Schug Carneros Estate Winery

The Schug Winery Building, courtesy Schug Winery
The Schug Winery Building, courtesy Schug Winery

It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Walter Schug.  This guy has been working in the California wine industry since 1966, when he was a grape buyer for Gallo.  He is still hip-deep in making some phenomenal pinot noirs and has been continuously since he started working for Joseph Phelps in 1973.  Our conversation ranged from the latest on this year’s harvest – “It went on a long time,” he noted – to the history of the California wine industry to the development of yeast in Germany.

We discovered the winery last spring as we were tooling around the Carneros region.  They do make other wines there, but the pinots are what got us excited.  These are lovely, gentle food wines – not the high-alcohol fruit bombs that, as Schug put it, were made to impress Robert Parker.  It may not be the done thing these days, but that doesn’t seem to bother Schug.

He started out making wine in the Rheingau region of Germany, following in the footsteps of his father, who oversaw pinot noir production in Assmannshausen (as in the yeast, for you wine geeks – it was developed in the winery his father oversaw for the German government).

“I was born and raised with pinot noir,” Schug said, pointing out that his father managed the only red wine facility in “an ocean of riesling.”

Schug, himself, got his enology degree in Germany in 1959 and eventually found his way to California, where, as noted above, he worked for Gallo, touring Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties to find the best grapes for the huge winemaker.  He went on to make wine for Joseph Phelps, in particular, pinot noir – the grape of his youth.  Unfortunately, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Americans were just getting the idea that varietal wines were more sophisticated than jug wines and there wasn’t much of a market for pinot noir.

“At the time, nobody really believed in it,” Schug said.  “But I believed in it.  We were only making 1500 cases out of 80,000 cases.”

Phelps decided to discontinue making pinot noir, and Schug was crushed.  He went to Phelps and talked the winery owner into letting Schug buy the grapes and make his own pinot noir that he would distribute under his own label, and thus Schug Winery was born.  By 1983, Schug had trained a successor and went off on his own.

“I was out there by myself,” he said, “my wife and I.”

Today the winery puts out about 55,000 cases.  His own vineyards only supply 22 percent of his grapes, with the rest coming from high-end producers, including San Giacamo.  They have several varieties available, including a brand new pinot noir rose that we didn’t get to taste because it wasn’t released when we were there.  You can visit their website here.

BV Coastal Estates 2008 Chardonnay

We served the wine at a brisk 61 degrees with fish and chips.  The color was clear and golden like a chardonnay should be, and Michael got citrus and melon in the nose. The first taste had a nice medium weight and crispness that suggested the wine had been fermented in steel tanks. Nonetheless, there was the spice of applied oak, meaning oak used as an ingredient instead of to cover one or more faults. The finish was decent but not long.

Just like the cabernet we mentioned earlier, these are decent wines for midweek meals or occasions where wine may not receive the time and attention it deserves. When was the last time you really noticed the sea salt or extra-virgin olive oil in the meal you bolted down before the PTA or town hall meeting?  But these wines do fill that gap in your palate when you want a glass as part of a relaxing meal before dashing off to that next committee meeting or the kids’ latest recital.  Or both.

Fetzer Valley Oaks 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Calibration Tasting

Fetzer Cabernet Sauvignon is from the Hopland area of Mendocino County. The grapes come from many different vineyards, so forget terroir.  Any trace of locality is impossible to detect.

For your calibration purposes, we drank the wine with a black bean soup.  The soup was good and hot, but the wine was 72 degrees.  Anne had opened the bottle several hours earlier to use as part of the soup.

The color was very deep ruby.  The nose had a cassis – black currant – tinge to it along with a warm mulling spice hint as well.  The mouthfeel – how weighty or thick the wine feels in the mouth – was thin without any viscosity.

There was sufficient acids in the wines to cut through simple tomato sauces or the beef stock in our bean soup.  Still, the acids were somewhat out of balance – meaning there was more acid than fruit behind it and the alcohol was drying at the back of the palate.  Tannins – the puckery astringency common to barrels and fruity wines in general – were less of an issue.  Lower tannins make it easier to drink a wine sooner, so this wine is not a candidate for storage.  And speaking of balance, the percentage of alcohol, at 13.5%, is technically rather moderate (and downright paltry compared to some high-alcohol fruit bombs popular today), but it was still slightly noticeable in the mouth.

The bottom line is the Fetzer is a decent Tuesday night spaghetti wine with no pretensions of greatness.  Let’s face it, there are plenty of nights, like when you’re pooped and grumpy and a great bottle of wine just wouldn’t be appreciated. These are the nights for the Fetzer Valley Oaks.

It’s Calibration Time!

This week we’re doing a new calibration tasting.  What’s that, you ask?  Well, since we firmly believe that wine is a subjective experience, tasting notes by themselves can only tell you so much.  After all, say we write that we caught some cherry in the nose, and some light tannins on the finish.  So then you try that exact same wine and smell raisin and get some acid, instead.  Does that mean we don’t know what we’re writing about?  Does it mean you don’t know how to taste wine?

It means neither of those things.  The reality of any tasting experience is that different people catch different things – which is perfectly okay.  But it does make it a little weird when we write cherry and you don’t taste or smell cherry.

So to make life easier, on a quarterly basis (starting now), we’re going to do calibration tastings.  We have bought two wines that should be readily available in most supermarkets.  We’ll post one on Wednesday and the other on Friday.  You can buy the same wines, taste them yourself and see how we compare.  So that way, when we write cherry, you’ll know that you’re likely to taste raisin.  Or whatever.

In fact, if you want to buy your wines before Wednesday, why don’t you do your tasting notes before we post?  Then, please, comment.  We’d love to hear what you came up with.  After all, that’s what makes wine so wonderful.

And the wines are the BV Coastal Estates Chardonnay, 2008, and the Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007.  If you have trouble finding these, please let us know.  It will help for the next calibration.

One final note, on the whole issue of of reviewing, please note that we buy our wines and pay for most of our tastings.  About the only time we’ll use our press credentials is to get into a major group event, such as Hospice du Rhone (assuming we get the credentials for that one).  And we’ll generally let you know when we did get into an event on a press pass.  Part of that is Anne’s professional journalist background, and part of that is simple fair play.  We do not accept advertising from individual wineries for that reason.  Just so you know.