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.

The Nelson Family Vineyards

Missy and Greg Nelson
Missy and Greg Nelson

Talk about letting your wines speak for you!  We met Greg and Missy Nelson at the Mendocino Grape Growers event in Santa Rosa last spring, which we attended on a press pass.  We enjoyed chatting with Missy, but Greg kind of hung back and didn’t talk too much.

It’s apparently Greg’s style.  When Anne emailed him, since that’s whose card we had, his responses were terse, at best.  So is the website.  That’s fine.  The wines are a lot of fun and we’ve got a couple sweeter ones to feature this week.

The Nelsons have been farming in Mendocino County, California, since Greg’s parents moved there in the early 1950s, and Greg has been growing grapes all of his life.  According to the website, in addition to grapes, the family grows bartlett pears and Christmas trees.  But with 200 acres planted out in 11 different varieties, grapes are a major part of their business, with the line-up including zinfandel, carignane, pinot grigio, cabernet sauvignon, viognier, petite verdot, petite sirah, orange muscat, riesling, and merlot.

Only five percent of their crop ends up in bottles with their family name on it.  Greg’s son Chris is the winemaker and according to Greg, it was Chris’s idea to start the winery.  This is truly a family business, with Tyler Nelson listed as the vineyard manager.

Exploration Fun

This being the middle of the harvest, we’re pretty busy here at OddBallGrape.  Put almost 1,500 miles on the car last week and the week before in three trips to Paso Robles, California, to go pick and bring back cabernet franc, syrah, primitivo, vernacchia and merlot grapes for our own home winemaking efforts.

And, gee, since we were in the heart of the Central Coast wine country and since there just happen to be…  (ahem) a few wineries up there (like almost 100) and on the way back through the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.  Yeah, we did a little tasting here and there, catching up on some old friends and making a couple new discoveries.

Some of those will be featured in future posts, but we did want to mention the fun we had at Wild Horse winery in Templeton, which is just south of Paso Robles.  Yes, Wild Horse is a label you can find in your local grocery store – Trader Joe’s, in particular, carries it.  So normally, we wouldn’t have bothered.  But since it’s right next door to our merlot grower and since we’d heard that wine maker Clay Brock, formerly of Zaca Mesa, had joined the crew there (and we really liked Clay’s wines), we thought, what the heck.

The thing with Wild Horse is that this is where wine maker Kenneth Volk got his start, and he’s the one who instituted their blaufrankisch and negrette programs.  They also make a white from a grape called malvasia.  And it’s also where we got interested in odd ball grapes – we loved the blaufrankisch, and you can’t get it at the store.  It’s only available in the tasting room.

We’d been back since Volk had moved on to start his own label, about a couple, three years ago, and were sad to see that there was no blaufrankisch available.  Huzzah, huzzah, it’s back now.  Along with negrette and malvasia.  And we don’t have notes because we went in just for the fun of it.

However, it is a lesson in wine tasting.  While avoiding the supermarket labels has its place, it’s sometimes worth it to check out the tasting rooms of such wineries anyway.  Some of them have wines you can’t get in the supers, including varieties you don’t see anywhere else.  In fact, it was Blackstone Winery that introduced us to tannat – and they are one of the biggies out there.

By the way, in the interests of full disclosure and transparency, the guy in the tasting room at Wild Horse comped us for the tasting fee as being part of the trade.  We don’t think he heard us talking about the blog, but we were talking about being home winemakers, so….

Three Sticks Winery and a (Sigh) Mess-Up

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Oh, deep and profound annoyance!  We had gotten turned onto Three Sticks Winery at the Family Winemakers event in Pasadena last spring.  Then, after several rounds of phone tag and other missed opportunities, Anne finally got a chance to to talk to winery owner Bill Price.  Then Anne spent two weeks….  Two whole weeks, mind you, trying to find the note book pages on which she’d written the interview notes, only to find them on the hard drive of her computer.  She’d typed them rather than hand written them, which is better because Anne types faster than she writes.

What attracted us to Three Sticks were the lovely Burgundian-style wines that Price’s winemaker, Don Van Staaveren, was making.  Price told us that’s on purpose.

“We try to make a more classicly Burgundian style,” said Price, who is also the owner of Durell Vineyards in Sonoma County, California.  He’s got roughly 150 acres in Sonoma, with about 40 acres planted in chardonnay, 40 acres in pinot noir, and then 10 acres planted in syrah, with the rest in a few of the Bordeaux varieties of grapes, including cabernet sauvignon.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get that there’s a big difference between the soil in Sonoma County, California, and the Burgundy region in France.  That’s what’s called terroir, and Price agreed that it does make a difference.

“We reflect what the land gives us,” he said.  “Though maybe in a more subtle way than… our extreme coastal competitors.”

The result is food-friendly, though perhaps not for the budget-conscious.

