Schug Carneros Estate Winery

What is Old is New Again

Schug Carneros Estate Winery

The Managing Partner for Schug Winery Carneros Estate, Axel Schug made the casual remark, “What is old is new again.” He was describing the stylistic change that Pinot Noir might be undergoing from a big wine to a more nuanced and delicate one, which was its classic version. But what is old is new again could also describe the beginning of a larger change in California winemaking that might be best exemplified by Robert Parker’s announcement to the world on 13 February that his surrogate of six years, Antonio Galloni, was leaving Wine Advocate, the wine journal that for decades has been the single most important arbiter of taste throughout the wine world and especially in California. Robert Parker is mostly retired, having sold a large portion of his publication, Wine Advocate, so Galloni’s departure leaves the wine world without its rudder, or dictator as some might say. Selling any wine over $40 a bottle depended on Parker’s blessing, otherwise know as a 90-plus score, and the higher the score, the more value a wine accrued. And since that score was so important, wine producers courted the Parker palate, universally know to appreciate dark, rich, high alcohol wines.

Axel’s father Walter Schug was himself the beneficiary of Robert Parker’s praises. During the ten years that Walter made wine for Joseph Phelps, beginning in 1973, the winery became one of the top ten producers of Cabernet Sauvignon with two vineyard designated wines, the Eisele and the Bachus, and the Bordeaux blend Insignia. Robert Parker loved those wines, but he had not yet defined his personal preferences that would so dramatically influence taste. Walter Schug had. The Insignia was an elegant Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. And no matter what the trend, and there have been many over the 50 years that Walter Schug had been making wine, Walter has always been a champion for naturally balanced wines that reflected the places where the fruit was harvested. A native of Germany’s Rhein River Valley, Walter was trained in both viticulture and enology at the prestigious German wine institute, Geisenheim. “German winemakers are trained to be caretakers of the product, to nurture it, to make the best out of it, but not to superimpose themselves on top of it.”

Today’s winemakers command huge arsenals, loaded with tools, and can manipulate wines in ways that were impossible earlier. Industrial wine makes use of all of them, preservatives, coloring agents, yeasts, tannins, acids, oak chips, mechanical processes and more, all of which can standardize a product from year to year, regardless of weather or grape sources. Today’s cutting-edge winemakers are turning away from manipulations and techniques that rob wine of its authenticity and reflection of place. And consumers are beginning to ask the same questions about wine that they do about the food they eat. How is it made and how is it grown? These concerns were never part of Robert Parker’s evaluations. Delicious was everything. Walter Schug asked those questions decades ago and has always been faithful to the answers.

Certainly winemakers have to sell wine to stay in business, and the temptation to make what they think the press will appreciate and the market will buy is enormous. But not for Walter Schug. He left Joseph Phelps in 1980 to make his own Pinot Noir before it was commercially viable. “If I had stayed at Phelps, I’d probably be a rich man by now,” he says without the slightest suggestion of regret. “But I just loved making Pinot Noir, and I wasn’t going to give up on it. We couldn’t sell it in this country, so we shipped it to Germany. If it hadn’t been for our exports, we would have gone bankrupt until America started to appreciate Pinot Noir.”

Walter Schug’s 50-acre estate is located in Carneros, and he is adamant that his Pinot Noir should be a reflection of the conditions the Carneros appellation, not manipulated to imitate Burgundy or Russian River or any other Pinot Noir from any other place. “Carneros was one of the first real Pinot regions, and then a few years later Russian River came along. Because of the location, Russian River Pinot was a little darker in color. So some of my colleagues in Carneros were worried because the press was writing good things about Russian River Pinot Noir. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Your Pinot Noir is still good. You are making Carneros Pinot, not Russian River Pinot. So why do you think yours has to look like the one from the Russian River just because Parker gives Russian River bigger scores? Why aren’t you proud of what you’ve got? It’s kind of like having children and wanting them to look like somebody else’s. You’re no longer proud of your own child. You should build on regional characteristics. Good Pinot Noirs are now made in all the coastal regions of California. And they don’t have to be identical.”

