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Pinot Noir Partisan Walter Schug Passes

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Walter Schug PicmonkeyWalter Schug 1935 - 2015By Dan Clarke

October 12, 2015 – This morning’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that Walter Schug passed away on Saturday. He was 80 years old. I met him only a few times, but he seemed the kind of guy I’d have liked to know better.

Walter and his wife, Gertrud, arrived in California more than half a century ago. They both came from winemaking families and Walter had studied viticulture and enology at Geisenheim before continuing his education at the University of California, Davis.

In 1966 Gallo hired Walter Schug as Director of Grower Relations and Quality Control. Much of his time was spent working with independent growers supplying grapes to that company. In 1973 he became the first winemaker for Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Though that winery set a high standard for quality, the proprietor chose to abandon making Pinot Noir in an era when that grape was not selling particularly well. Walter chafed and eventually opted to open his own winery, Schug Carneros Estate, in 1980. Though it also produces wines from other grape varieties, the winery is best known as a Pinot Noir specialist.

Some years ago I attended a wonderful luncheon honoring Walter. Guests who’d worked with him in earlier eras spoke of their times spent together. They told stories of flying up and down California, while sourcing grapes for Gallo. Of creating Insignia while at Joesph Phelps, America’s first proprietary red wine based on a blend of Bordeaux grape varieties. Of Walter establishing own winery in a part of the state that was to become known as one of the very best regions for growing Pinot Noir.

Wines poured for the occasion were splendid, of course. Schug Carneros Estate’s entire line is excellent and those we tasted were representative. There were also a couple of surprises.

A jug or two of Gallo Hearty Burgundy appeared. They looked familiar, but not exactly like the current packaging. The fellow who brought them explained that they were from the era when Walter was working for that company. Arguably, these were Walter’s wines. If he wasn’t the winemaker of record, he certainly did source the grapes whose juice went into the bottles. Non-vintage wines, put up in jugs with screw caps and at least 30 years old—I’d never had such a tasting experience. It was wonderful. I don’t remember if the probable components of the blend were disclosed. Perhaps nobody knew for sure.

Later, a few bottles of German wine appeared. No, they weren’t white wines to accompany dessert; these were red wines labeled Spätburgunder. Walter explained that they were made by his father at a Rhinegau estate devoted to producing Pinot Noir. This wine was older than the Hearty Burgundy just poured, coming from a vintage about the time Walter emigrated to America. It was a revelation. In general, the more delicate Pinot Noir grape isn’t thought to make wines as long-lasting as those vinified from red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or other grapes native to Bordeaux. For all its age, this German Pinot Noir was still a wonderful wine and tasting it was a rare opportunity to experience vinous history.

The afternoon wasn’t officially a retirement event, but it had that “passing the torch” feeling. There was discussion of the roles of winemaker Michael Cox and Walter’s son Axel, who handles sales and marketing for the winery. We offer our condolences and wish them continued success with the winery.

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