The Three Sticks Winery website is here.  They do expect to be releasing a cab sauv soon, but, hey, check us out on Wednesday, when we post the pinot noir notes.

Checking Out Robledo Family Winery

robledo

This is one of those stumble upon finds that we discovered last spring.  We were wandering around the southern edge of Sonoma and Napa counties.  Can’t remember which winery we were actually looking for, if any.  But as we often do, we asked some of the folks working in the tasting rooms who else is good in the area, and more than one suggested Robledo.

Wine Trip April 09 059What a treat!  The tasting room is dark and homey, with tables and lots of memorabilia celebrating the family’s Mexican heritage.  The parents came as farmworkers and eventually found the money to buy vineyards and make their own wine.  And their tasting menu is extensive.  We tried at least 10 wines – maybe a couple more.  We split our flights to stay standing.  Not everything was great, but most were and we brought home several to enjoy later.

You can access their site at robledofamilywinery.com, or visit them at Robledo Family Winery 21901 Bonness Road, Sonoma, CA 94576.  Or call 707.939.6903, toll-free 888.939.6903robledo2

Halter Ranch – Growing the Good Stuff

Courtesy Halter Ranch
Courtesy Halter Ranch

Every so often, it doesn’t hurt to remember that wine is, ultimately, an agricultural product and that you get grapes by farming them.  Fortunately, when Mitch Wyss came in to grow grapes for Halter Ranch Winery owner Hansjorg Wyss, he came in as a farmer.  However, one with not much experience growing wine grapes.

“It was a real trial by fire,” said Leslie Wyss, Mitch’s wife.  But Mitch is still there and it’s not because of a family connection.  He and Hansjorg are not related.  Leslie explained that Mitch is of Swiss ancestry and Hansjorg is Swiss.

“It’s not an uncommon name there,” Leslie explained.

She said that they are farming 250 acres, but their production is actually rather small, about 5,000 cases.  The wine, itself, is made by winemaker Bill Sheffer.  Leslie said that one of the reasons the grapes are so good is the soil, which is rich in limestone, not unlike some of France’s most renowned grape-growing regions in Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley.

Courtesy Halter Ranch
Courtesy Halter Ranch

“We’re growing Bordeaux varietals and Rhone varietals that are really nice,” Leslie said.  “But I think we’ll mostly be Rhone.”

The main Bordeaux varietals, of course, are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, with syrah being the best known of the varieties of grapes grown in the Rhone Valley.

Halter Ranch is located on the west side of Paso Robles, on Adelaida Road.  You can find their website here.

Eden Canyon – Small and Interesting

edencanyon

It was just a fluke that we happened upon Elaine Villamin, of Eden Canyon Vineyards, when we stopped in at Red Carpet Wine in Glendale, California.  We were trying to kill time before our dinner reservation and had no intention of doing any tasting.  But Villamin was not only there with a nice selection of her winery’s offerings, she spent some significant time with us, telling us her story.

In 1996, her father, Danny Villemin, suddenly decided to grow grapes on his 10 acres near San Luis Obispo.  He wasn’t even a wine drinker, but being the kind of guy he is, that didn’t stop him.  Neither did the August 2006 wildfire that burnt down the vineyard.  edencanyonfire

Well, you know how you can use the process of crushing grapes to make wine as a metaphor for coming out a better person after suffering a crushing blow?  Well, the Eden Canyon is another one.  Elaine told us that all that ash from the fire has actually made a better vineyard.  Indeed, even winemaker Kenneth Volk was buying their grapes.

“That’s how my dad got started,” Elaine said.

Eventually, both she and her dad studied viticulture at one of the U.C. Davis programs, and Elaine went on to enroll in the L’ecole de Bordeaux in Bordeaux, France.

“It’s like a boot camp,” she said.

She’s now the wine maker, although her father still gets plenty of input.

You can get Eden Canyon wines through Red Carpet Wine (redcarpetwine.com) or through the Eden Canyon Website (edencanyon.com).  They’re also on FaceBook

Check Out Coral Mustang

When we first met Penny Gadd-Coster, now owner and winemaker for Coral Mustang, she was still working at Jordan Winery as the enologist.  She and her husband Frank had invited us to meet with them and tour the winery, which was closed to the public.  When Penny took us up to the lab and pulled out several Riedel glasses and a wine thief, we knew this was not going to be your ordinary tour.

Some years (and another winery job) later, Penny decided it was time to strike out on her own with the Coral Mustang label.  Coral is her middle name and a mustang, in the parlance of the U.S. Marines, is an officer who has come up through the ranks, as opposed to starting as an officer.  That’s Penny’s story, too.

She’s focusing on tempranillo.  Penny told us a few years ago that she made that choice because it was an up and coming grape with not a lot of competition in a tight wine market.  And the grape is, indeed, finally getting some traction in the wine world.  Although she is based in Sonoma, she sources her grapes from Paso Robles.

