A Taste of Greece With Winemaker Curt Schalchlin of Sans Liege and Groundwork Wines

By Karina Mendoza Calayag
Images by VCrown Photography

Imagine being transported to soothing salty breezes in the warm islands of Greece, France’s historical wine mecca the Rhone Valley and California’s sunny Central Coast all at once?  Sounds like a dream doesn’t it?  Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t.  Better yet it was only a short drive away from home, in SF’s Marina district.

GEV Photographer V Crown and I attended a Tasting Event in Mezes Restaurant at 2373 Chestnut St., SF and as far as I was concerned, the “trip” is exactly what I experienced.  The wine tasting event featured Sans Liege Wines (Groundwork and Sans Liege) poured by none other than the winemaker himself, Curt Schalchlin (“SHACK-lin”). Jimmy Consos of Mezes’ on the other hand was our friendly “tour guide” in exploring Greece, Greek cuisine, a bit of culture and its people.

Winemaker Curt Schalchlin © VCrown Photography

It was a privilege to meet and have a personal audience with Curt.  I was enthralled in his journey in winemaking and captivated by his unique wines with a grape(s) that is not unheard but new to me taste-wise.  Featured wines we sampled were Groundwork Grenache Blanc, Groundwork Grenache, Sans Liege Call To Arms (Grenache Blanc and Rousanne blend), Pickpocket Grenache and Cotes du Coast.  It was a most interesting collection to say the least, each wine with its own story to tell.  And I was curious!

Curt’s humble beginnings in wine-making began in the early 2000s when he joined a few of his friends’ wineries by working unpaid for them to learn more about the craft.  Russell Fromm of Herman Story Wines is one friend Curt specially mentioned who took him under his wing in 2003.  And although he worked for free for his friends ~ his gain was beyond any wage he could’ve received then.  It was priceless and where he ultimately found his calling and his passion to be a winemaker.  In just a couple of years, in 2005, after this epiphany, he then committed to embark on the journey by establishing his own Sans Liege Wines.

Sans Liege is still a relatively young winery nestled in California Central Coast’s Pismo Beach.  It focuses on making wine primarily from similarly the still “young” (to the US market), grenache grape variety with origins from the Rhone Valley of France. He also dabbles with other Rhone grapes here and there (like Rousanne which sounds completely new to me).  Central Coast, whose climate and topography are similar to that of Rhone’s, has proven to be fertile ground for producing world-class grapes including Rhone’s grapes.  Sans Liege wines is testament to this.  But unlike its predecessor in Rhone, it is to no surprise California grenache has its own distinct character.  Sans Liege sources its grapes from neighboring vineyards in the area “that have captured his heart”.

Unacquired  = Without Master = Freedom. 

France has the appellation d’origine controlee’, a governing body in their winemaking industry with its very specific and strict guidelines. Curt has embraced the absence of grandfathered “rules” from any entity to the heart of his winery, hence the name, Sans Liege which means “Without Master”.  And because he is in the forefront of the grenache evolution in the US with just a handful of other winemakers, he makes his wines unbounded, with freedom, without someone to lead him or without someone to follow.  Sans Liege paves its own way.  “Sans Liege is my relentless search for independence.” Curt states unequivocally in his company’s website.

Being a boutique winery Sans Liege exudes grounded charm, warmth and close ties.  Curt has operated his winery all on his own until recently when his wife, joined him in the business.  From the mundane tasks of shipping, to the more intricate details of wine making, Curt did it all. Charming but a true dedication as one can imagine.  But now, “having her in the same schedule and being able to join me in the winery’s events (and an active participant in its growth in general) just makes it even better”, he says.

It is typical to belong in a tight knit group in ones trade and with Curt it is no different.  He remains close to his friends especially those friends whose wineries he worked for in his early days in winemaking.

“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

And for Curt this couldn’t be more true as it is the only way he paves his way as a winemaker.  His heart and his passion is the soul in his wines.  What we saw and sampled from Sans Liege speak volumes of his wholehearted devotion, personal attention to detail and custom touches, most representative of Curt’s unique style, taste, personality and character.  His wines are as he is, still evolving (like a living being) yet already remarkable.  Others would describe his wines with the typical sensory Tasting Notes.  Although each has its own unique identity, collectively I “Note” Sans Liege wines as subtle, deep, mystical, other-worldly, promising, poetic, distinctive and memorable.

Careful and much thought are evident in the naming and distinct artistry of Curt’s wines’ labels, each deeply symbolic, expressive and metaphors to ensure the immortalization of his creation.  A striking image, for example, of a winged creature from Dante’s Inferno in sepia is the artwork of choice for one of his wines he named “Call To Arms”.  It is symbolic of the divinity of his first pick of the grapes he says.  “Pickpocket” is another exquisite wine we tasted and the name is from the fact that it is a blend of select grapes from three different vineyards (Pipestone, Derby and Alta Colina) and it is as if he pickpocketed choice vineyards around of their best grenache grapes to make this impressive wine.  Once imbibed, the visual, the nose and the palate take over and one can’t help but to be fulfilled simply dramatically.

