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Sonoma winemaker Walter Schug, pioneer of pinot noir, dies at 80

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Walter Schug, the German-born winemaker who brought his passion for pinot noir to Sonoma County and stuck with the little-known varietal as it soared to mainstream prominence, died Saturday, his family said.

Schug died at his Sonoma home from complications of a recent stroke, said his daughter, Claudia Schuetz. He was 80.

“He was a pinot noir niche person long before the movie ‘Sideways’ came along and everybody was demanding it,” Schuetz said. “He didn’t jump on a bandwagon. He was pushing it from the very start.”

Schug came to California in the late 1950s after growing up on a pinot vineyard in Germany’s Rhine River Valley. He worked for wine giant Julio Gallo, sourcing grapes in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties before joining Joseph Phelps of Napa Valley, where he helped create the iconic Insignia blend.

Schug continued to champion pinot after Phelps abandoned it, growing it on a small plot his boss gave him, before founding his own winery, Schug Carneros Estate, in 1980.

He went on to specialize in pinot while also producing chardonnay, Riesling and other varietals. Production has grown from 2,000 to 30,000 cases a year, according to the company’s website.

David Graves, co-founder of Saintsbury winery in Napa, said Schug pioneered the popular Meritage and was among the first to recognize the Carneros region. He also was known for his late-harvest wines in addition to pinot noir.

“He was a versatile winemaker,” said Graves, who worked under Schug at Phelps in the late 1970s. “He was present in the early stages of the emergence of Napa Valley as a great wine region.”

Schug was born in 1935 and grew up in Assmannshausen, on the region’s only pinot estate. His father was its manager. He studied viticulture and enology at the Geisenheim wine institute in Germany and at UC Davis before permanently relocating to the United States with his late wife Gertrud, who also came from a winemaking family.

The couple raised three children. His son Axel Schug is the winery’s managing partner and his daughter Claudia Schuetz is the company’s European sales representative, based in Germany. Daughter Andrea Vonk is a San Diego accountant.

Upon arriving in New York, Walter and Gertrud Schug traveled across the country in a Volkswagen Beetle, their skis attached to the back, settling first in the Central Valley, where Schug worked as assistant superintendent of a bulk wine producer in Delano.

Schug got his big break in 1966 when he was hired by E&J Gallo to be in charge of quality control and grower relations in Northern California.

Six years later, Schug left Gallo to help Phelps build a new winery in Napa, producing Insignia and the first Syrah in the country, his website said.

He also produced pinot noir at Phelps’ winery, calling on his family history with the finicky grape.

But pinot noir didn’t sell and when Phelps discontinued it in 1979, Schug, then winemaster, was allowed to produce a small quantity under his own label.

He launched his own winery a year later and moved to the present-day facility in the Carneros region in 1989. The winery has 40 acres in pinot and chardonnay, Claudia Schuetz said.

Funeral services are being planned for the afternoon of Oct. 22 at the winery. Details will be announced on the winery’s website.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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