The result?  Some of the most incredible tempranillo wines on the planet.  Penny makes her wines to be friendly with a wide range of foods.  One night, when she came to visit us, we made dinner together.  Chicken breasts with two kinds of beurre blanc.  Anne made the traditional, lemon-based style, and Penny did a version with blueberries.  Her tempranillo worked beautifully with both.

Penny just joined a brand-new tasting room called Vino Veritas, 118 North Street, Healdsburg, California.  You can also buy Coral Mustang wines here.

A Central Valley Surprise, Mariposa Wine Company

wine-trip-april-09-097So the two of us are driving north to Calaveras County on California highway 99, and we’re looking for a good spot to snag some lunch, stretch our legs – the usual sort of road trip stop.  The 99, if you’ve never been on it, runs up the middle of the San Joaquin Valley (aka California’s Central Valley), to the east of Interstate 5, which also runs through the San Joaquin Valley.  This is the state’s massive agricultural region, and they’re growing a little bit of everything out here and lots and lots of raisins, fruits, nuts, cotton and other veggies.  They also grow a lot of wine grapes – in fact, more wine grapes are grown in the San Joaquin Valley than anywhere else in California.

In any case, while these are rather interesting facts, scenery-wise, it’s not too exciting.  Especially when you’re on the road and the only stops are the usual fast food folks and gas stations.  When we’re on the road, we try to avoid places that we have at home.  There were, however, a couple signs for Wine Tasting.  The first didn’t come up at a good place to stop.  But the second came up at a good time to be stopping, in Madera, California.  It didn’t look like much, just a big factory-style building out in the middle of nowhere with a small, red clapboard building next to it advertising produce and nuts.wine-trip-april-09-093

Hmmm.  Mariposa Wine Company.  The yard out in front of the tasting room was nicely decorated.  Next to the parking lot was a whole lot of giant crushing machines and some stainless steel tanks.  It had the right smell.  The tasting room was lovely.  Margaret Ruiz, the tasting room hostess, was delightful and chatty and full of good information about the wines, although Mike’s more technical questions caught her a little off-guard.  They were good questions, just not the kind most folks ask.  And Margaret was able to answer most of them.

The winery and tasting room have been open since 2003 and they produce just under 5,000 cases a year, under three different labels.  But Ruiz said they are all made by the same winemaker.  They do get their grapes from the better known wine regions in California.  However, they are part of a growing network of small wineries in the Madera area.

Coming up next, we’ll be looking at a couple of the wines from the company’s mid-range label, Carmichael.  In the meantime, you can check out the winery here.

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From Whence Comes the OddBallGrape

Ken Volk doesn’t know this yet, but in a way, he is a major inspiration for this site.  The president and director of winemaking for Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Volk has a long history of experimenting with grape varieties that no one else has even heard of, let alone tasted.

Ken Volk with his negrette (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)
Ken Volk with his negrette (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)

Some years back, when Volk was still at Wild Horse, the Paso Robles winery where he made a name for himself, there was this little red called blaufrankisch.  Most folks were a little wary of it.  We dove right in and discovered what a joy trying something really new and different can be.  Ever since then, finding those odd ball grapes has been one of our passions.  And when this site came together, it seemed only natural to name it after that passion.

Volk sold Wild Horse in 2003 and the next year bought the facility he has now in the Santa Maria Valley.  His first wines under his namesake label rolled out in 2006.

Mike’s first experience with the Kenneth Volk product occurred as the last stop on the bus tour from hell.  Anne was working.  The weather was beyond miserably hot.  The wines at the other wineries were all over-oaked.  And the rest of the winemaking club was cranky, to say the least.  But Volk not only took the time to talk to the group, the wines (13 different bottles) were a revelation.  Pinots, cabs, chards, maybe even a negrette or a tempranillo or something like that.  Mike didn’t take notes that day.  But it was an impressive tasting both in terms of the scope and the really good flavor.  When the wine tastes that good at the end of the day, you know you’ve got something special.

We also recently spoke with Volk at the Family Winemakers event in Del Mar, California, and yes, he will be producing some blaufrankisch starting as early as this year.

“I’ve got an acre and a half of blaufranckisch, which I’ll be getting a crop off of this year,” he said.  “It was a graft that I did last year, so I expect it to…  I’ll probably get two tons of it this year.”

But we’ll still have to wait another couple years or so before anything gets bottled and/or released.

But what drives his interest in different…  Okay, odd ball grapes?

“There’s so many interesting grape varieties out there that have interesting flavors and unfortunately, the industry is dominated by a handful of them,” Volk said.  “Every year I try to do a new variety I’ve never done before.”

Negrette (photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)
Negrette (photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)

And we’ll be featuring his negrette and his verdelho over the next few days.  You can find out more about Volk and his winery at his website, volkwines.com.