Sans Liege wines has two general lines of wines.  The more affordable Groundwork wines: Grenache Blanc 2011 $16, Grenache 2010 $16- and Grenache Rose’ 2011 $13- are for the everyday consumption and for the more special occasions, the pricier Sans Liege wines: 2010 Call To Arms $30-, 2009 Pickpocket $40- just to name a few.

Sans Liege is indubitably “on its way” in a very unstoppable upward movement to be a recognizable brand to the connoisseur and the average Joe.  Just in its 5th year last year, Sans Liege hit prime time when Wine Spectator magazine rated one of its wines “The Offering” as #34 in their Top 100 Wines (worldwide) for 2011.  They have also named Curt as one of the Top Ten Rhone Wine Producers in California.

After Curt took us on a quick journey in his life as a winemaker and sampling his wines along with him he bid goodbye and joined his wife and friends for dinner. I sensed after the little time he spent with us a mellow and reserved demeanor on the surface but upclose and personal underneath that a depth and fortitude after hearing his story.

V and I were starved and ready for tasting the sampler menu specifically designed for pairing with Groundwork and Sans Liege wines.  We were back in the care of Jimmy Consos, our Mezes host.

The tasting sampler menu was 2 dishes:  Kelemia served with Groundwork Grenache Blanc and Stifatho served with Groundwork Grenache. Kelemia is sweet onions stuffed with ground meats, rice and Greek spices.  It was so light it disintegrated immediately once in the mouth with an explosion of luscious flavor.  De-light-ful!  Stifatho is a slowly cooked beef stew with pearl onions, canella, nutmeg and tomato.  It was bold and robust and went perfectly with the grenache. We were also treated to a few dishes from their regular menu: Octapodi Psito marinated and grilled octopus,  Kalamarakia/Skordalia Breaded fried calamari served with lemon and garlic and Spreads Pikilia Trio served with warm pita.

While we were indulging ourselves, Jimmy, whose family hails from Sparta, Greece kept us entertained with his stories from his hometown, their culture and people.  He announces like it was breaking news, that the customary breaking glass in bars and restaurants has just been recently outlawed in Greece because of the danger it poses, and probably the number of resulting injury it has already caused.  It is not uncommon for bar tabs and restaurant checks to include a special entry: “Breakage”.  He adds, for patrons who have the need to satisfy their appetite to throw, flowers are now offered in place of crystal and plates.  No, it is not the same joy without the crashing sound but they had to make do.  A lively fellow, Jimmy treated us with the warmth of if not like family, certainly like old friends.  I guess the concept of everyone you meet is a potential family member, the hospitality is just innately a part of Greek culture very reminiscent of my own, the Philippines.

Mezes has even come up with (albeit contracted out) a dessert made with Sans Liege Grenache Blanc!  But unfortunately with all the wines we tasted and dishes served us, we had no more room for dessert.  Greek coffee capped off the evening neatly.

One can’t get much luckier to have been able to spend dinner the way I did on an otherwise blustery evening in the ‘burbs of the Bay Area.  Talk about awesome food, wine, company — and stories!

Mezes has carried Sans Liege wines and still serves it daily.  However, if you want to know where to go locally to buy them, you may contact Shannon Burke, Northern California Distributor for Sans Liege Wines at 415.407.7212 or Shannon@burkewinebrokerage.com for stores near you. Or stop by and visit Winemaker Curt Schachlin at his tasting room at 870 Price St., Pismo Beach.  Finally, they are also available online at www.sansliege.com.

Visit them!

Sans Liege Wines
870 Price Street
Pismo Beach, CA 93449
(805) 305-8564

Mezes on Urbanspoon

While in the Hotel and Rest Admin program of the Univ of the Philippines, Karina Calayag attended many courses in food and beverages, and notable among them were courses in Wine Appreciation. She continued her undergraduate studies at Notre Dame de Namur University in two more broad-based majors: Business Administration and Economics, and ultimately earned her MBA from Golden Gate University. She is married with two beautiful daughters, choosing to raise her family after graduation rather than pursuing the professional opportunities offered to her, and thus she rightly earned the title “Domestic Goddess”. She currently resides on the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area. An avid skier, diver and driver (to her kids), an occasional model and full time ROLE model. She loves the Bay Area but she is often visiting in New York, primarily because it’s where her sister lives, though over the years she’s found NY more and more endearing. She found her heart captivated by New York City’s energy and vibrance, convergence of both old and new, food and fashion central, all the arts and culture. Now that her children are getting older, she is setting her sights on traveling to more distant shores, more adventures and possibly pursuing her own passions.