Wine clubs are an increasingly popular way to receive premium and uncommon wines, with regularity, and often at a discount. Many clubs offer special events, occasions to join with congenial and like-minded fellow-members, to get out in the world for a good time with wine, food, music, and sometimes adventure.
The wine club of the Schug Carneros Estate Winery recently held its annual mushroom foray, an event that may epitomize the appeal of membership. It’s an especially good example of the adventurous sort of activities that make the Schug club unusual. Recent excursions have included cheese and wine pairings at a local cheese maker and kayaking on the Northern California coast at Tomales Bay, always with an emphasis on both fun and learning, and ultimately of course on the appreciation of wine.
The Schug winery is located in southern Sonoma County, California. It’s situated atop a rise with all-round views of the San Francisco Bay and the Carneros hills and vineyards, near the main crossroads of the Sonoma Valley (highways 12 and 121).
We gathered at the winery for the foray with thirty-or-so intrepid club members and mushroom hunters on a gray Saturday morning, under a sky that bullied threats of a drenching rain -- but thankfully never delivered. Our host was David Key. He eschews any formal title at Schug, but he seems to run the tasting room, and he clearly served as Master of Ceremonies for the event. Large of stature and presence, a shaven head, he’s like an amiable Daddy Warbucks. Once he had rounded us into an organized group we caravanned north into the Valley of the Moon (Jack London’s old haunt), to the Atwood Ranch, a spacious estate of vineyards and rolling woodland. Somewhere in the high ground above the parking lot were the mushrooms, nestled and waiting like Easter eggs.
Our guide for the hunt was a man legendary enough in his field to be known by just one name: Charmoon. A slight and modest man at first sight -- his face bearded and well-weathered, and woolen capped, and dressed in western Sonoma County slouchery. He would be undistinguished in any shopping mall or formal affair, but this day he was riveting, a master, amongst the trees and growth and cover. A man of the outdoors, a man of the mountains, an expert man of the mysterious mushroom, for which he has held a life-long fascination. Almost every day of the year he is somewhere giving a tour, cooking class, or presentation. In the course of a few hours’ familiarity he takes shape as a man at peace and in love with his work, sharing his truly fascinating lore with others.
Charmoon’s given name is a mystery. Or rather, he would say, his current name was given him while in a state of deep meditation. “Your name is now Charmoon,” it somehow transpired, and we soon warmed to appreciate its perfect fittingness, a nom de champi.
Charmoon and David took us up the hillside and showed us the subtle art of hunting mushrooms, some of them familiar, some that one might never suspect as such. They come in all shapes, sizes and resemblances, from clumps like cold green pasta to decaying brown heaps like cattle-droppings. We learned more than we could have hoped or anticipated. Specific varieties of mushrooms often grow in symbiosis with specific kinds of trees, exchanging nutrients for mutual benefit. A grove of apparently individual mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies of a single network of thin white underground filaments. Even large mushrooms can grow to full size in as little as four days. There are three to four thousand varieties native to California, and of those, only eight to ten are deadly, only twenty to thirty are of gourmet quality. Some of the most prized and expensive varieties cannot be farmed, they will not grow in captivity -- and remarkably, no one knows a scientific reason why. Beyond the familiar gastronomical uses of mushrooms there are some varieties used for medicine and dye-making. We learned, but may never practice, how to concoct a homeopathic tincture of turkey tail mushrooms and vodka to boost one’s immune system.
After about two hours of hunting, examining and discussing, it was time to return to the winery. David Cumming, the Schug public relations representative and architect of the club’s unusual flair for adventures, met us there. An English accent suggests a spirit and aspiration broader-ranging than his native island, but on this day he had graciously sacrificed himself indoors to the task of preparing the wine-and-dine affair to follow the hunt.
We gathered in the wine cellar with tables set amid the large French casks of oak. First there was sourdough bread, several gourmet cheeses, and the Schug specialties -- Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Charmoon prepared samples of a particularly choice fungus (which of course is what mushrooms are) sautéed in his prize-winning sauce.
Winery founder Walter Schug soon made his appearance, exuding dignity and a dry and tannin wit. One could imagine his biography as maybe an ethics professor at a venerable German university, or a professional too independent to remain a cog in some bureaucratic or financial institution, now liberated to the artistry of winemaking. But in fact he’s always been of a winemaking family. He was born and raised in Germany, and he’s brought a distinctive blend of Franco-German and American winemaking to Sonoma County.
The tables were each set for eight-or-so, and soon was struck a pleasant camaraderie amongst the groups of safari-mates. At our table, free-flowing discussion passed from our various origins and vocations to our unanimous appreciation for Schug, to our bemusement with the film Sideways.
Before long it was time for the buffet, an inspiration of French cuisine. The star course was cassoulet, a delicious provincial stew of beans and duck. All the while, David Cumming and his enthusiastic assistant Nicki Wood were quick to refill our glasses from magnums of their frenchly-robusty Pinot Noir.
The event culminated with the award by acclamation of the most unusual mushroom to be hunted down and captured -- a gray, pie-sized, decaying mass with upturned edges much like a royal crown, or maybe a jester’s hat. Herr Schug was quick to make the connection and donned it to his head (insulated by a napkin) as “the crown of Charlemagne.”
The wine stopped flowing, in due and prudent time. The expeditioners began to drift away, as the day itself resigned.
Ah, the inspiration of fine wine, good food, new friends and acquaintances…
We parted warm, forthright, and smiling
and a bottle Schug wilst e’r be charming
Charmoon, his mushrooms and recipes, can be discovered at www.wildaboutmushrooms.net. The Schug Carneros Estate Winery is at the end of Bonneau Road, off the intersection of state highways 12 and 121, and online at www.schugwinery.com.
Jim Arnold and photographer Ingrid Larnis have a book coming out in May from Pelican Books, Wine Clubs of Sonoma County: the pleasures and perks of belonging. They can be contacted at [email protected].