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THURSDAY THORNS
10/15/2015
Honoring Walter Schug

By Stephen Eliot

Earlier this week, I was saddened to learn that one of the California’s genuine winemaking pioneers had passed. Longtime vintner and grower, Walter Schug died peacefully last Saturday in the company of his family after a long and influential career spanning nearly sixty years. He was quite literally born to the business of making wines having been raised in Germany where both his father and father-in-law managed important winemaking estates in the Rhine, but it was in California, during the great awakening of the 1970s, that he staked his enduring claim to fame.

I met Walter nearly forty years back when I was taking my first halting steps away from a life in academia to one devoted to things vinous. I was aware of the interesting wines coming from the new Joseph Phelps Winery under his tutelage as cellarmaster and arranged a visit during a summer break in my graduate school studies in modern Chinese history. While I doubt that I impressed him as being anything more than the eager neophyte that I was and am willing to bet that he forgot my visit before I made my way back to the main highway, it was for me a memorable moment and one that fanned the flames of my developing obsession with fine wine. Over the years I got to know Walter’s wines very well, and, nearly two decades later, I got to know the man a bit better.

In addition to plying the craft of journalist here at Connoisseur’s Guide, I spent a good many years developing the wine curriculum and teaching at the California Culinary Academy, and, with some regularity under the aegis of the Carneros Quality Alliance, I would load up a bus with my culinary students and spend an afternoon with Walter at his new Sonoma winery. I distinctly recall the first outing. There was no winery yet, but only an easel set up on a windy hillside on the western end of Carneros showing pictures and drawings of what would be his new home, and I watched as his dream became reality during repeated visits throughout the 1990s. He was always a gracious and attentive host with the eloquence and quiet confidence of a true teacher.

Walter’s passion was Pinot Noir, and, while he will justifiably be remembered as one of the first to see the grape’s potential in Carneros, it should not be forgotten that he was the architect of California’s first great proprietary blend, the iconic Phelps Insignia, the first to produce Syrah in the state and his remarkable late-harvest, dessert wines fashioned from Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Scheurebe remain unsurpassed to this day. I remember, in fact, on one particularly brisk afternoon urging him to plant a bit of Riesling on the higher slopes above his new Pinot vineyard. I got a slight smile and a quick shake of the head, but my pleas were alas never answered.

Time passes, and far too much has gone by since I last saw Walter, but I have indelible memories of those too few times that I did. I will always be appreciative for his time and attention and, most of all, for what I and my students learned.

Auf Widersehen, Walter, and thank you.


 

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Comments

Walter Schug
by Bob Henry
Posted on:10/16/2015 4:39:17 AM

I first met Walter a few years ago at the Family Winemakers of California trade tasting held in Pasadena, California.

I knew his "back story" and made it a point to taste his wines. Not fruit forward and overly-extracted like so many in the room. Rather, lean and restrained and age-worthy.

Within the past few weeks I discovered a “cache” of 2009 vintage Schug Pinot Noirs at a wine merchant in town. Cases neglected and discounted down to about 16 bucks.

Man, does it taste good!

(The 2012 and/or 2013 bottling is on the shelf of that same wine merchant priced in the mid-to-upper twenties.)

A tip of the hat to an overlooked and self-evidently talented winemaker

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