Thursday, September 1, 2011

Visiting Walter Schug and his Schug Carneros Estate Winery in Carneros, California

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Walter Schug in Carneros

Schug Carneros Estate Winery in Carneros/Sonoma is the showcase and life-long dream of a celebrated California winemaker with German roots - Walter Schug. His home is Schug Carneros Estate winery in Sonoma, California, but he was born and grew up in Assmannshausen in the Rheingau in Germany, not too far away from Mainz, where I spent 10 years before moving to Washington DC.

Today, Walter Schug uses his experience of over 50 harvests to oversee the production at Schug Carneros Estate Winery, while son Managing Partner Axel Schug and Sonoma-raised Winemaker Michael Cox run the day-to-day duties at the winery.

I had the pleasure to spend almost half a day with Walter Schug. We first took a look at the vineyards in the Carneros appellation. We then toured the winery and tasted some of the Schug wines. We finished the visit with a lunch in Sonoma, where Walter lives. During these hours, we talked a lot about Walter’s passion for Pinot Noir and his life that brought him from Assmannshausen in the Rheingau to Sonoma in California. And I took many pictures.

This is the first posting of a series of postings on Walter Schug. 2 more postings will follow: (1) In the Carneros AVA with Walter Schug.(2) Lunch with Walter Schug. I have already written about Walter Schug on schiller-wine: California Pinot Noir Pioneer Walter Schug: From the Rheingau in Germany to Carneros in California.

A California Wine Legend: Walter Schug

German-born Walter Schug is in particular known for being a California Pinot Noir Pioneer. Yet the success of his Schug Carneros Estate Winery is only the last chapter in an extraordinary career of making extraordinary wines in California.

Before establishing Schug Carneros Estate Winery, Walter Schug was Vice President and Winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards for 10 years, laying the groundwork for Phelps' rise to iconic status. Under Walter’s hand, Joseph Phelps Vineyards became one of California’s top wineries. At Phelps, Walter produced America’s first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend, the critically acclaimed “Insignia.” He further developed Napa Valley’s reputation as a source of great Cabernet, producing the single-vineyard bottlings from the Eisele and Bacchus vineyards. His groundbreaking work with botrytis-affected Riesling and Gewurztraminer would help redefine the very idea of California dessert wine. Walter would go on to be the first to bottle a varietal-labeled Syrah. The 1974 vintage was the first varietal Syrah ever marketed in the United States and laid the groundwork for the popularity of Rhone-style wines today.

Picture: Pinot Noir from the Staatsweingut Assmannshausen in Germany, Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir and Schug Carneros Estate Pinot Noir

Schug Carneros Estate Winery

Schug Carneros Estate Winery is situated on a 50-acre site in the Carneros Appellation, south-west of the town of Sonoma. The post-and-beam German-style winery, hidden down a dusty lane behind a gas station, employs 12 people full time and a revolving cast of foreign students.

Picture: Schug Carneros Estate Winery

When Walter started to produce his own wines in 1980, his wife Gertrud joined the effort full time. With the help of Gertrud's tight financial controls, Walter and Gertrud purchased 50 acres and began to plant the vineyards in the Sonoma portion of the Carneros Appellation in 1989. Two years later, in 1991, the Schug Carneros facility went into operation.

Today, Schug Carneros Estate produces 50,000 cases annually. “In the beginning we made three times more Chardonnay than Pinot Noir. Today it is the opposite” Walter said.

In the Vineyard

Walter first showed me the Schug Carneros Estate vineyards. Their own vineyards of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay surround the winery, while other grapes are brought in from respected and experienced growers near by. With the increasing total output, the share of the latter is rising, explained Walter. “Only 22% is from our own vineyards today.”

The Schug vineyards are within the Carneros Viticultural Appelation, which lies at the south end of both the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Walter’s work with Carneros growers while at Gallo and Joseph Phelps convinced him that this region was capable of producing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 1985 Walter participated in founding the Carneros Quality Alliance.

Pictures: In the Vineyards with Walter Schug

When I was standing on a rise behind his winery with Walter Schug I was very proud and honored. I could feel that Walter saw more than the Carneros vineyards in front of us. Walter surveyed a California wine industry that had been transformed from its forgotten status in the 1960s to the level of international quality leader it enjoys now. We talked a lot about these amazing developments over the hours we spent together. Modestly, Walter simply acknowledged an involvement in this transformation. Of course, there is much more to it. Walter Schug’s influence and impact on California wine make him an icon in the industry.

