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Wine & Spirits

A life of one first after another

Walter Schug's pioneering career can be told in vintages, from California's earliest proprietary blend to modern single-vineyard Cabs.

October 15, 2003|Rod Smith | Special to The Times

Sonoma County, Calif. — Most winemakers consider 30 vintages a satisfying career. Not Walter Schug. While celebrating his 50th harvest this month, he said, "Don't expect me to hang up my boots too soon. This harvest feels like the beginning to me."

Schug, 67, has been one of the most influential figures in the modern California wine industry. In addition to pioneering new varietals and blends and spearheading the vineyard-designation movement, he has in his long career provided a model of integrated viticulture and winemaking that has helped raise California wine to international prominence.

A recent retrospective tasting of wines -- which included a 1959 Pinot Noir from Germany, a non-vintage California "Burgundy," California's first proprietary blend and early single-vineyard California Cabs, as well as recent Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Merlots under his own label -- hit some of the high points of his long career.

Schug grew up in Germany's Rheingau region, where his father was the winemaker at the Staatsweingut (national wine estate) in Assmanshausen.

He says he still remembers being a sleepy child in the winery at night. The sound of the pumps going all night, he recalls, "was like hearing the bloodstream in your mother's womb."

He started working in German wineries in 1954, and immigrated to the United States five years later. Almost immediately he went to work for E&J Gallo. Seven years later, he became Gallo's head of grower relations and quality control for Northern California, working with more than 600 growers and overseeing the largest single winemaking program in the state.

"At that time, the wine was made in tank cars and shipped immediately," he recalls. "It was bottled as Chablis or Rhine or Sauterne -- all from tank number 37."

But Schug was a new kind of winemaker, and he soon became one of the founders of the boutique winery movement.

Today it's axiomatic that winemaking simply continues and amplifies a process that begins in the vineyard. In the 1960s and '70s, the typical California grape grower had yet to see a connection between his crop and a glass of fine wine. And although UC Davis-trained winemakers were technologically sophisticated, they still knew very little about grape vines.

Schug had degrees in viticulture and enology from Germany's famous Geisenheim Institute. Thus equipped, he was one of the first modern California winemakers (along with Andre Tchelistcheff) to begin making wine on the vine. Naturally, his wines stood out, and showed others the way.

In 1973 he was tapped by Joseph Phelps, one of the fathers of the modern California wine industry. At that time Cabernet Sauvignon was the varietal frontier, and Schug instantly made his mark by inventing California's first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend, Joseph Phelps Insignia, in 1974 (still a vibrant, youthful wine). In the same vintage he also produced California's first Syrah.

There were more firsts: Schug's vineyard-designated Cabernets from the Eisele and Bacchus vineyards were among the state's first (after Heitz Martha's Vineyard). The 1978s from both vineyards are still delicious after 25 years. Schug also was the first to produce luscious dessert wines made from the German white grapes Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Scheurebe.

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His father's wine

The retrospective tasting -- a kind of biography -- opened with the last wine made by Schug's father, Ewald Schug, the 1959 Staatsweingut Assmanshausen Spatburgunder Hollenberg, a German Pinot Noir. One of Schug's earliest memories is of his father, the Staatsweingut winemaker, setting him astride a draft horse named Nero who was pulling a load of fresh-picked Pinot Noir grapes to the winery.

Although most wine fans are familiar with German Riesling, few realize that Germany has been producing excellent Pinot Noir almost as long as France has. Called Spatburgunder or Blauburgunder, German Pinot Noir is typically a light, elegant, beautifully perfumed wine. For that reason, it is sometimes dismissed by drinkers accustomed to the heavier, richer Pinots typical of Burgundy and California. Yet German Pinot can be superb and extraordinarily long-lived.

Tasting the 1959 Spatburgunder made by Schug pere was a revelation. At an age when most New World Pinots and many Burgundies would bear little resemblance to wine, it was still vibrant and youthful, a beautifully mature wine that had developed character with time rather than being defeated.

The same qualities showed in the 1978 Joseph Phelps "Heinemann Mountain" Pinot Noir, still a fine, lively and succulent wine with no sign of falling apart like the majority of older California Pinots I taste.

Unfortunately, Joseph Phelps had no interest in Pinot and he discontinued the winery's Pinot Noir program in 1980. "Joe graciously allowed me to continue making Pinot Noir on my own," recalls Schug, but inevitably the side project consumed his attention.

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A classic Pinot

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