September 25

Schug Carneros Estate Winery- Vegan Wines in Sonoma Valley!

Schug Carneros Estate logo reflects their German history!

I wanted to add a quick update to my experiences with Schug Carneros Estate Winery. As you’ll see once you read my blog post, the winery has a gorgeous view; offers incredible vegan wines and really knows how to throw a party. I was invited back recently by Crista Johnson, Schug’s Marketing Coordinator, to celebrate Oktoberfest. She assured me that Chef Kristine even had some vegan German cuisine just for Steve and me. So on another gorgeous day I headed over to beautiful Sonoma to spend the afternoon with my new friends at Schug. The Biergarten (or more accurately, Weingarten) was perfectly set with polka band Polkageist West, a buffet of German cuisine, never ending Federweisser and all the pretzels and mustard I could eat! Just as Crista promised, Chef made sure I was very well fed. Vegan wurst, German potato salad, cabbage salad, warm pretzels and the best artisan whole grain mustards I’d ever had! If you are looking for a new wine club membership I highly suggest that you give Schug Carneros Estate Winery a try. They have gone far above most local wineries to ensure that their vegan guests have as much food, wine and fun as their omnivorous guests!

I never dreamed that I’d come home from a wine tasting sunburned, sweaty and covered in dirt from my shins down and consider it one of my favorite wine tasting experiences!  I recently joined Schug Estate winemaker Mike Cox and his team at their Pinot N Pickin party and picnic. This was my first grape picking party and I have to admit that it brought out a bit of my competitive side!

Schug Carneros Estate Winery is located in Sonoma County’s beautiful Carneros region just 20 minutes from downtown Napa. This family owned winery has an enduring history in wine making. Founders Walter and Gertrud followed in the footsteps of their fathers who were both wine estate managers in Germany. Their true love endeavored over the next six years while Walter trained at various wineries in Germany, England and California and continued to complete his Viticulture & Enology degree. Finally, spring of 1961, they married and within a month were on a ship heading to New York City. From there, they loaded up all of their possessions into their Volkswagen Beetle and made the cross-country journey to California to join the burgeoning wine industry. In 1966, Walter was hired by E&J Gallo which led to a long relationship making wines for Joseph Phelps Vineyards before he struck out on his own. Having more demand than their leased winery could produce, Walter & Gertrud purchased 50 acres in Sonoma’s Carneros Appellation. As their family business grew, their three children, Andrea, Claudia and Axel, contributed their expertise to the business. And Axel’s wife Kristine explores her passion for food and wine pairing as the Winery Chef. Though Walter and Gertrud have now both passed on, their passion for wine endures through their children!

The morning of the grape picking dawned cool and sunny. It was the beginning of a perfect day. Surrounded by many of the wine club members, I was treated to a quick tour of their cellar before the hard work began. I always enjoy seeing the inner workings of the winery. And contributing to the harvest of the grapes helped me appreciate the amount of work that goes into the finished bottle. The entire team was working hard and bustling around getting it done! Next, was the picking of the teams! Intern Michele from Italy and Lena from Germany were in charge of the competition. As soon as I heard Lena was from Germany, I made sure I got on her team. I even got to practice a bit of my new language skills! But this was no time for play. My team needed to defeat Team Italy. After a quick demonstration on how to use sharp cutting instruments, the picking began. We all started out a little slow but the chatting died down as we became more comfortable harvesting the grapes. It wasn’t long before jackets and sweaters came off and sun hats went on. As the bins began to fill with grapes, the energy turned from friendly to friendly but competitive. It was amazing how quickly an hour and a half flew by! Then the waiting began. Each bin of grapes were driven up to the scales. Tension filled the air and everyone held their breath. And then it was announced…Team Germany defeated Team Italy by 200 pounds! Ja! Fantastich!

To celebrate our harvest, the sipping of wine began! The 2016 Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc was bright, well balanced, and offered a lovely grapefruit finish. A much better way to cool down than drinking water! This wine paired really well with my picnic lunch of fresh greens and a grilled veggie & portobello sandwich on sourdough. It was really delicious; another reminder that some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten are made with simple & healthy whole foods. The 2015 Estate grown Chardonnay was another wonderful surprise. Grown in the cool climate at the Estate vineyard with minimal new oak, it was refreshing with an elegant finish. This Chardonnay pairs very nicely with food. Next, they introduced the 2015 Estate grown Pinot Noir. It will do nothing but improve with a couple more years of cellaring but I really enjoyed the flavor of strawberry and the silky finish! Finally, I finished my picnic with the 2013 Late Harvest Riesling. The 2013 Riesling is not vegan but the next vintage release will be! Walter Schug was a true pioneer of late harvest Rieslings with almost 60 years of winemaking experience here in the U.S. and Germany. Its high sugar content made this the perfect finish to a perfect afternoon! Who needs dessert when we can sip the wonderful outcome of noble rot!

