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Q&A: Fred Schrader, Schrader Cellars

Fred Schrader pictured with his wife, Carol Colesworthy Schrader
© Schrader Cellars | Fred Schrader pictured with his wife, Carol Colesworthy Schrader
Fred Schrader is the founder and proprietor of Schrader Cellars in California's Napa Valley. The winery made history in 2008, when its CCS and “Old Sparky” wines became the first to be awarded three successive 100-point scores by Robert Parker.

Where were you born?

I was born in Englewood, New Jersey.

What drew you to wine?

I’ve always been in the art business and in the very beginning of young adulthood, I met a man who had moved to St Petersburg, Florida, where I grew up, and he was big into wine.

Every night I’d go over to his house and he would pull out great Bordeauxs and Burgundies; in the 1970's in Florida that was not your normal evening. His name was Gerald Randolph and he opened my eyes, and ever since then I’ve thought what a great fun thing wine is to be associated with.

How do you feel about your "cult" status?

I’ve always got a kick out of cult status!

How did you obtain it?

I think it is all in the quality. I mean, the point of the matter is that no one would talk about your wine, or anybody’s wine, unless the quality was there. So all of our team – everybody that’s involved – is always paying attention to detail. And that’s the most important thing in winemaking. If you do that, you’re going to have consistency.

One of the other things that makes life easy for us is, we are non-interventionist winemakers. So when the grapes come in, we're not like, 'I can’t wait to get my hands on them, we’re gonna manipulate this wine and make it really fabulous.' You basically let the wine take care of itself and we can do that because we’re small lots. If you were making 15,000 cases then you would be in a whole different situation. 

So you think this attention to detail is the point of difference between you and other wineries?

Absolutely! It’s just that whole method. Thomas, our winemaker, is a genius in the vineyard, and it’s a little bit of being a soothsayer, because you don’t know what the weather’s going to be during the harvest. So you make calls about canopies and yields and what you drop, and fortunately we have control over what the yields are in the vineyard.

Is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery?

We say 90/10: 90 vineyard, 10 genius.

L-R: Ready-to-harvest cabernet sauvignon grapes; Schrader checks on progress; hand-picked grapes go into small half-ton bins
© Schrader Cellars | L-R: Ready-to-harvest cabernet sauvignon grapes; Schrader checks on progress; hand-picked grapes go into small half-ton bins

What influence do critics’ scores have on your wines?

In the very beginning, we didn’t have any reviews or ratings, but we knew what we wanted to make and how we were going to go about it, and we instantly had loyal fans from the start. The James Laube [Wine Spectator] and Robert Parker ratings obviously made demand for our wines soar, because they reached so far worldwide. It’s a tremendous compliment.

You currently have 7,000 or 8,000 people on your mailing waiting list. How do you feel about that?

It’s market forces. You know, the other thing is, sometimes people come in and out of wine – it’s not unusual. Some people start drinking wine and taste cabernet and think it’s the best thing they’re ever gonna drink. Three years later, they decide they only ever want to drink Burgundy. Wine is always evolving, tastes are always changing. So the mailing list has an element of float to it which is completely natural.

How long do people have to wait to get on your mailing list?

As a rule it’s been two or three years on the wait list and then they’ve gotten on. We think that’s pretty good.

Who is “Old Sparky”?

Old Sparky is supposed to be me.

There’s a dragon on the label, right?

A fire-breathing, flame-throwing dragon with a crown. It’s a spoof, you know, it’s fun. Then the Latin writing around the edge is a mystery to itself, so if you can figure out what it says we’ll give you a bottle!

What does CCS stand for?

Well, it’s for Carol’s initials. So it’s Carol Colesworthy Schrader. We’ve got some people that say it’s cute, cuddly and sweet… It’s actually a specific block in To Kalon that produces great wine.

What’s so special about the To Kalon vineyard?

Well, here’s the thing. To Kalon was found in 1868 by a visionary called Hamilton Crabb, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the vineyard was world famous. It won awards in Paris and all kinds of things. So it’s always been just this amazing site. And one of the great things about To Kalon is, if it’s raining like crazy for three days and you go out to To Kalon the next day, it is dry. The drainage there has to be something else.

In 1868, when Hamilton Crabb came to the Napa Valley, all there was were bears and Indians. I mean there might have been a couple of vineyards at most. So he really got to see what the topography of the ground was in its natural state. And that’s the site he picked and I think that’s the whole key to this thing. If you can go somewhere and it’s a virgin territory and you pick out the best site, you’re in pretty good shape.

L-R: A cabernet row marker in the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard; winemaker Thomas Brown examines zinfandel clusters
© To fill in | L-R: A cabernet row marker in the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard; winemaker Thomas Brown examines zinfandel clusters

Tell us about the 2012 vintage.

Well, 2012 was a fabulous harvest and we’re very excited. It was kinda like, in a historic reference, 2005; it was a huge harvest. The 2007 was probably one of the greatest harvests we’ve ever had for our wine. And [with 2012] we got the quantity of the 2005 with the quality of the 2007. So we couldn’t be happier.

What are you most proud of in your wine?

Consistency. There’s a thing in the real estate business,‘location, location, location,’ and early on, John Wetlaufer [Marcassin] said to me: ‘Producer, producer, producer.’ If you are uncompromising, then you can come forward every year with a fabulous product. You just need to stay the course, do everything right, and make sure once again that you’re paying attention to detail. 

Who are your wine heroes?

Well, obviously young Thomas Brown [Schrader's winemaker] who, when I first hired him, had never made a bottle of cabernet in his life. We talked about the protocol that we wanted to have, and how we wanted to go about making the wine, and he’s hit a home run! Second is probably Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer of Marcassin and chardonnay fame. When I conceived and founded the Colgin vineyards in 1992 they were my winemakers, and they really were the ones that taught me all about attention to detail. 

And then the people I’ve met over a period of time that I’ve been honored to drink their wine with them personally. Henri Jayer: I spent the day with him in Burgundy; it was just magical. Henri Bonneau in Châteauneuf: I spent another day with him. Both of them were complete gentlemen, total characters, and completely and passionately devoted to making wine.

What would make the world a better place?

I wouldn’t know where to start. We’ve just gotta keep our head down, mind our business and do the best we can.

In the end what really matters?

I think that you’re dealt challenges and you deal with them as best you can, and you put your best foot forward and you keep going.

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