Wednesday, June 23, 2010

California Pinot Noir Pioneer Walter Schug: From the Rheingau in Germany to Carneros in California

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Walter Schug in California

Walter Schug is a celebrated winemaker in California with German roots. He is in particular known for being a California Pinot Noir pioneer. His home is Walter Schug Carneros Estate winery in Sonoma, California, but he was born and grew up in Assmannshausen in the Rheingau in Germany. He also received his formal training as winemaker in Germany.

Assmannshausen in the Rheingau

Walter Schug first made Pinot Noir in 1954, with his father in Assmannshausen in the Rheingau. The Rheingau is known throughout the world for its outstanding Rieslings. But at the western edge of the Rheingau is a little enclave that never has produced Riesling but always has been known for its outstanding Pinot Noir wines. This is Assmannshausen, the home town of Walter Schug.

Pictures: Staatsweingut Assmannshausen and Assmannshausen today

The Rheingau, although with 3125 hectares making up only 3 percent of the total German vineyard area, has seen of many historically important events in German wine making, like the production of the first late harvest wine, and contains many well-known wine producers. It boasts a higher proportion of Riesling (78.8%) than any other German wine-growing region, with Spätburgunder (Pinot noir) accounting for most of the rest.


In the US, Pinot Noir shows best in Oregon and California, thanks to pioneers like Walter Schug. The reputation that gets Pinot Noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of the Bourgogne in France, where it has probably been cultivated since at least the 4th century. Regardless of where it’s grown, Pinot Noir is not typically a value wine. That is so because Pinot Noir is such a delicate grape that it is difficult and expensive to grow and make into the spectacular wine it can be. It is sensitive to climate and soil, Pinot Noir needs warmth (but not intense heat) to thrive and does well in chalky soils. As the German name implies, it ripens late (spät).

Walter Schug in Germany

Walter Schug was born in Germany in 1935 on the grounds of the Staatsweingut Assmannshausen, a government-owned top German Pinot Noir Estate. His father was the General Manager there and Walter spent his youth working beside his father in the winery and vineyards.

Picture: 2008 Pinot Noir, Staatsweingut Assmannshausen

He got his formal training as winemaker at the Geisenheim College, just a few miles away from Assmannshausen, where he graduated in 1954. He then worked at several German wine estates before coming to California in 1959 with his late wife Gertrud, also from a prominent wine family, in the Pfalz region.

Walter Schug and Joseph Phelps

Walter Schug was the first winemaker at Joseph Phelps in 1973, where he initially built a reputation for Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. He also made the first post-Prohibition Syrah at Phelps. The much sought-after Insignia, a proprietary Bordeaux-blend, is another of Walter’s winemaking achievements, when he worked at Joseph Phelps.

Picture: Pinot Noirs - Staatsweingut, Joseph Phelps and Schug

Walter Schug Carneros Estate

In 1980, Joseph Phelps decided to discontinue Pinot Poir. Walter, with his passion for Pinot Noir, decided to craft his own version of Pinot Noir under his own name and left Joseph Phelps in 1983.

Initially, Walter and Gertrud Schug leased a winery in Napa Valley. In 1989, Walter and Gertud purchased 50 acres in the Sonoma portion of the Carneros Appellation, began to plant the vineyards and laid the cornerstone for their new Carneros Estate that is the heart of the business today.

Picture: Walter and Gertrud Schug

As the family business grew, each of Walter and Gertrud’s 3 children contributed to the winery business at some point. Daughter Andrea used her CPA training to provide financial advice during the early years of operation; twin sister Claudia moved to Germany and set up Schuetz Weinimport. She now imports Schug wines and distributes them throughout Europe. After an initial career working in hotels, Axel Schug joined the winery at age 25 and became Sales and Marketing Director, based in the Carneros offices. Axel is currently the Managing Partner for the Walter Schug Carneros Estate and Axel’s wife, Kristine Schug, is the Winery Chef. Sadly, Gertrud Schug passed away in 2007.

Pictures: Walter Schug and Christian G.E. Schiller at the Schug Estate in California

In 1995 Sonoma-born winemaker Michael Cox came on board at Schug. Trained in Enology at UC Davis, Mike worked in several Californian wineries before he was lured from Napa Valley to Carneros - Sonoma, to work with Walter Schug as his assistant winemaker. One year later he was promoted to winemaker and placed in charge of the day-to-day winemaking duties, where he remains today.

With Michael Cox on board as winemaker, Walter now holds the title of Winemaster Emeritus and uses his experience of more than half a century to provide guidance to the Schug team.

Picture: Axel and Walter Schug with Michael Cox on the right

Sustainable Winemaking

The Schug team is very concerned with finding the most environmentally friendly and efficient way of growing the grapes. Cover crop is an important part of the yearly cycle. In the Spring, carpets of mustard flowers, California poppies and wild grasses cover the ground between the vines. Not only does this transform the vineyards into a colorful patchwork, but the benefits also include prevention of soil erosion, nitrogen addition, soil structure improvement, weed suppression and creating a habitat for beneficial insects. In addition, it reduces the vineyard work load, fuel use, and the necessity for pesticides.

Picture: Schug Wines

Sustainable winegrowing practices at Schug also extend to creating habitats for varying species of birds, particularly raptors and owls, which provide direct pest control to the vineyard. There are a variety of nesting boxes set up to encourage these larger birds who control the numbers of starlings, rodents and rabbits. Other nesting boxes are in place for the small birds who eat harmful insects on the vines.

The Carneros District in Sonoma

The winery itself is constructed in a post-and-beam architectural style that reflects the Schug family's roots in the Rheingau. But here, you could see San Francisco Bay from the hilltop.

Picture: Walter Schug Carneros Estate

The Carneros District lies at the south end of both the Napa and Sonoma valleys. An area of low hills and flat lands, the region is profoundly affected by cool marine air from the bay and Pacific Ocean. During the summer, a ceiling of fog hovers over the Carneros vineyards in the morning, burning off as the day goes on. Specifically on the Schug Estate, the fog is replaced at midday by summertime winds that come rushing through what is known as the Petaluma Gap, a break between two mountains which creates a kind of wind-tunnel across the vineyards. The wind stress causes the skin of the grapes to thicken, particularly the higher Pinot Noir plantings, a characteristic that adds pepper and spice nuances to the wine.

Picture: Carneros Map with Wineries

Sonoma Valley is home to some of the earliest vineyards and wineries in California. The Franciscan missionaries led the way, bringing the Mission grape to make wines for religious services. Cradled between the Mayacamas and the Sonoma Mountain ranges, Sonoma Valley encompasses a rolling patchwork of vineyards, quaint farms and 13,000 acres of scenic parkland, with many famous wineries. One of them is the Walter Schug Carneros Estate, which has its roots in the Rheingau in Germany.

Walter Schug Carneros Estate

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  1. I am currently enjoying a glass of 2004 August Kesseler spatburgunder (Assmannshausen), so thanks for the information on Schug in California.

  2. Kesseler is a top producer. Enjoy the wine. Different from what we know from California.