Chardonnay was another enthusiasm that has proved difficult over time as it has gone through various guises, which eventually hurt sales. Consumer enthusiasm has waned for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that the wine has been subjected to all kinds of excesses, especially exaggerated oak flavors, which robbed it of its own intrinsic flavors. “We had a crisis when California Chardonnay was bad-mouthed in the press because of too much oak and things like that. We never were involved in that. We make our wine wisely the way it should be made. Our Chardonnay suffered less because of that criticism. People would come into the tasting room and say, ‘I don’t want to taste your Chardonnay. It’s too oaky.’ But they hadn’t tasted it. I showed a particular woman a Chardonnay that never sees any oak. She said, ‘Oh, I like that.’ Then I showed her a second one, and she liked that too. It was 100 percent in oak. It’s not whether you use oak. It’s how you use it. It’s like using salt in the kitchen. If you use too much, you ruin everything.”

Merlot suffered a much worse fate. As demand soared, so did vineyard acreage. Inevitably, Merlot was planted in all the wrong places, especially in the hot San Joaquin Valley, which could accommodate huge vineyards for mass-produced Merlot. To preserve at least part of its varietal identity, winemakers practiced all of their tricks. “Sales got so bad that growers everywhere began to pull out the vineyards. Our grower next door did the same thing even though we get the most beautiful Merlot under our climatic conditions here. But that’s what happens when the bad-mouthing starts, and it gets into the press. Our consumers are still learning, so they’re paying a lot of attention to what wine writers are saying. And some of the wine writers are still learning. It is unfortunate that it caused Merlot to take an immense dive in sales. We had a large customer who ordered our Merlot every year, and we are not getting that order anymore. It’s all up in the head. It’s like the woman who said she wouldn’t drink Chardonnay because it was too oaky without ever having tasted our Chardonnay and then later on tells me that this was the most beautiful Chardonnay she has ever tasted.”

Over the long run, wines everywhere have improved enormously, the general level of quality higher than it has ever been. Axel attributes the improvement in large part to the formal educations that winemakers have now. “European winemakers are more educated than they have been. It used to be that you worked with your family, with your dad and grandpa and did what they were doing, and then you took over. Now practically every winery is operated by youngsters who have been to university. So they’ve taken it very seriously, and the result is that the wines are much more precise, high quality, clean.” This educational level is equally true of Californian winemakers, and they are all learning from one another as well. “Somebody would try something, and we’d say, ‘This is interesting. How did he do that?’ If there are certain methods that allow you to make your wine better, and your wine has the ability to be better, you’re wise if you’re using them.”

While some people disparage the term “natural” winemaking because it has no specific definition, the concept is not meaningless. Natural winemaking returns to the values that Walter articulates, that the best wines should clearly represent the particular grape variety together with the regional conditions that produced the fruit. In other words, wine should be a unique expression, not forced to fit some market trend or wine writer’s glass slipper. When wine is manipulated into a crowd-pleasing commodity, it looses discerning consumers who may or may not be reading wine writers. They may simply be tweeting friends. “Hey, I just tasted this amazing wine. It was a Carneros Merlot.”

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Schug Carneros Estate Winery – 2011 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast

Winemaker Michael Cox’s Notes

The microclimates of the Sonoma Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) include the western portion of Carneros and the Petaluma Gap. The cool climate and low yield of these vineyards allow Pinot Noir grapes to mature slowly while retaining their natural acidity, resulting in a balanced wine with ripe flavors, silky texture and crisp acidity. Bright ruby color with aromas of cherry skin, dried cranberries, and smoky undertones. The palate shows more cherry and dried fruit flavors with earthy notes. Clean with a nice solid backbone, completed by a racy acidity. The wine is balanced and tight, an ideal accompaniment to grilled fish and fowl or barbecued meats (Alcohol 13.5%, Brix 24.6, Total acidity 0.56, pH 3.67).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Fifty percent of the grapes for the 2011 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir were harvested from Stage Gulch outside of the Carneros AVA, and the rest is from the Ricci Vineyard and the Schug Estate and contiguous Sangiacomo vineyard, all in the prestigious Carneros appellation. Aged in larger neutral oak casks, stainless steel tanks, and smaller neutral French oak barrels, the wine has the benefits of aging in wood but without the flavors that would obscure its delicate character. “This is a real and natural Pinot Noir with bright, elegant flavors,” Axel says. “We’re just coming out of a phase when people thought that Pinot was dark and jammy instead of delicate and elegant like it should be. I’d encourage people to drink this Pinot Noir with maybe a lighter pork dish but especially with fish, fish, and more fish. I don’t think it should be paired with any red meat whatsoever.” Serve at cool room temperature.

