Operative: Agent Red
Objective: Revisit our friends at Schug Carneros Estate and secure an allocation of their newly released Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Schug Carneros Estate
Wine Subject: 2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Winemaker: Michael Cox
Backgrounder: The Sonoma Coast AVA is the 750 square mile area with the Pacific ocean on its western boundary, the San Pablo Bay to the south and Mendocino County to the north, headed inland to the other designated AVAs in Sonoma County. The region is heavily influenced by the cooler ocean climate, increased rainfall and fog that lingers long on the coastal mountains. The specific climate suits the demanding Burgundian varietals of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir very well.
Look – When viewed from the side, the wine show off a deep ruby red. Viewed from the top, it shows a tad lighter, with a lovely band of pink at the edge of the glass. After you swirl the wine, tall, thin legs move swiftly down the glass to the wine below.
Smell – Lush and very aromatic, with layers of red fruit, spice and earthy goodness. Out in front, spiced cherry, wild strawberry and raspberry lead the way. These are followed by young blackberry, dried cranberry, flinty gunpowder, subtle cedar, soft oak and a hint of subtle dried brown tobacco leaf.
Feel – Soft and plush on entry, the wine settles easily onto the mid-palate, where it gains some weight, giving the wine a more complex feel. As the wine settles onto the entire palate, a flinty dryness spreads to the far corners of the mouth. Bright acids and soft tannins frame the fruit perfectly.
Taste – Balanced and delicious, with red fruit, earth and spice all working together in perfect harmony. This wine leads with spiced cherry, young strawberry, tart dried cranberry and red plum skin. The delicious fruit is balanced against earthy dried violets, flint, subtle dried herbs and cigar box. At the tail end, soft white pepper appears, driving red fruit and earthy flavors to the corners of the palate.
Finish – Very long, juicy and lingering red fruit. This tasty fruit gives way to earthy flavors. As these begin to tail off, white pepper and cigar box remain behind for a long time.
Conclusion – With all of the excellence that we have come to expect from Schug, today’s 2009 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir today’s delicious wine was no surprise. We were very pleased, however, to discover that this vintage was even better than the 2008 vintage that we featured nearly two years ago. This 2009 has bolder, more delicious fruit, making it even more of a tasty delight. The characteristic Sonoma Coast earthiness is more pronounced, as well. This gives the wine richness and a complexity, without sacrificing any of its elegance. Delicious and full-bodied, this wine has an easy drinking elegance. That is to say that this is an approachable wine with a serious side – without taking itself too seriously. Enjoy this food-friendly wine with a grilled chicken dish, a grilled pork loin or a lovely pepper crusted Ahi steak.
WINEMAKER INTEL BRIEFING DOSSIER
SUBJECT: Michael Cox
WINE EDUCATION: Started working in Sonoma wineries out of high school. Graduated form UC Davis in 1991
CALIFORNIA WINE JOB BRIEF: Winemaker for Schug Winery since 1995
WINEMAKING PHILOSOPHY: Don’t get to fancy, let the vines and the yeast do their stuff. Just don’t mess up what mother nature intended.
WINEMAKER QUOTE: From Tao Te Ching: “The hard and stiff will be broken, the soft and supple will prevail.”
FIRST COMMERCIAL WINE RELEASE: 1993 Napa Valley Chardonnay from DeMoor (Napa Cellars)
AGENT RED: Greetings, Mike. We are thrilled to be showing your great 2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir today. The wine is really wonderful. Thanks so much for the wine, and for taking some time to answer questions for our Operatives today.
MICHAEL: Thanks Red, we are so happy that you continue to love our wines. We always enjoy your detail reviews – and these sit-downs!
RED: The pleasure is all ours, I assure you. How long have you been making wine?
MICHAEL: My first job in a wine cellar was when I was 19. I got a summer job working at Hacienda Wine Cellars (pre Bronco – then family owned by the Cooleys).
RED: Was there a specific experience in your life that inspired your love of wine?
MICHAEL: Not sure if it is specific, but that summer of 1987, working on the bottling line, cleaning barrels, driving all over Sonoma County sampling vineyards, long wide ranging conversations on music and farming with the winemaker, Eric Laumann all combined to sell me on the idea that growing and making wine would afford me the ability to continue to live in Sonoma Valley.
RED: And where did you learn the most about winemaking?