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 Carneros 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.

In terms of grape growing, Walter said that the Schug team was 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.

Pictures: In the Vineyards with Walter Schug

Sustainable wine growing practices at Schug Carneros Estate 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.

Walter said “We like to harvest Pinot Noir at a relatively low 23 to 24.5 Brix (sugar) and Chardonnay at 22 to 23.5. But just as important as the sugar level is the complexity of the flavor. You've got to taste the grapes to see if they are physically mature, not only sugar mature.” The goal is to avoid "overripe, portlike wines that some people strive for because it gives them high ratings," Walter Schug said. "We like delicate balance and finesse."

In the Cellar

Walter showed us around in the impressive cellar, which reminded me a lot of the wine cellars I know from Germany. In particular, there were not only 800 barrique barrels but also 30 larger barrels (German Stueckfass), which are exactly the same as those you find in Walter’s homeland Germany, but probably nowhere else in California.

Pictures: In the Cellar with Walter Schug

Initially, for 4 years Walter made his wine using the facilities at Storybook Winery. Then Walter moved to Yountville, into a building owned by one of the Domaine Chandon principals. Through 1990 he continued to build production, reaching the 6,000 case level. The Schug Carneros facility went into operation in 1991, followed in 1995 by 5,000 square feet of barrel ageing caves. More cave additions followed since then and another cave addition is in the planning.

"We have always done well in the overseas market, but we have seen preferences shift here in the U.S.," Walter said. Particularly with Chardonnay, there has been a noticeable change away from the big oaky California-style Chardonnays to a more lean austere style which pairs more aptly with a wide variety of food.

Pictures: In the Cellar with Walter Schug

In the cellar, Walter explained, he favors progressive use of the newer technologies available to winemakers today, such as the Voll Tauchers, hydraulic punch-down fermenters that automate the process of gently punching down the cap during fermentation, while at the same time preserving age old traditions.

The Schug Carneros Estate Portfolio

Though Walter’s career began in Germany’s Rheingau, his wines are more often associated with fine French Burgundy. This similarity is due in part to Walter’s philosophy that the varietal and regional qualities of the grape should shine through in his wines. “But the true credit goes to the grapes themselves, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from the cool Carneros Appellation, where climate and soils provide traits consistent with their French counterparts. The long Carneros growing season allows these grapes to mature slowly, developing intense flavors with balanced acidity” said Walter.

Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the stars of the Schug Porfolio. True to the Carneros region, they exhibit lush, intense fruitiness, spicy complexity with balanced oak and acidity. “We make Pinot Noir at 3 quality levels” continued Walter “in stainless steel, 8 to 10 months in barrique barrels and our Heritage Reserve wine”.

The Schug Heritage Reserve collection is blended from the finest barrels in each vintage. These bottling are produced in small lots, emphasizing added complexity and concentration.

Pictures: Tasting Walter Schug Wines with Walter Schug

In recent years, Walter has even found room for some old friends, adding Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well as Sauvignon Blanc to his own label. Indeed, Schug's Heritage Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon brings back memories of his earlier Insignia creations. Blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, this limited 400 case production wine is sought out by the many collectors who remember his earlier years at Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

The first wine under the Schug label was the 1980 Heinemann Vineyard Pinot Noir from grapes grown on a Napa Valley hillside vineyard. Though this vineyard launched the brand, Walter’s search for great Pinot Noir eventually took him to the Carneros region.

schiller-wine: Related Postings

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The 2011 Pinot Days in San Francisco

In the Glass: A 2007 Pinot Noir from the Gault Millau Shooting Star of the Year - Estate Baron Gleichenstein, Germany

In the Glass: Pinot Noir from France, Germany and California

New Classification of New Zealand Pinot Noirs

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

German winemakers in the World: Robert Stemmler (USA)

Meeting Winemaker Dianna Lee and Tasting Her Siduri Wines and Her Novi Family Wines


  1. We just enjoyed our first bottle of Barrique Cellars Sonoma Carneros Chardonnay 2010. It was delicious. We bought it at Schneider's in DC. Exqusite taste and my favorite wine is not white but I look forward to enjoying another bottle and also trying Schug Heritage Reserve Pinot Noir.

  2. What a great look inside the winery's daily life! Very nice pictures too, especially the wine cellar.

    I've been to Schug twice, love their Pinots.