Mendocino’s House Bubbly.
Scharffenberger Brut has been my house California sparkling wine since the winery was founded in 1981. When John Scharffenberger started his winery in Anderson Valley, he had the foresight and talent to put his winemaking skills into “method champenoise” sparkling wine. He was the first to produce it commercially in Mendocino County sourcing grapes from the Anderson Valley. That was two years before the French company Louis Roederer, which now owns Scharffenberger Cellars, chose Anderson Valley as the place to expand its hundred year-old family-owned champagne production.
On first glance the French connections to Scharffenberger are subtle. The tasting room is in a charming Mendocino country bungalow in downtown Philo. Behind it, the 35,000-square-foot winery isn’t a chateau. Riveted metal doors and the sandblasted glass entry add local artisan touches to the grandly scaled yet graceful structure which sits to the north amid hillside vineyards. An old redwood grove has been carefully protected on the 160-acre property. And the winemaker, who loves to surf, is named Tex. But the inner workings between Scharffenberger’s parent company and its sister property Roederer Estate winery a mile or so up the road create camaraderie and sharing of resources.
Tex Sawyer has scrupulously shepherded the making of Scharffenberger Cellars sparkling wines since 1989. He supervises the production from harvest through two fermentation processes to produce a unique American style sparkling wine.
“Arnaud (Weyrich, winemaker at Roederer Estate) and I, together with company winemakers from France, are the blending team. We taste and blend the wines for Scharffenberger and Roederer,” says Sawyer. Each ends up with a distinctive profile. Scharffenberger’s blend is made with approximately 65 percent Pinot Noir and 35 percent Chardonnay. Roederer’s is Chardonnay based. About half of the wine for Scharffenberger Brut goes through malolactic fermentation. In this process a malolactic strain of yeast is added to the wine to produce a creamier texture and finish. A small percentage of Roederer’s wine goes through malolactic, which rounds out the classic yeasty dry characteristics that exemplify the finesse and refinement we expect from French champagne.
Born Willis Sawyer in San Antonio, Texas, his Topeka, Kansas, grandmother called him Tex from the beginning and now Tex is Sawyer’s legal name. The son of an Air Force dad, Tex Sawyer grew up on bases from Japan to Maryland, Georgia to Thailand. When his father retired in Arroyo Grande, Tex went to Kansas State for a year and then back to southern California where he studied pre-med and got a degree in biochemistry at Cal Poly. “One of the electives was food fermentation,” remembers Tex, who wasted no time making beer at home.
When he didn’t get into medical school, the idea of winemaking took hold and he thought, “I’ll go to UC Davis.” Against his counselor’s advice who said there were no jobs in viniculture in the 1970s, he got a masters in it at Davis. By 1977 he was working his first job in a winery in Paso Robles.
In 1979, Sawyer got a job making wine at Navarro Vineyards and discovered Anderson Valley. He met Lynne in 1980 and they married in 1982. He then worked at Edmeades Vineyards across Highway 128 from Navarro in 1983-86. Then they moved to San Jose where Tex worked as a winemaker until John Scharffenberger called to tell him he’d sold the winery to a French company and did he want to be the winemaker.
“In April of 1989, Lynne and I and our two sons moved back to Anderson Valley,” says Tex. After a couple of previous French company owners, and one short name change to Pacific Echo, Louis Roederer purchased and renamed the winery back to Scharffenberger Cellars.
“We love living in this valley and I love sparkling wine,” says Tex. Their sons grew up here and worked at Navarro vineyards as well. Justin, 26, lives in Los Osos and is a student at Cuesta College. Aaron, 24, worked this past fire season as a forest firefighter and is going back to school. Lynne’s family heritage includes her Italian mother. The family recently made a trip to Italy to celebrate Lynne’s great aunt’s 100th birthday near her mother’s family home near Lucca.
“This was the smoothest harvest I’ve ever had,” says Tex Sawyer, as we walk to the tasting room and he talks about the harvest. He describes the beautiful condition of the grapes and their perfectly balanced flavor components. His French press went down but was “fixed in a minute,” he laughs.
In addition to Brut, Brut Rose, Cremant and the occasional vintage “reserve quality Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay)” Scharffenberger wines also include nonsparkling varietals such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, which are sold only in the tasting room. Known for its art exhibits by local artists, Scharffenberger’s tasting room is a hub of conviviality when each six week show begins with a Friday night reception.
As a fellow food and sparkling wine lover, I wanted to know what Tex recommends pairing with his bubblies. It’s a given that Scharffenberger’s elegant bubbly is a great toast for weddings and special occasions. For a sparkling wine lover like me, it also imperative to keep a bottle in the fridge ready to drink anytime. Tex Sawyer agrees. He likes sparkling wine so much he wrote a guide to pairing food with sparkling wine. Here it is:
Brut Non Vintage: For anytime. Its crisp citrusy flavor and creamy texture give it a broad range for matching food flavors. Especially nice with light meats (pork, chicken, veal), heavier fish (bass, skate, cods, rock fish, sword fish) and vegetarian dishes based on Napa cabbage, eggplant, potato, cheese.
Blanc de blancs: The all Chardonnay bubbly is more austere – very citrus, floral and refined. Serve it with light fish and crustaceans (scallops, prawns, sole, sand dabs). Also works well with mixed greens and a citrus- or mirin-based dressing.
Brut Rose: Pale peach color with a richer depth than Brut, it’s made with a higher percentage of Pinot Noir and matches with anything that goes with pinot noir, such as pork, lamb, beef, venison and other game meats, turkey, tuna, snapper; any tomato-based vegetarian dishes.
Cremant: Tropical fruit aromas, vanilla cream. Works well with Southeast Asian and Pacific Rim fusion cuisines, as well as Cajun. The slight sweetness works well with spicy dishes. Excellent with selection of cheeses and sliced fresh fruit – sitting on the deck on a lazy afternoon!
He also has some tips to test food and wine pairings. Chew a portion of the food and hold it in your mouth while you smell the wine. This allows the heavier aromas of the food to mingle with the more volatile aromas of the wine (retronasal!). Then swallow the food and follow with a swallow of wine. If it smells good together and tastes good together, then you have a match.
The bottom line says Tex, “No matter what Mom said, it is okay to play with your food.” And like me, it’s ok to always keep a bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge.
TASTING NOTES: Scharffenberger Brut Rose’s lovely color and moussey mouthful went beautifully (and was color coordinated) with an Alsakan salmon fillet and pesto topped melone (melon seed shaped) pasta.