A Passion for Pinot Noir

iStock_000008957470LargeMore than any other variety, Pinot Noir transforms perfectly normal winemakers into seemingly obsessed craftsmen and craftswomen.

It doesn’t happen with Cabernet Sauvignon, nor with Merlot, nor Sangiovese. Makers of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc rarely are candidates for the “Dr. Phil” show.

But Pinot Noir… it’s like the mistress that a man doesn’t want but simply can’t resist.

I’ve written about the mystery and magnetic power of Pinot Noir often through the years, but one story in particular tells the story best and has stood the test of time. It was written for the May 7-13, 1998 edition of the Sonoma County Independent, and I’d like to share it with you here…

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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 that variety.

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 in 1998) 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.”

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Since 16 years have passed since that story was written, I thought it might be wise to share an update from the Schug website

“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 Schug. He continues to travel across the country to promote the family brand.

“Axel’s wife, Kristine Schug, is the Winery Chef at Schug. Her early experience in local restaurants helped develop her passion for food and wine pairing. She caters for special events and dinners at the winery, contributes to the newsletter and has created over one hundred recipes to pair with Schug wines.

“Sadly, Gertrud Schug passed away in 2007, but the desire to create wonderful wines at the Family Vineyards continues on.

“Walter Schug continues to travel frequently, keeping in touch with the ever-changing wine market both in America and abroad. 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.”

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I share the Schugs’ passion for Pinot Noir, and have enjoyed all but two vintages of their wines since 1998. That passion also is shared by the winemakers of the bottlings featured in today’s Cyber Circle offering — one from the Schugs’ home county of Sonoma, one from Monterey County, and one from France.


Three delicious, food -friendly Pinots with remarkable layers of complexity and red fruit-centric flavor profiles on sale together for a limited time.  It’s no wonder they’re one of our most popular collections.  Find out more and order yours now by clicking here.

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