MICHAEL: Hmmmm. Tough one. I spent my formative years from 1987 -1991 at Hacienda, a year at Dry Creek Vineyards, got my first‘Winemaker’ job at Napa Cellars/DeMoor, and have spent coming on 14 years here at Schug with Walter. IÂ’d probably have to say my time at Napa Cellars. I was 25 and they gave me the keys and said ‘drive’. I learned to get things done, not to waste time or money, and how to pull together a wine from vineyard to bottle. For all the talk of art, it is also a big logistics game.
RED: What is your winemaking style or philosophy?
MICHAEL: I’ll happily steal from Robert Mondavi here:‘The first glass of wine should invite the second.’ I don’t like flabby, heavy, ponderous wines. I want brightness and zip. Elegance is foremost.
RED: Walter Schug is a legend in the wine business. How has he influenced you?
MICHAEL: Walter has been, and continues to be a mentor. I am very fortunate that Walter saw in me someone with the kernel of his own winemaking style that he could nurture and develop. He is a font of knowledge that I can tap into at any time. With just about any situation he’s seen it in his own experience here, at Gallo, or as consultant, at least twice.
RED: What wine or winemaker has most influenced your winemaking style?
MICHAEL: We already talked about Walter being a mentor, but Eric Laumann, who gave me my first job was also very important. He certainly instilled a confidence in myself and the wines that make. He also is a reminder to nottake yourself too seriously, just the wine.
RED: Who do you make wine for?
MICHAEL: Myself foremost. Plan D is always to just drink it all ourselves, so it better be good.
AGENT RED: Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today.
MICHAEL: What we have here is our 2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. A big chunk of this comes from the Sonoma Carneros portion of the coast appellation, but the core is really a nice vineyard from the Petaluma Gap. Mostly raised in stainless steel, the focus here is on the fruity nature of pinot noir. Great cherry flavors with the dark spices from oak way in the background.
RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?
MICHAEL: Well, if I am eating meat, wild boar pasta, if not pasta with mushrooms. The earthiness of both those dishes complements the bright fruit well.
RED: Tell me, what makes the Sonoma Coast so special?
MICHAEL: Where we pull our fruit from is the southern tip of the Sonoma Coast. Closer to the water so a bit warmer in winter, giving us a jump on bud break. It is also a very windy area which retards the summer growth, extending the growing season. The net effect of that is more hangtime without massive sugar (readALCOHOL) accumulation. I hate hot, alcoholic, oppressive wines. Our Sonoma Coast wines are most definitely not. They are all sweetness and light.
RED: What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone that is considering a career as a winemaker?
MICHAEL: Trust yourself and your palette. Don’t chase a style or someone else’s opinion. Be ready to work and get down and dirty. Don’t expect a lot other than the reward of the wine itself.
RED: What is occupying your time at the winery these days?
MICHAEL: Getting our act together for the summer bottling season. I have been doing a lot of tasting and blending. Tuning up the machines. In the vineyard, we are just watching the vines grow, protecting the shoots. We were finally able to get in and disc after a bit of a late, wet winter. .
RED: Please share one thing about yourself that few people know
MICHAEL: Considering how much I enjoyed NASCAR, I may well be a closet redneck.
RED: Nice. What is your favorite ‘everyday’ or table wine?
MICHAEL: Well until recently it had been Laurenz V.’s Gruener Veltliner, either the Singing or the Charming, but I have been drinking a lot of our dry Rose of Pinot Noir of late.
RED: How would you recommend that people approach your wines, or wine in general?
MICHAEL: Well wine is for sharing with friends so have some people you like around and start opening bottles. Schug wines always get better of the course of a meal as the layers start to unveil themselves. Don’t rush into it. Relax and enjoy.
RED: If you could choose any one wine to drink (regardless of price or availability), what would it be?
MICHAEL: The Holy Trinity from E. Guigal – La Turque, La Mouline, La Landonne. Odd for a Pinot maker, but I could drink those all night.
RED: What is the one question that I should have asked you, and what is your answer to that question?
MICHAEL: Hmmmm. How about: ‘If you couldn’t make wine, what would you do?’ And to be honest, I am not sure of the answer… I always say that my retirement plan is to move to Hawaii (Kauai – westside) and make rum, but that’s a bit close to winemaking… So perhaps a historian and author. 18th and 19th century European to be a bit more precise.
RED: Very cool. Thank you so much for your time. We learned a lot about you – and about your wine. Keep up the great work, we are big fans!
