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Michael Amsler

Family affair: Walter and Gertrude Schug have an abiding love for "European-style" wines.

Walter Schug has a thing for fine pinot noir

By Bob Johnson

FEW WINES of the 1970s compared in quality to the Insignia bottlings from Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps Vineyards. The blend would change from year to year--a little more cabernet one year, a touch more merlot the next--but the resulting wines always were aromatic, rich, flavorful, and memorable.

Those legendary Insignia bottlings were crafted by Walter Schug, a native of Germany who grew up on a wine estate in the Rhein River Valley. Schug's home was unique in that it was the only pinot noir estate in a region known for producing world-class riesling. Schug fell in love with pinot noir at an early age, and in 1959 moved to the United States in hopes of making his mark with pinot noir.

While making wines at Phelps, Schug gained experience with all the traditional Bordeaux grapes, produced highly touted blends of Insignia even in challenging vintages, and also gained a reputation for making fine riesling. Phelps' wines were receiving worldwide recognition, and Schug's star was rising.

Despite his success, however, Schug was not happy. "At Phelps," he asserts, "I was making just about every kind of wine you could think of, except the kind I wanted to make: pinot noir. I insisted on making pinot noir, and literally had to leave my job in order to do it."

He left Phelps in 1983, founded his own winery, and in 1991 moved the operation to Sonoma County's Carneros appellation on the Napa border. "I admit that, in the beginning, we had to make a lot of chardonnay to pay for my 'hobby,'" Schug recalls. "Back then, our production was about two-thirds chardonnay and one-third pinot noir. Today, it's just the opposite, and all the growth we've enjoyed (from an initial 8,000 cases to 20,000 cases this year) can be credited to pinot noir."

Why would an experienced winemaker with a worldwide reputation for making one of America's great red wines chuck it all to concentrate on a varietal like pinot noir--a grape viewed by many vintners as "difficult" with which to work?

"I am interested in delicacy and finesse," Schug explains, "and there is no wine that portrays those qualities better than pinot noir. True, knowing exactly when to pick pinot noir can be a challenge because the flavor components don't always match up with the sugar levels. True, it's a grape that requires special handling; it doesn't like to be beat up. But harvested at the right time and handled gently, it can produce aromas and flavors unequaled in any other wine."

Schug says he makes his wines in the European style, which may explain why, in the early years, he found it easier to sell his wares to people on the East Coast. "People in the East cut their teeth on European wines, especially French, and that's the style we have been making from the beginning," Schug says.

What is meant, exactly, by a "European" style?

"Every European winemaker, myself included, grew up believing that a wine should express both its varietal characteristics and its regional characteristics," he says. "That means the wine should stand on its own, without the various winemaker embellishments, so the flavors of the fruit are foremost."

That's not to say that Schug is an opponent of oak barrels; in fact, more than 500 such barrels line the walls of the Schug Winery's underground caves. He simply believes that oak should provide an enticing nuance to a wine, not a dominant flavor.

"We use only 15 to 20 percent new oak barrels each vintage, and store the rest of the wine in barrels that are anywhere from 2 to 6 years old," Schug says. "We also use intermediate-sized cooperage [larger casks] to age some of our wine. In this way, we always end up with wines which are very fruit-forward and a true expression of where they came from."

These days, more of Schug's pinot noir grapes are coming from his own estate vineyard, near Highways 116 and 121 on Bonneau Road in Sonoma. He also purchases grapes from other vineyards, one of which dates back 40 years.

Schug always has viewed his winery as a family business. His wife, Gertrude, also comes from a winemaking family, and their son, Axel, hopes to one day carry on the family's winemaking heritage. Meanwhile, Schug is content to finally be able to fulfill his lifelong dream of making world-class pinot noir. "This is our love and our hope," he says earnestly. "It truly is a family business. It's our life."


The Wines

Schug 1996 Pinot Noir North Coast
Made entirely from Carneros grapes but so designated to differentiate it from the winery's signature "Carneros" bottling. Light in structure but jammed with fruity flavors of raspberry and cherry, and a hint of spice. $14. Rating: 3 corks.

Schug 1996 Pinot Noir Carneros
"This is our bread and butter wine," says Schug. "It possesses the structure and flavors people should expect from a bottle of Schug wine." Those flavors include smoky berries and cherries, along with a rich earthiness that leads to a smooth, silky finish. Very French in style, and at $18, priced at about half of what you'd expect to pay for a comparable French Burgundy. Rating: 4 corks.

Schug 1995 Pinot Noir Heritage Reserve, Carneros
Rich and intense, with flavors of black cherry, vanilla, cassis, and tobacco. Not for the faint of heart. Will benefit by about five years of additional cellar aging. $30. Rating: 3.5 corks.

Wines are rated on a scale of 1 to 4 corks: 1 cork, commercially sound; 2 corks, good; 3 corks, excellent; 4 corks, world-class.


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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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