Chasing Grapes: The Newest Wine Producers
a conversation with Jamie Kutch, Kutch Wines
by Marla Norman, Publisher
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.
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 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.
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 – “currently, vineyards in the best areas of Napa County sell for about $300,000 per acre, with prime locations in Oakville and Rutherford fetching up to $350,000…almost nine times what they were 26 years ago.” writes Blake Gray in Wine-Searcher. “Prices are also rising in Sonoma County, though not as rapidly: almost four times what they were in 1987. Most vineyards sell for just short of $100,000 per acre, although prime coastal Pinot Noir vineyards are going for $125,000.”
The good news: 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.
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.”
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 in 2005, won 93 points from Wine Spectator. Two years later, his 2007 vintage was rated by Robert Parker. More recently, Decanter Magazine rated Kutch’s McDougall Ranch 2013 as the “BEST Pinot Noir in the United States.” And Antonio Galloni of Vinous stated: “This (2013 Sonoma Coast) is one of the best artisan Sonoma Coast Pinots readers will find for the money.”
When I 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. Meantime, I’ve found an incredibly unique vineyard located in the Mendocino Ridge Appelation, a region that has only 17 planted vineyards totaling 237 acres planted. It’s tiny!
The vineyard I have begun sourcing Pinot Noir from is called Signal Ridge and it’s planted 8 miles south of Kiser, deeper in the deep end, closer to the Pacific. As the crow flies, it’s 8.5 miles from the Pacific whereas the deep end vineyards sit at 10+. Beyond that, they couldn’t be more different sites yet still in the same neighborhood. Most of Anderson Valley sits at low elevation while Signal Ridge sits at 2,800 feet (the same elevation as Montebello).
At that elevation, Signal Ridge takes the award as the highest elevation vineyard in all of Mendocino and Sonoma County. It snowed in the vineyard two winters ago and to this day, the ridge is still used during lightning storms to scout for fires across the county (hence its name). The soils are unique and different than anything else planted in Anderson Valley on a complex called the Garcia-Snook-Gube complex.
Looking out towards the Pacific when standing in the vineyard, you can see a direct shot to the Pacific and that influence chills the vineyard down massively and keeps it cooler than Anderson by a dozen degrees during the daytime. Because of that, the acid retention is astonishing. The pH and TA numbers to brix we have been picking numerous clones at are unlike anything I have seen before. I am gushing with excitement and can’t wait to watch these barrels grow older and share them with many. Time will tell, my hopes are high and my gut tells me that this is one special piece of dirt.
You truly are a risk taker. You’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to locate grapes to make your wines. You’re also producing Burgundy-style wines in California – another risky gamble, but you’ve made it work.
Early on when I was learning about wine, a glass of 1999 Domaine de la Romanee-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.
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