One wine, one rose
Walter Schug measures the years
It’s a long way from the Rhineland village of Assmannshausen to the windswept hillsides of Carneros, and if you’re intent on measuring the distance, years work better than miles.
For Walter Schug the operative number is 50, because that’s roughly how long he’s been making pinot noir, first as an apprentice at the famous Staatsweingut estate beside the River Rhine, and finally as the master of his own vineyards and the envoy of a varietal vision it took years to deliver.
The popularity of Sideways, the movie that put pinot on the American wine map, tends to obscure the long history of rejection that preceded the wine’s overnight success. Schug made his first pinot in 1954 and, with a few digressions, it has been his life’s (and his wife’s) work. He patiently persisted in the belief that its time would come and now, five decades later, anyone would agree he’s been wildly successful. But for the silver-haired Schug it’s been a long road and while the current hagiography of pinot noir may shroud the varietal in a bit of smoke and mirrors, for Schug, there’s no mystery to making magical pinot. He’s been doing it consistently for decades.
Schug has, in fact, devoted the bulk of his professional life to the elegant varietal. And with the unconditional support of wife Gertrud, his 50-plus-year career has helped make pinot what it is today.
The progeny of German winemakers, Schug grew up at the famous Staatsweingut Assmannshausen estate, a winery situated along a stretch of the Rhine rife with romantic villages, half-timber houses, rich slate soils and an age-old winemaking tradition that stretches back to Charlemagne.
While much of the region specializes in riesling, Staatsweingut is legendary for its pinot noir, and both Schug’s father and grandfather held winemaking reins there during Walter’s formative years.
It was in this rich milieu that Walter flourished, completed his studies and took a lovely young bride named Gertrud. The young couple relocated to California soon after, where Schug oversaw all of the grapes purchased by Gallo in the 1960s. Because of his wealth of vineyard knowledge, he was hired as founding winemaker for Napa’s Joseph Phelps Vineyards.
Though Schug produced stunning and complex mountain pinot noirs at Phelps, he vaulted to true winemaking stardom by way of the Bordeaux varietals he crafted there—most notably the legendary “Insignia” released in 1974. Schug was at the top of his game, his future bright.
Then, in a decision evoking more Italian passion than German caution, he resigned from Phelps when his boss discontinued pinot noir. Conventional thinking said pinot had little future as a premium California wine. Schug thought otherwise and stuck to his guns and his dream.
On the cusp of that dream, Walter and Gertrud purchased a 50-acre parcel just south of Sonoma in the Carneros region, where Walter began producing pinot noir under his own label in 1980.
They patiently produced vintage after vintage of outstanding pinot noirs, knowing that one day their misunderstood muse would finally be appreciated in the American marketplace.
Both children of World War II, Walter and Gertrud never forgot those difficult times, and it’s been their old-school philosophy, meticulous attention to detail and—above all—commitment to doing things the right way that heralded the success they worked so hard for. Today Schug Carneros Estate Winery sells about 45,000 cases of wine annually, and the reputation of Schug’s pinot noirs has finally exceeded that of his glorious wines from Joseph Phelps.
In the exquisite and leafy clutches of his backyard garden near downtown Sonoma, Schug, now 72, elaborates.
“I never gave up on it,” he says, “Pinot noir was considered unsellable. It was downgraded and disrespected due to lack of knowledge. (But) even then, there were some really good ones, like Joseph Swan. Americans are taught to like ‘big and bold.’ That’s why we have monster SUV’s. But a few of us never gave up on pinot noir.”
Schug tips a thoughtful hat to several pinot pioneers and colleagues, among them “Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek as well as Dick Ward and David Graves of Saintsbury, (who) made huge investments into the future of pinot noir.”
Several years ago, the Schugs gave up their seven-days-a-week life at the winery to enjoy what they had earned. Their son Axel took over day-to-day operations, while Winemaker Michael Cox has continued to produce excellent wines.
Walter tended his immaculate garden, and Gertrud planned future travels abroad. Then tragically, a year ago, his wife of 46 years succumbed to cancer. Walter’s passion for pinot noir is second only to his unwavering passion for Gertrud. Hers was the kind of presence nothing can replace.
“She was the one who pulled us through all of my ideas. She saw us through all of the hard times and all of the good times, too. She raised a phenomenal family.”
Each morning, Walter picks a fresh rose from his garden for Gertrud, arranging it in a vase in the center of their home. It is one flower, but it fills the room.
Walter Schug has succeeded through unwavering faith and conviction. He stayed on the pinot path and, with Gertrud, played an important role in promoting its acceptance in America.
Pinot noir has arrived all right. Walter Schug always knew it would.
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA