In 1976 California was celebrating victory at “The Judgement of Paris”. Their wines took first place not only for white wine, but also for red in a blind tasting; paneled by some of the greatest palates in France. This brought an incredible influx of energy and enthusiasm for the potential of Californian wine-making as could scarcely be imagined only a few years previous.
Walter Schug had already been making wine there for 15 years.
Before the “hooplah”, before the bright-lights of possible stardom brought people of every walk to the sun-baked valleys, fog cooled coastline and craggy hills. Before all of this, Walter had seen the potential and had brought his bride across the ocean to a new land and a new life. And in the ’70s he imagined a wine that no one else believed in: a true Bordeaux-styled blend, on the same level of quality, precision and finesse as could be found anywhere in the world. But Walter saw it being made on those rocky crags, warmed by pure California sunshine and cooled by the ever-present ocean breeze. He found someone else as adventurous as he was, a winery owner named Joseph Phelps and together they charted into the unknown. The year was 1974 and they made 670 cases, uncertain as to it’s future. The wine was named Insignia and successive vintages went on to receive multiple 100-point scores and become one of America’s most expensive wines, and most prestigious.
But we already know that Walter’s passion for wine is bigger then passion; it is ardor, combined with zealotry in the most infectious manner possible. Having shared a glass or two with him, I can say that drinking Pinot Noir with Walter Schug is like eating chocolate with my two-year old… the smiles get bigger and bigger, the laughter begins to spread and soon I’ve forgotten about taxes and mortgages and anything but how much fun I’m having. Because Walter loves Pinot Noir and he loves to share the special beauty it carries.
Perhaps I love Bordeaux styled blends in the same way. I admire, then, the man who created a Bordeaux blend that rivaled the quality of France, when no one thought it possible. And he continued that work even after leaving Phelps Winery and opening his own eponymous haven to all things from the grape…
Recently Walter’s son Axel who runs the family business, now that Dad is “mostly-retired” after over 50 years of wine-making, sent me a bottle of their 1996 Heritage-Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I won’t preach about the merits of this wine; the score speaks for itself as does the tasting notes. But one should recognize that by 1996 Walter had been working with Cab-Sauv for over 15 years in his own winery and over 35 years in California.
They say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. Any skill. By that token, Walter had transcended mastery and come to Artistry. And it was with a very select group of “uber-professionals” that I shared this piece of oenological history, and only the wine-Mecca of Vancouver would serve as a proper setting: www.uvawinebar.ca
The cork was firm, decanting barely necessary, and as we all began to swirl, swirl, swirl our glasses a heady perfume lifted from the crystal cages. This was an Experience that we would not soon forget. Steve Edwards, general manager of UVA/Cibo was as impressed as I was and couldn’t stop repeating
“It’s so fresh~! I just can’t believe how fresh it still is but so developed~! And ’96 was a cool vintage – remember??“
Steve. Dude. In 1996 I was a 25-year old from Northern Alberta… the closest I got to knowing a vintage was when they started dating the month my beer was made in. No Steve, I don’t remember how cool it was in Carneros that year, but I am truly in awe of the people who do remember things like that almost 20 years later. Just as I know with certainty that I will be remembering this bottle 20 years from now.
Here are my own notes from that evening, which were very much in unison with other, more educated palates then mine:
1996 Sonoma Valley Heritage-Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc
- visual: clear with light sediment, dark ruby core with substantial cherry/brick rim. Wears its age gracefully
- nose: clean; fully intense developing bouquet of a myriad of berries: dark cherries, blackberries, blueberries, dark raspberries and currants… a primal musky cologne mixed with warm evergreen trees, deep earth tones, leather, Asian peppercorn and black tea
- palate: clean; dry, ultra-bright full red currant acid, medium- fine yet textured tannin, medium- body, medium- alcohol (surprising 13.5% ABV), fully intense developing flavors that are brilliantly in-sync with the bouquet: a treasure-trove of flavors that combine and compliment each other. Minerality sings from start to finish and is the conductor that guides a full orchestra of components into a seamless harmony. World-class balance and structure, long+ length with flavors continuing to develop up to 60 seconds and longer
- conclusion: truly surprising, this wine has years of life left in it. Only to share with those you truly love, respect and admire: 2013-2018+
- FOOD PAIRING: what a crime to pair food with this, for what culinary creation could hope to match the concentration, balance and elegance? You must splurge my friend, for only with World-Class food can there be balance with this World-Class wine. Consider what celebrity chef Raymond Blanc is serving at the decidedly decadent le manoir aux quat’saisons:“GROUSE” RÔTIE, CHOU, LARDONS ET SAUCE AUX MÛRES
Roasted new season grouse, cabbage, bacon and blackberry jus
(may contain shot)
Of course, if you don’t have the opportunity to visit Le Manoir, then you could just make it yourself – substitute a cornish hen for the grouse!
We live in a time when a 95-point wine from Pomerol or Pauillac will cost you an easy $500 or more, without any degree of age on the bottle. Even that same scoring wine, coming from one of the more “prestigious” houses of California would cost $300 without breaking a sweat. It beggars belief then that there have been times in the recent past when Schug vineyards was selling its wine at cost, just to allow them to enter new markets.
I love a deal. I love great deals on wine. I adore great deals on great wine, but this borders on theft. It is a steal, I tell you, to purchase a wine of this calibre for this price. Be assured, your friends and your competitors are actively searching for the next, best deal on Bordeaux styled wine. Perhaps it is only from looking at those who first crafted these wines in the New World that you will find your competitive edge.
The proof? As I’ve been known to say: The proof is in the glass my friend.
many thanks to the following:
Le Manoir au Quat’Saisons for being an un-ending source of inspiration, http://www.manoir.com
Crush Imports for bringing Walter and Axel’s wine to Western Canada, http://www.crushimports.com/
As always, I look forward to your thoughts, comments and questions. Here, or:
on Twitter @AStudentofWine
on Facebook @www.facebook.com/TheChefandTheGrape
CINCIN~!!! SLAINTE~!!! CHEERS~!!!