Schug Carneros Estate Winery – 2010 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast

Winemaker Michael Cox’s Notes

We crafted this Chardonnay from select vineyards located in the Sonoma Coast appellation, including the microclimates of western Carneros and the Petaluma Gap. Produced in a lively, crisp style that emphasizes varietal character without the use of new oak, it has a spicy citrus bouquet that leads to juicy flavors of white peach and nectarine, followed by a sleek, juicy finish. Try it as an elegant aperitif paired with hors d’oeuvres, or with lighter dishes such as soups, salads, seafood and pasta dishes (Alcohol 13.5%, Brix 23.2, Total acidity 0.65, pH 3.47).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Fifty percent of the fruit for this Chardonnay was harvested from the Stage Gulch vineyard in windy Petaluma Gap, located over the ridge to the west of Schug Carneros Estate. Just as the vines behave in extreme heat, they shut down for a couple of hours in the middle of the afternoon when the wind begins to blow. Axel Schug explains, “Water is traveling through the leaf at a time when the wind is drying it out. The vine has enough common sense to shut down photosynthesis when the wine comes up to avoid damage.” The rest of the fruit was harvested from the Schug estate and the Smith and Ricci vineyards in Carneros. Ninety percent of the wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks, but the additional 10% is fermented in large oak casks and then aged with the lees sediment, which is stirred up every three weeks. Michael Cox and Axel are aiming for crisp, pure Chardonnay flavor without oak flavors, but they want some of the body and viscosity that barrel aging with the sediment provides. The wine shows the pristine flavors of unadulterated Chardonnay. Serve chilled.

Winemaker Series

Schug Carneros Estate Winery – 2010 Pinot Noir, Carneros

Winemaker Michael Cox’s Notes

This classic Carneros region Pinot Noir offers a wide range of flavors and aromas, in the tradition of the finest red Burgundies of France. “Clonal diversity” is achieved by carefully blending several vineyard lots, each retaining its own unique clonal signature in the blend. The result is a complex wine with a rich bouquet of cherries, berries, and just hints of spicy new oak. It has flavors reminiscent of black cherry, currant and strawberry, followed by a rich, spicy texture and a long silky finish. This wine pairs nicely with lamb, duck, even grilled fish, and will improve with additional cellaring for 2 to 5 years (Alcohol 14.5%, Brix 24.5, Total acidity 0.66, pH 3.66).

Ana Maria’s Notes

Entirely Pinot Noir, the grapes were harvested from vineyards in the Carneros appellation. This cool climate area is an oasis of morning fog and afternoon breezes between warmer Napa and Sonoma valleys and provides a hospital climate for premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, some of which are used for sparkling wine production. Aged for 11 months in a combination of large oak casks and French oak barrels, only 20% of which were new, the wine is a typical expression of balance, for which Schug wines are well-known and appreciated, beautiful fruit flavors balanced by acid, smooth tannin texture, and a very mild oak influence that enhances rather than competes with the intrinsic character of the fruit. Richer than the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Axel Schug recommends that the wine be paired with duck or more oily fish like salmon and tuna. Serve at cool room temperature.

Schug Carneros Estate Winery – 2008 Merlot, Carneros Heritage Reserve

Winemaker Michael Cox’s Notes

Our “Heritage Reserve” Merlot features the Sangiacomo family’s “Donnell Ranch” in Carneros, just a stone’s throw north of our own Schug Estate vineyard. This vineyard teams up with the Ricci vineyard in Carneros to show what cool-climate Merlot is all about. The extremely long, cool Carneros growing season allows the fruit to ripen slowly, developing maximum varietal character and depth of flavor while retaining bright acidity. It has a smoky, ripe cherry bouquet with hints of roasted coffee, a deep color and full-bodied flavors of cherry, cassis and chocolate. Try it now with lamb, duck and rich cheeses, or age it for 5 to 7 years.

