Type: Dry red Made with: Pinot Noir Plays well with: Strong cheeses, red meats
The Vergari 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is a premium example of a California pinot noir. Which is not to say that it is a copy of a Burgundian wine. The California style generally has riper fruit which can sometimes be a problem in France. Actually, it can be a problem with Californis wines, too. Riper fruit can translate into jammier characters and higher alcohol – qualities not becoming for a food friendly grape like pinot noir.
Not so with the Vergari. It’s a crafted wine that pays attention to the details and doesn’t let the fruit get smothered by alcohol, oak or residual sugars. The color is the dark ruby typical of a California pinot. The nose is full of berries, cherries and a cola character which seems unique to pinot. The first taste shows good acidity and even some spice – a characteristic that often gets buried in the fruitier pinots. The weight in the mouth is substantive but not heavy or too thin. A good finish rounds out this excellent dry wine that cries out for food. Stronger cheeses, roasted beast of almost any type and level of doneness would be mandatory. Alcohol is a modest 14.2 percent – well, modest by California standards.
It happened a few months ago, but one day, Michael gets an email in his personal box inviting him and a guest to a tasting at a local contractor’s store near us. Huh? It was from David Vergari – a winemaker who lives in Sierra Madre in Southern California, but makes a collection of red wines out of a custom crush facility in Sebastopol, California. They’re mostly cabs and pinots – varieties we don’t usually focus on here at OddBallGrape.
But what makes Vergari’s operation a little more up our alley is how he’s selling his wines – through a series of open houses that he uses to build his wine club list. Such as the one we attended. The contractor specialized in high-end kitchens, so among the counter top samples and tile books, there was a small jazz combo. The caterer was using the contractor’s demo kitchen to heat hors d’oeuvres and chill the couple whites Vergari had purchased for those who like whites.
Vergari told us that he likes to make his cabernet sauvignons with a “pinot sensibility.” Either way, his wines feature excellent acids and good balance.
“I’m not in an arms race,” he said when we asked him about the lower alcohol levels in his wines. “I like acids.”
Pinot noir is Walter Schug’s signature wine – the wine he grew up on, the wine that he started his winery to make. And Schug does know how to handle it.
There’s a reason pinot noir is known as the heartbreak grape. Every decision in the growing, harvesting, crushing. pressing – the entire winemaking process – shows up in the final product. The wrong pruning, the wrong yeast selection, too muck oak, too little oak – it’s all there for the world to taste and, alas, pay too much money for most of the time.
And there is a lot of bad pinot out there these days, with high alcohol contents – we came across one a bit back that listed its total alcohol at 15 percent. That’s nuts for a delicate wine like pinot noir. The good news is that if you do find a good one, pinot is a very versatile food wine.
The other good news is that Schug makes some wonderful pinots, including a sparkling rose. There are also the Sonoma and the Caneros pinots, with the Sonoma being only slightly better than the Carneros. But that may have been because the Sonoma is twelve dollars cheaper.
The Sonoma is steel-femented to keep as much of the fruit as possible, giving the wine a rich nose of roses and red berries. The 13.5 percent alcohol was also wise – like we noted above, high alcohol pinots are bad. There was some spicy character in addition to the dry fruit which made for an excellent balance.
We not only bought a bottle, but when we went out to celebrate our recent anniversary at one of the nicer restaurants in our neck of the woods, we brought that bottle to enjoy. And enjoy it we did. Anne had a lovely pork tenderloin, while Michael indulged his yen for salmon. Better yet, because Michael was nice enough to share a taste with the waiter, the waiter was nice enough to forget to charge us for the corkage fee.
Many restaurants will let you bring your own wine, but they do charge a fee, called corkage. Do note, however, that it’s not cool to bring a wine they restaurant has on its list, nor is it cool to bring the local bargain brand. Bring something special and unusual, and they usually don’t mind, especially if you buy some of their wine.
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 whole point of the Three Sticks Durell Vineyards Pinot Noir is to remind you of the great Burgundies (as in the Burgundy region of France). Keep in mind, French wines, in general, and certainly Burgundies, are meant to go with food. So the fruit flavors are more subtle, the acids tend to be higher and the alcohols percentages tend to be lower.
Which, of course, runs totally counter to the American and, increasingly, the Australian styles in pinots. We decidedly prefer pinots that are in the food friendly Burgundian style, which is one of the things we liked best about the Three Sticks pinot.
The nose of cedar and dusty dry fruit promises a lighter touch in the mouth. There is a nice acid to fruit balance at the core of this lovely, delicate wine, so look for food that isn’t too heavy, isn’t too light. You can try lightly seasoned meats, maybe some grilled pork chops or a simple steak. And while red wine is usually considered too strong for fish, if you get a nice bit of herbed up salmon or a Salade Nicoise, that could be very tasty. Or any combination of duck and mushrooms. Being so versatile, a wine made this well can find a soulmate in unexpected places. Even a BLT on french baugette while watching the World Series wouldn’t be out of place.
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.