The inspiration behind Schug Carneros Estate Winery began with Walter Schug’s long-time passion for one particular grape varietal, Pinot Noir. Originally from Germany, Schug had grown up making Pinot under the tutelage of his father, the general manager of an estate in the Rhine River Valley, Staatsweingut Assmanshausen. Once settled in Northern California with his wife, Gertrud, Schug worked as a grape buyer for Gallo, then moved on to Joseph Phelps Vineyards. There, he was the founding winemaker and gained a reputation for producing critically-acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon as well as late-harvest Rieslings, but his passion for Pinot Noir remained.
In 1980, Phelps Vineyards discontinued production of Pinot Noir. At the time, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were the rage and Pinot wasn’t selling. Despite marketplace trends, Schug purchased the grapes with Phelps’ blessing, producing wine under his own name, while continuing as winemaster there. After the 1983 harvest, Schug left Phelps to focus on his young winery.
Though producing Pinot Noir was Schug’s top priority, he made Chardonnay to help finance his passion. Today, the winery remains true to the European-inspired philosophy of Schug, who believed the varietal and regional qualities of the grape should shine through the wines.
“We try not to do too much to the grapes, especially the whites,” says Winemaker Michael Cox, who’s been with Schug since 1995. Cox worked alongside Walter, who retired in 2000, but was involved in the winery until his death in 2015.
Located seven miles south of downtown Sonoma, Schug’s tasting room is nestled into a hillside, surrounded by estate vines at the base of Wildcat Mountain. We begin with the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, which offers crisp bright notes of citrus fruit, particularly grapefruit, and vibrant acidity. Priced at $20 a bottle, you can’t beat it. Next, we sample the 2014 Estate Grown Carneros Chardonnay, which has a lush depth. “We age Chardonnay on the lees [the sediment of wine in the barrel] and stir it periodically to give it more texture and a creamy note,” says Cox. Though Schug has gained a reputation for their Chardonnay over the years, it all began with Pinot Noir, which has a reputation in the industry as a challenging wine to make. This varietal tends to bud early and is vulnerable to early spring frosts and viruses, plus it’s a thin-skinned grape. In the hands of novice winemakers, it can be over-extracted and lifeless.
We try the 2015 Pinot Noir from Carneros. This wine is silky and elegant with a distinctive spicy, smoky taste with notes of cherry. “It’s not overpowering, and has a nice long finish,” says Cox. But if there’s one wine you definitely want to try at Schug, it’s the 2013 Estate Pinot Noir. This wine is the nectar of gods, and according to Cox, it continues to get better with time. “You can enjoy it now or seven to 10 years from the vintage date,” he says.
What’s the secret to a good Pinot Noir? “Pinot requires patience,” Cox explains. “It’s much more transparent than Cabernet. Pinot Noir shows the winemaker’s fingerprints.”
French wine lore holds that the better the Pinot Noir, the more difficult it is to describe, which is certainly true of this one. Next time you’re in Sonoma, stop by Schug and try the 2013 Estate Pinot Noir for yourself. Says Cox, “We have a long-standing tradition to carry on Walter’s vision, and our passion is still Pinot Noir.”
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