2005 Schug Carneros Estate Heritage Reserve Carneros Merlot
Mission Codename: The Winefather
Operative: Agent Red
Objective: Return to Schug Carneros Estate Winery and secure an ample allocation of their remarkable Heritage Reserve Merlot, a wine crafted in a distinct European style.
and also value oriented Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Schug Carneros Estate
Wine Subject: 2005 Carneros Heritage Reserve Merlot
Winemaker: Michael Cox
Walter Schug is, arguably, one of the founding fathers of California wine. When Walter came to the United States to make wines, he co-created, with Joseph Phelps, legendary California wines. Insignia was born, vaulting California – and Walter Schug – into the winemaking spotlight.
Some of our favorite California Pinot Noir comes from the Carneros viticultural area, a winegrowing region which straddles the Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley. The cool Carneros region provides long, cool growing conditions, which are perfect for Merlot. Schug Winery is a Wine Spies favorite and we are proud to bring you today’s very special wine. Read Agent Red’s tasting notes and mission report to learn more about this fantastic Merlot.
Wine Spies Tasting Profile:
Look – Dark cherry juice hues, with a darker heart and fat pink edges. Swirl the wine and watch it settle quickly, only to leave behind clusters of fat, ropey legs.
Smell – Warm and super dense with aromas of darkest overripe blackberry, smoky dried meats, dusky black cherry, dried fall leaves, spice, dried dark violets, cigar box and truffle.
Feel – Velvet smooth and round on entry, then fine-grained tannins set in, adding dynamic dry mineral zing that moves from the outer palate, inward.
Taste – Richly layered, leading with a great deal of smoky dark cherry – that slowly gives way to flavors of tart blackberry jam, red plum, cassis, and stewed red cherry. These sit atop additional subtle flavors of soft leather and dark woods.
Finish – Long, lingering and delicious with flavors that begin sweet and then go softly tart and dusky with a wonderful earthen minerality.
Conclusion – This is the a remarkable Merlot that promises to please any fan of the varietal. Walter Schug began a tradition of crafting distinctive California wines in the finest European tradition. Today’s wine reinforces our belief that Schug Winery meets this goal – and then some. Lush, complex, balanced and extraordinarily excellent, we here at Wine Spies HQ were all very impressed that a Carneros Merlot had such power to impress. We love this food-friendly wine and found ourselves enjoying our glasses first by themselves – lingering over each lovely aspect of the wine – and later with food. Our pairing with an improvised fresh basil pesto was a perfect delight. Enjoy now, or cellar for a few more years. Enjoy!
The following is Agent Red’s recent interview with Michael Wilcox, winemaker for Schug Carneros Estate:
AGENT RED: Greetings, Mike. We are thrilled to be showing your great Carneros Chardonnay. 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, glad you are liking the wine. It really has come into it’s own of late. I appreciate you having us.
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 not
take 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.
RED: That would be a fun way to go. Tell me, what makes the Carneros so special?
MICHAEL: Carneros is a unique blend of wind, fog, temperature and climate. We pick up 7-10 days at the beginning of the season, since we are a bit warmer because of the bay. The wind and fog of the summer means that our growing season is stretched out by another 7-10 days. We might see an extra 3 weeks of the elusive ‘hang time’ in a normal growing season – without pushing the boundaries of ripeness and alcohol.
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: We are gearing up for the bottling season, so we are trying to finalize our blends. I am tasting through all the barrels in the cellar and generally laying the groundwork for what should be a good season.
RED: Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today
MICHAEL: Our Carneros Chardonnay is mostly barrel fermented and aged sur lie in approximately 20% new French Oak. It comes from a range of vineyards in the immediate vicinity of the Estate. That gives us a range of clones to work with when it comes time to assemble the blend. In addition, a small portion never sees wood and is raised in stainless steel. This affords us the ability to blend in wine that exhibits pure chardonnay fruit exuberance and brings freshness and vivacity to the wine.
RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?
MICHAEL: Well, as always, it would be something that Kristine Schug has whipped up (she treats us well during the harvest). A roast chicken with meyer lemon sauce. Acidity in both the wine and the food is so important to making a good match.
RED: Please share one thing about yourself that few people know
MICHAEL: Considering how much I enjoyed my time at NASCAR today, 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 or formula.
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 is streamlined 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!
Wine Spies Vineyard Check:
The location of the Schug Carneros Estate can be seen in this satellite photo.