Curious & Thirsty

Chasing Grapes: California's Newest Wine Producers
A conversation with Jamie Kutch

by Marla Norman-Freytag

Who says you need to own a vineyard to produce some of California's top Pinot Noirs? “You don’t!” says Jamie Kutch of Kutch Wines. In fact, Kutch and a growing number of enthusiastic young wine producers are purchasing grapes from wine growers and bottling their own vintages in small, frequently exceptional, batches.

Jamie Kutch of Kutch Wines

Brian Loring of Loring Wine Company

Brian Loring was one of the first in this emerging cadre of boutique winemakers. A software engineer, passionate about Pinot Noir, Loring produced 150 cases in 1999. By 2006 his Loring Wine Company released 6,000 cases. Loring’s success inspired other want-to-be winemakers, including Greg Piatigorski of Alcina Cellars and Andrew Vingiello of A.P. Vin.

Wines from Alcina Cellars are produced by Greg Piatigorski.

Brenda and Andrew Vingiello of A.P. Vin.

George Levkoff gave up a lucrative career on Wall Street to follow his winemaking muse. After an internship at William Selyem, Levkoff founded George Wine Company and now has a devoted cult following.

George Levkoff, founder of George Wine Company.

Michael Browne of Kosta Browne.

Michael Browne had originally intended to become an architect when he moved to Sonoma County in 1987, but crafting outstanding Pinot Noir became his life’s work instead. Browne, in turn, encouraged wine-smitten Jamie Kutch to leave his job on Wall Street to pursue his dream. Kutch apprenticed at Kosta Browne and later purchased six barrels of the wine he had helped to harvest to make his first 150 cases.

You see a pattern? As prime property in Napa and Sonoma has grown precipitously expensive -- $300,000 an acre in Napa; $70,000-$150,000 in Sonoma -- young entrepreneurial winemakers have found creative ways to circumvent the system and develop innovative vintages to boot. Consumers benefit immediately, with more wine choices and direct sales efforts that keep prices in balance.

Morning fog breaks up over Sonoma's Coastal vineyards.

The downside? Purchasing grapes on multiple leased lots and transporting them to a production center is an arduous system for making a bottle of wine -- let alone great wine. Kutch for example works with 20 acres of property he leases from seven different vineyards. During peak season, he drives six to seven hours a day to check on his sites, located along the Sonoma coast, Anderson Valley and his newest location in Mendocino County. Kutch has chosen his vines carefully, since Pinot Noir reacts to growing conditions more than any other grape variety. Logistical proximity, however, couldn’t be a top concern.

And, occasionally, the job can even be dangerous! Kutch describes a treacherous experience driving with a load of grapes along Sonoma Coast mountain roads: “I noticed a sign that read, ‘20% Grade Ahead Trucks Use Low Gear.’ For a split second, I considered my priorities. If the brakes were to fail, should I ditch approximately $30,000 worth of Pinot Noir fruit and jump out of the truck or should I risk possible physical harm to save what looked like the greatest fruit I had ever harvested? Moments later, this question would become all too real when I pumped the brakes not only once but twice, then three times and nothing. Fortunately, I was able to maintain control of the truck and guided it safely down the mountain in low gear. I finally rolled to a stop at the bottom of the Grade with my prized Pinot Noir fruit safe and sound.”

Wine country along the Sonoma Coast.

In addition to the seven vineyard locations, Kutch’s production takes place in yet another location -- Kenwood, where he rents equipment to produce and store his wines. Kutch Wines are made as naturally as possible. This too requires extra time and care. The grapes are harvested with stems by hand, then fermented in open-top containers. Kutch uses his hands (sometimes feet) instead of the metal masher typically used in this process, to punch down or mix the wine and skins during fermentation. The wines are aged for about 18 months, and racked only when ready to bottle, unfiltered.

For Kutch, all the intense labor has paid off. His first vintage, 150 cases of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, won 93 points from Wine Spectator. Two years later, his 2007 vintage was rated by Robert Parker.

Jamie Kutch

When we caught up to Kutch, he was out on the road, of course......

Do you ever get tired of driving and the long hours?
Honestly, I love every aspect of this business. I love driving around the vineyards. I love watching the grapes grow and develop, then picking them. I enjoy meeting prospective customers. I designed my own web site. If I were doing just one thing, I might get bored. But I get to do it all and that’s the best.

Will you eventually buy property?
Sure. That’s the ultimate goal. Another year or two hopefully.

Since real estate in Napa and Sonoma is so incredibly pricey, have you ever thought about leaving California for other wine-growing regions? Maybe Oregon?
Oregon! Never. I’ll never leave California. It’s the perfect place to grow grapes, and I’m finally beginning to figure it out. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice everything I’ve learned to move someplace else.

In 2011, you produced 1,000 cases then you doubled that in 2012 with 2,000 cases. What are you planning for 2013?
I’m hoping to produce 2,500 cases this year. But we’ll see. Quality comes first. I don’t want to jeopardize everything we’ve achieved.

You sell direct. How many customers are on your list currently?
There are about 5,000 members currently on the list. They make up about 75% of our sales. The remaining 25% is from restaurants, like Gary Danko, French Laundry, Michael Mina, Zuni Cafe. Daniel, Per Se, Gotham Bar & Grill.

Producing Burgundy-style wines in California was another risky gamble, but you’ve made it work.
Early on when I was learning about wine, a glass of 1999 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache BLEW MY MIND!. That, plus the idea that winemaking should be more about the earth and soil than fruit makes absolute sense to me. I also believe that good wine was meant to be consumed with food, so that requires high acidity and low alcohol.

We think Kutch Wines will blow your mind! Sign up here to be placed on the mailing list for information about upcoming releases and general news. Prices per bottle range from $39.00-$50.00.

You can also get a feel for Kutch’s winemaking style by sampling a trio of wines he procured in collaboration with Florida-based Wine World under the Three Wise Men label. The Pinot Noir, predictably, is a standout of the three, with well integrated tannins, great balance and a long finish. A tremendous value at $17.00. Purchase online at through Michel Thibault at Wine World.