Anna Maria’s Notes

When Pinot Noir replaced Merlot in the imaginations of wine drinkers, producers pulled out vines. The ones that remain are planted in the right areas and are likely to make extraordinarily good wines that are well priced. The Schug Carneros Heritage Reserve is more than good, it’s terrific, probably the best Merlot that you’ve tasted in a long time, maybe ever. “We almost eliminated our Merlot. The only reason that we have it is that we needed it to blend into our Cabernet. Most Merlot doesn’t have this kind of spice. This Merlot will connect the dots between who Walter Schug was 35 years ago and who he is now [known for Pinot Noir]. Thirty-five years ago He was the man who introduced America to Bordeaux blends. He made Insignia for Joseph Phelps for 10 years, the first 10 years which were the most famous ten years, when Robert Parker was raving about it. In those days, it was true to its Bordeaux roots. Today it’s a big dark, tannic proprietary blend.”

Schug Carneros Estate Winery – 2010 Chardonnay, Carneros Heritage Reserve

Winemaker Michael Cox’s Notes

Our “Heritage Reserve” Chardonnay features separately vinified blocks of our Estate vineyard, blended for maximum complexity. Each block contributes a unique clonal and microclimate signature to the blend. The resulting wine shows intense fruit aromas of ripe pear and orange liqueur, complemented by toasty oak. Complex pear, apple and citrus flavors give way to a full-bodied texture and a long finish (Alcohol 14%, Brix 24.1, Total acidity 0.74, pH 3.33).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This Heritage Reserve Chardonnay is a different wine from the Sonoma Coast, which was mostly fermented in stainless steel tanks and aims for a crisp and lively style. The Heritage Reserve is a richer wine, which is the result of fermentation in barrel and aging with the sediment that is periodically stirred from the bottom of the barrel into the wine. But just 34% of the barrels were new and the rest two and three years old so that the wood itself contributes a limited amount to the flavor of the wine. Schug wines emphasize the fruit itself and the characteristics that the grapes develop from their immediate environment, including soil, climate, sun exposure, what the French call terroir.

Menu of the Month


Winter’s Last Stand

First Course

Borsch soup with beets, cabbage, potatoes, and onions,
served with a dollop of yogurt sprinkled with a grind of pepper

Main Course

Baked trout, stuffed with lemon slices and parsley, served with petite green peas


Red leaf lettuce with finely sliced red onions and pear wedges,
dressed with balsamic vinegar-olive oil vinaigrette


Apple dumplings

Recipe of the Month

Borsch, the quintessential winter soup

Made from root vegetables and cabbage, borsch originated in the Ukraine. But like all good things, it traveled and was embraced throughout Eastern and Central European countries and beyond. This recipe is loosely adapted from The Silver Spoon, Phaidon Press Limited, translated from the Italian, where the soup is called Minestrone alla Russa. Like many soups, it can easily become the main course. Its vibrant red color, accented by bright green parsley, and garnished with a dollop of white yogurt, make this one of the most beautiful soups ever. Enjoy!


1 red onion, finely sliced and chopped

1 carrot, diced

2 cups raw beets, cubed

6 new potatoes, cubed

5 cups white cabbage, shredded

6 cups water

Several tablespoons of olive oil

Several tablespoons of apple cider vinegar

A handful of chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, stems included

1 cup yogurt

Salt and pepper to taste


Splash the bottom of the pot with olive oil and add the onion and carrot. Cook briefly over medium heat for several minutes, stirring occasionally until vegetables soften. Add water and beets, bring to a simmer, and cook for five minutes. Add cabbage and cook for ten minutes before adding potatoes. Add vinegar and salt to taste, simmer, and stir. When all vegetables are cooked, taste for salt and vinegar. Make additions if necessary. Finally, add parsley, bring back to a simmer and turn off heat. Serve when parsley is softened but still vibrantly green, adding a dollop of yogurt to the center of each soup bowl. Grind fresh pepper over the yogurt and serve.