It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Walter Schug. This guy has been working in the California wine industry since 1966, when he was a grape buyer for Gallo. He is still hip-deep in making some phenomenal pinot noirs and has been continuously since he started working for Joseph Phelps in 1973. Our conversation ranged from the latest on this year’s harvest – “It went on a long time,” he noted – to the history of the California wine industry to the development of yeast in Germany.
We discovered the winery last spring as we were tooling around the Carneros region. They do make other wines there, but the pinots are what got us excited. These are lovely, gentle food wines – not the high-alcohol fruit bombs that, as Schug put it, were made to impress Robert Parker. It may not be the done thing these days, but that doesn’t seem to bother Schug.
He started out making wine in the Rheingau region of Germany, following in the footsteps of his father, who oversaw pinot noir production in Assmannshausen (as in the yeast, for you wine geeks – it was developed in the winery his father oversaw for the German government).
“I was born and raised with pinot noir,” Schug said, pointing out that his father managed the only red wine facility in “an ocean of riesling.”
Schug, himself, got his enology degree in Germany in 1959 and eventually found his way to California, where, as noted above, he worked for Gallo, touring Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties to find the best grapes for the huge winemaker. He went on to make wine for Joseph Phelps, in particular, pinot noir – the grape of his youth. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Americans were just getting the idea that varietal wines were more sophisticated than jug wines and there wasn’t much of a market for pinot noir.
“At the time, nobody really believed in it,” Schug said. “But I believed in it. We were only making 1500 cases out of 80,000 cases.”
Phelps decided to discontinue making pinot noir, and Schug was crushed. He went to Phelps and talked the winery owner into letting Schug buy the grapes and make his own pinot noir that he would distribute under his own label, and thus Schug Winery was born. By 1983, Schug had trained a successor and went off on his own.
“I was out there by myself,” he said, “my wife and I.”
Today the winery puts out about 55,000 cases. His own vineyards only supply 22 percent of his grapes, with the rest coming from high-end producers, including San Giacamo. They have several varieties available, including a brand new pinot noir rose that we didn’t get to taste because it wasn’t released when we were there. You can visit their website here.