Napa Valley AVA
Looking to the future with great promise and deserved optimism
Walter Schug’s winemaking career and accomplishments have been well-documented since the early 1970’s. The German-born wine guru began turning heads when he served as the Founding Winemaker of the legendary Joseph Phelps Vineyards, one of the greatest success stories of the last quarter of the 20th Century. While at Phelps, Schug made California’s first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend (Insignia) and also the legendary vineyard designated Cabernet Sauvignons (Backus Vineyard and Eisele Vineyard).
Walter Schug started making Pinot Noir at Phelps but when the winery decided to end production of the varietal in 1979, Joseph Phelps allowed Schug to continue making his favorite wine under his own label. Schug continued as winemaker for Phelps for three more years until he made the decision to go it on his own.
It was then time for Walter Schug to set up his own winery. Schug and his wife Gertrud chose the cool, marine climate of the Carneros Appellation for their winery. Their mutual love of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir led to this decision from which the Schugs never looked back.
Walter Schug was also responsible for making the first varietal syrah in the United States and also serving as a pioneer in the development of late harvest dessert wines (Gewurtztraminer, Riesling and Scheurebe) that were so incredibly popular in his native country of Germany. But it was the most difficult Pinot Noir that Walter Schug found gave him the most satisfaction in producing.
Schug Winery began as a small 2,000-case operation and grew to its present level of some 30,000 cases per annum. The year 2003 served to mark Walter Schug’s 50th harvest, a marvelous achievement that few California vintners can match.
Schug Winery’s vineyards comprise some 50 acres southwest of the town of Sonoma. A cool, lingering morning fog from San Pablo Bay gradually burns off and is replaced by midday summertime winds that rush through the storied Petaluma Gap. This wind stress causes the skin of the Pinot Noir grapes to thicken and adds pepper and spice nuances to the wine.
Schug’s children, Alex and Claudia, are still active in the company. Alex handles sales and marketing and Claudia lives in Germany and imports Schug wines to Europe.
Unfortunately for the wine community, Walter Schug passed away in 2015, just after celebrating his 80th birthday. His legacy has been carried on by his children and his longtime friend and winemaker Michael Cox.
Michael Cox - Winemaker
Michael Cox is a Sonoma native that originally attended UCLA to study chemical engineering. During summers he worked in a wine cellar. It was there he developed his appreciation and passion for the art of winemaking. He then transferred to UC Davis and earned an enology degree in 1991.
Cox had already begun working part time in the wine industry for two top wineries, Hacienda Wine Cellars and Dry Creek Vineyard, both bedrock wineries within Sonoma County. Upon completing his degree, he took a position as winemaker for DeMoor Winery, his first job as a working winemaker. Michael Cox brings a modern approach to his job and utilizes cutting edge technology to continue the winemaking traditions started by his remarkable predecessor.
Walter Schug - Proprietor
Walter Schug grew up with viticulture in his blood. He was raised on a Pinot Noir estate in the Rhine River valley area of Assmannshausen, Germany. His father was the director/winemaker at the winery which was run by the state. The area is considered one of the few outside of France capable of producing high quality Pinot Noir. It was there that Walter developed a lifelong fondness for the charm and elegance of Pinot Noir.
While in high school Walter worked on the estate learning the craft literally from the ground up. He admitted to us that his first love was actually architecture. ‘There was absolutely no pressure from home to study viticulture and enology,” Walter recalled. ‘But it was hard to combat because wine was already in the blood. It just seemed the most comfortable thing to do.”
By the time he was eighteen years old, he began his training as a winemaker. He was sent to live and work at other wineries in Germany for two years as part of his apprenticeship. Soon after, he gained entrance to Geisenheim, the U.C. Davis equivalent in Germany, and began to study viticulture and enology. When Walter was attending Geisenheim, a group of California winemakers came to Germany to observe the operation at Assmannshausen. Walter’s dad put in a plug for his son to help out the group in California. The suggestion turned into reality and in 1959, after graduation, Walter flew to California for what was to be a special temporary work assignment at Cal Grape (the operation later became part of the 6 million gallon Sierra Winery in Delano). Things went so well that they offered Walter a full time position as Assistant Superintendent. Excited by this new prospect in America, Walter raced home, married his sweetheart Gertrud, then both headed back to California to live.
Walter was at Cal Grape for almost six years. Feeling like he had exhausted his opportunities there, he left to join ranks with the E.J. Gallo Company. Walter was hired to oversee grower relations and quality control for Gallo’s contract grape sources in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. He traveled the area extensively, visiting with growers, making sure grape quality was being maintained and helping growers get the maximum potential out of their vineyards. It was a huge responsibility which he expertly handled for seven years. As huge as Gallo is, it was an invaluable training ground for how to do things the right way in the wine business.
Walter’s reputation found its way to a Colorado developer named Joseph Phelps. Phelps hired Walter in 1973 to start his winery. Walter proceeded to put the Phelps winery on the map. He started from scratch and built it to an 80,000 case winery before leaving to start his own winery in 1983. As Winemaster at Phelps, Walter spent many years distinguishing himself as one of the premier winemakers in the country. He earned critical acclaim with just about every major wine varietal. Among his accomplishments was being the first in the U.S. to make a Syrah wine and a Botrytised Riesling. He also crafted their famous Insignia Meritage wine, gaining worldwide recognition as a top Cabernet Sauvignon producer.