California Pinot Pioneer Walter Schug Dies at 80

The man behind some of California's most iconic wines left an important legacy with many generations of winemakers.

Considered one of Sonoma County’s most important Pinot Noir pioneers, Walter Schug died Saturday, October 10 at his Sonoma home. He had just recently turned 80.

“Walter Schug was a pioneer wherever he was, whether at Joseph Phelps where his wines put that winery on the map or at his own Schug Carneros Estate where he made and inspired truly interesting Pinot Noir,” said Gregory S. Walter, editor and publisher of PinotReport. “In the tradition of great wine men, he was also a quiet pioneer. He did not seek the stage for himself; he let his wines speak for themselves. It was a great privilege to know him. Rest in peace, Walter.”

A native of Germany, Schug was the first winemaker at Joseph Phelps Winery in the Napa Valley, where he has been credited for creating several of its most famous blends. When Phelps himself died last spring, Schug had just visited, hoping the two could get together for dinner.

Phelps and Schug created two wines that would signal years of success to come: a 1974 Napa Valley Syrah, the first varietally labeled Syrah in California; and the 1974 Insignia, a proprietary Bordeaux-style blend, which at the time was quite unusual, released for the first time in 1978.

But his first love was always Pinot Noir, a remembrance of his early days growing up on a Pinot vineyard in the Rhine River Valley. Both he and his wife, Gertrud, were raised in families where their fathers managed wine estates. Schug graduated from Geisenheim, the top winemaking school in Germany, before arriving in the United States to study at UC Davis in 1959.

“For many years, my father and I travelled together through Europe promoting Schug wines,” says Walter’s daughter Claudia Schug Schuetz. “I will always remember him as humble, authentic, tireless, eloquent and funny. He knew how to captivate his audience and he never compromised on quality in everything that he did. He demonstrated unwavering integrity as he continued to produce elegant wines when blockbuster wines were in fashion. He worked hard alongside his employees and mentored dozens of winery interns who came from all over the globe. I am sure that his positive impact will long be felt all over the world.”

Beginning his career in St. Helena with E & J Gallo in 1966 before moving on to Joseph Phelps in 1972, he founded Schug Carneros Estate in 1980 with a small plot of Pinot Noir Phelps allowed him to use. In 1989, he opened his own winery on 50 acres in the Carneros region, where today it makes about 30,000 cases a year, most of it Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

“We lost a gentleman of the highest order with the passing of Walter Schug,” said Mike Cox, winemaker at Schug Carneros Estate. “His influence on me, both personally and professionally, is immeasurable. I will forever be grateful to Walter and Gertrud for bringing me into the Schug Winery fold. Walter’s dedication, generosity and passion should be an example for us all.”

Walter is survived by his son Axel, a managing partner of the winery as well as sales and marketing director, and twin daughters Claudia and Andrea, who manage European sales and accounts, respectively. His wife Gertrud precedes him in death.

America's Best Pinot Noirs

Published on October 12, 2015
Topics: California, News and Trends, Wineries
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email: vboone@wineenthusiast.net




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