continues. “Then we put more care into the winemaking process itself to allow for longer aging.”

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's Champagne region 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.

The Van der Kamps

Picture of The Van der Kamps

Martin Van der Kamp brings enormous energy and intense desire to all his endeavors. He splits his time between his family, his business and his love of wine. Raised in nearby Calistoga, Martin was surrounded by a lifestyle that instilled a do-it-the-best-you-know-how, work ethic.

The challenge of wine making captivated Martin early in life and has held on with a vengeance. At 15 years old he worked his way into a job at the famous Schramsberg Cellars in Napa. It was this milestone in his life that set a course for Martin. He knew then, that one day he too, would make great Champagne - perhaps even better. After 3 years of apprenticeship in the winery business he seized an opportunity to work with Beringer Brothers Winery. Soon he was virtually running their day-to-day operations. A few years later he ventured out on his own, eventually starting his own company. he initially started a jewelry distributing business, but it gradually evolved into a highly successful, nationwide, sales and marketing company.

In the late nineteen seventies, Martin finally began to develop the ideas planted at Schramsberg - a winery of his own. The success of his company allowed him to finally begin pursuing his dream. He made several trips to France visiting the top Champagne houses to further enhance his knowledge of wine production. 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 on another on a regular basis. With a little help from his mentors Andre Tchelistcheff and Roy Raymond, he was off and running.

"I have never intended to make any money in this business," he says a matter of factly. "If I had, I'd be out of it by now!" At the winery's production level of 5,000 cases, it's indeed a tough task to turn a profit. The overhead is kept low by sharing facilities with Landmark Vineyards and there are no paid employees except for a bookkeeper. He doesn't have a big winery ad budget, so his sales come mostly from discriminating restaurants and wine shops who have discovered Van der Kamp Cellars by word of mouth (no pun intended).

"I put more care into the winemaking process than the larger wineries," he says. "I'll continue to vary the blending techniques, and to age my wines longer than anyone around here, in pursuit of THE great bottle of Champagne!" And what happens when eh finally makes this great bottle? "I'll probably retire," he says. Not likely.