Winemaker Mike Cox grew up in Sonoma and learned much about the winemaking process in his hometown. Being a local, he had a big jump start over many other young winemakers who don’t grow up in such an extraordinary area. While he started college studying to become a chemical engineer, it wasn’t long before he transferred to U.C. Davis and completed his Enology degree. His summers where spent working at Sonoma wineries, learning and building experience in the industry. He enjoys working closely with growers and prefers small production vineyards for the unique qualities they contribute to his blends. This really does show through in his wines. He prefers using the newer technologies available to winemakers today which include not only the hydraulic punch-down fermenters but also moving away from using animal product to fine his wines. Beginning with his 2014 to current vintages, his whites are all vegan-friendly. Any reds beginning in 2005 to current vintages are vegan as are the Roses and Rouge de Noirs.

Intern Lena with Team Germany celebrating our win!

If you are planning on exploring Sonoma Valley, Schug Carneros Estate is a wonderful place to start. The drive up Bonneau Road takes you through the vineyards to the hillside tasting room. The families’ German history is reflected in their cozy post and beam tasting room and their German flag. And from the upper patio you will enjoy a spectacular 360 degree view that includes Mount Diablo. Hang out with friends at the picnic tables and order wine by the glass or take a self-guided tour wandering through the vineyards. No appointment is needed; just stop by the tasting room for a detailed guide with the points of interest marked along your route. Reservations for a tasting are only required if your party is 6 or more. If you do prefer a private tasting, CLICK HERE to schedule your visit. Make a day of it, enjoy beautiful Sonoma Valley and as always; eat, drink…and be vegan!

July 22

Topaz Late Harvest Wine – Noble Rot Never Tasted So Good!

toplogoBesides tasting many amazing wines, what I have enjoyed most about blogging is how much I have learned about wine and the winemaking process. The power of the vine to wine process is very seductive. Even as a novice, I am beginning to understand the passion that drives winemakers. This week my education included things like botrytis, semillion and Sauternes. And to top that all off I tasted some of the best dessert wine and met a wonderful winemaker who was happy to share his story.

photo of my bottle

Jeff Sowells’ history started in California’s Central Valley. Kickstarting his love for winemaking, right out of high school, he was hired by a company that handled bulk wines, brandy and grape concentrate for juice. In 1978, Jeff found his way to Napa Valley and worked for Buena Vista Winery in nearby Sonoma Valley. By 1982 he was working in Silverado Vineyards’ cellar and taking wine making courses. It was a call from renowned winemaker Walter Schug asking for Jeff’s assistance with his Storybook and Costello projects, that boosted his confidence and jumpstarted his career! He soon became a consulting winemaker for many of the small winemaking operations that were popping up in Napa Valley. He purchased an old mail truck, installed a mobile lab and headed up and down the Valley helping the industry newcomers!

In 1986 while helping out Macaulay Vineyard, the season’s late rains became the catalyst for what winemakers call “noble rot”. Botrytis Cinerea, the botanical name for noble rot, is a benevolent fungus that infests grapes when the conditions are moist and the grapes are ripe. It is truly the catalyst in creating the greatest dessert wines in the world. But if the weather stays wet, it can then turn to “grey rot” and destroy the grapes! Oh, the fickle acts of nature! Instead of losing all of the sauvignon blanc grapes, Jeff was inspired to try his hand at creating a late harvest dessert wine. Following the French Sauternes style of winemaking, Jeff also bought botrytisized semillion grapes and Jeff’s passion for sweet wine began!

Noble Rot! Not pretty but does make delicious wine.
Noble Rot! Not pretty but does make delicious wine.

His story takes a bit of a sad turn when in 1988 Macaulay Vineyard’s owner, Ann Watson, was killed in a car accident. Jeff purchased the dessert wine from her estate and Topaz Late Harvest Wine began. Topaz is the perfect name for Jeff’s creation – it is his birth stone and the rich, gorgeous color of the wine. Thanks to good reviews and a good rating from Wine Spectator his 400 cases of Topaz quickly sold out. And since Botrytis is created by Mother Nature, Jeff was convinced that this vintage would be a one-time thing. But before he knew it the early rains in ’89 provided another opportunity for him to do it again. This harvest earned him a double gold rating in the S.F. Competition in 1991. This happened time and time again and before he knew it he had been making dessert wines for 25 years. In 2007 Jeff harvested the grapes, fermented and aged the wine in oak barrels and bottled his final vintage in 2009.

Be sure to taste this one!
Be sure to taste this one!

But don’t be sad! Jeff still offers a wonderful library of his late harvest dessert wine vintages dating from 1989 through 2004. And here is the really fun part about the experience. I got to head over to Jeff’s home in North Napa, hang out at his dining table, sip his delicious dessert wine and listen to his story! And the good news is that all of the dessert wines are vegan. What I enjoyed the most about the wines was the difference between the vintages. The 2004 which contains more semillion is fruit forward with hints of pear, melon and fennel. The 2005 which contains more Sauvignon Blanc is bright and tastes of ginger and pineapple all while being sweet and approachable. He even shared a taste or two of his 1989 vintage with me! This is a lovely experience so different from a typical tasting room experience. It is something you should make the time to do while in Napa. I know I am glad that I did! Jeff’s wines have been enjoyed at the White House by several of our Presidents, featured at The Four Seasons and The Ritz Carlton and are available locally at Aubergue du Soleil, Celadon, Redd and French Laundry and more. And you can always order his wines through his website!

Jeff Sowells and Topaz Wines can be reached at 707.252.2468 or  Give him a call, enjoy some tasting and fall in love with his award-winning dessert wine! And as always…eat, drink and be vegan!