MICHAEL: No problem. Thanks again for having me. I hope I covered what you wanted to know. Glad you like the wine, I hope your Operatives do, too.
And here is a recap of Agent Red’s original interview with Walter Schug:
I had the incredible great fortune to meet with one of the wine industry’s most respected and renowned wine craftsmen in California wine history.
Walter Schug, owner and winemaster at Schug Carneros Estate, was born into wine in Germany in 1936, where his father was winemaker for one of Germany’s top Pinot Noir Producers.
As a young man, Walter worked throughout Europe, honing his craft. In 1966 Julio Gallo asked Walter to oversee all grapegrowing and quality control for the company. Seven years later, after Walter’s reputation had grown, Joseph Phelps asked Walter to become Phelps’ winemaker at his new Napa Valley winery.
Walter helped to create the Insignia label and some of the finest and most sought after Bordeaux-style blends in the country. Walter crafted wines that set the high water mark for excellence in winemaking.
To this day, Walter Schug’s early influence on the industry lives on, with wineries across California and around the world emulating his winemaking style.
With Phelps, Walter Schug’s goal was to make the best Bordeaux-style blend possible. Today, Walter Schug’s philosophy remains largely unchanged. There is one big difference, however; Where a bottle of Insignia may cost you $200 or more, a Schug wine of comparable quality with cost you less than $60.
On arriving at the Schug winery last week, I am greeted by Axel Schug, Director of Marketing for the winery and the son of Walter Schug. Axel, with whom I had met previously, introduces me to his father, and then escorts me through the bowels of the winery, to a tasting room buried in a wine cave. The long table the stretches down the tunnel is surrounded on both sides by seemingly every vintage from Schug’s history.
As I am escorted to my seat, I notice several magnums of Insignia wine and I spot one bottle in a special wooden display. Walter Schug sees me looking at it and he takes it from the display and shows it to me. The bottle is from Joseph Phelps himself, and a touching tribute to Walter Schug, from Phelps, is engraved on the back.
What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation:
AGENT RED: Mr. Schug, thank you so much for making yourself available today. It is an honor to meet you!
WALTER SCHUG: Welcome, Agent Red.
AGENT RED: Let me first say that your wines blow me away. The winery is beautiful as well. I love Carneros and wines from the region. You are really a pioneer of the region. When it came time to build your own winery, how did you come to settle here?
WALTER SCHUG: When I was with Gallo, I sourced fruit from Carneros. I recognized the region as having great potential for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Given my passion for Pinot, settling in Carneros was a natural.
AGENT RED: And, when you did settle, you produced a fair amount of Chardonnay, did you not?
WALTER SCHUG: Yes, and it was excellent, too. It still is. Back then, Chardonnay subsidized my passion for Pinot Noir! It allowed me to perfect Pinot here.
AGENT RED: This Cabernet Sauvignon we are drinking [today’s 2003 Heritage CS] is incredible. How has your philosophy changed from your Insignia days?
WALTER SCHUG: Very little. The goal now, as it was with Phelps back then, is to create the very best wine that we possibly can. And, to do so without recipe orformula.
AGENT RED: Ahh. Whereas I have heard that Insignia is more formulaic in its approach to winemaking today. Instead, your proportions or even fruit sources may change a good deal – if it means making wines that are that much better. Am I correct?
WALTER SCHUG: Yes, this is true. This Cabernet isstreamlined and far more European in character. This is a wine that has elegance, delicacy, finesse – this is what I strive for in all of my wines!
AGENT RED: Again, this is a great wine and I am sure that our Operatives will love it. I also look forward to bringing them your Pinot Noir, during a future mission.
WALTER SCHUG: If they appreciate wines that are made for the best enjoyment, they will love this wine. In the end this wine is not made by going to the vineyard and knowing what you are going to get. Rather, it is the result of meticulous blending of wines made from the best fruit. Again, it is my mission to create wines that are the best expressions of place. It is my mission to make wines that are to be enjoyed.
AGENT RED: Mission accomplished, Mr. Schug, Mission accomplished!
WALTER SCHUG: Thank you, Agent Red.
We talked a great deal about Walter Schug’s history and his influence and impact on the wine industry. While I was certainly impressed by his incredible history, I must say that what impressed me the most – what seemed to matter to me the most – was what the Schug Carneros Estate winery was doing today. Today, Schug is crafting remarkably beautiful wines that are a true delight to drink and enjoy!
The location of the Schug Carneros Estate can be seen in this satellite photo.