Two summers ago, on a grassy field not far from the central Oregon coast, Jamie Kutch sat at a makeshift table, literally basking in the sun. The founder of Kutch Wines was clearly enjoying himself, surrounded by friends like Rajat Parr and sommeliers from top Bay Area and NYC restaurants, as he waited for lunch to be served during the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration. And he had reason to: Just a few years removed from a profitable but soul-sucking finance job in Manhattan, here he was, an up-and-coming winemaker whose Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was among the buzziest wines at a prominent event celebrating the grape.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago and Kutch, a new first-time dad, struggles through the cold, icy streets of midtown Manhattan to meet me at Morrell Wine Bar for a tasting of his 2013 vintage from four different vineyards: Sonoma Coast, Falstaff, McDougall and Bohan, all of which leave me impressed and in one case (Sonoma Coast) blown away. And while he doesn’t look as in his element as he did that sunny day in the Willamette Valley, Kutch still has that yogi-like serenity as he discusses his calling. Here, he talks about the winemaking techniques that have made his wines among the most sought-after in the emerging New California wine scene, his decision to walk away from Wall Street and into the vineyards of Sonoma, and why he believes strongly in the somewhat controversial practice of leaving grapes on the stem while fermenting.
Tell me about this first glass.
This is called Falstaff Vineyard, and this is a pretty special wine for me because it’s the lowest-alcohol wine that I’ve ever [produced]. It kicks in at 12.1 percent alcohol. I’m not striving to try to just make a 12.1 percent alcohol [wine], but the grapes for me in 2013, in this specific cold-climate site, they told me that they were ready to pick. So we picked, and made the wine. We didn’t intervene at all, and this is how it came out. So it has a real lightness that sort of dances on the palate.
When you say you didn’t intervene at all, what’s the process — why is your process less hands-on than some others?
Well, you know, when it comes to wine there’s a lot of ways to make, if you wanted to, a low-alcohol wine, so one technique would be to pick the [grapes] much riper, and then to add water to that wine to bring down the alcohol level. You’re almost diluting some of the flavors to bring down the alcohol level. But as grapes get riper and riper, they start to buckle. And the flavors get more intense.
Which is typically one of the complaints about California wine from European-style drinkers.
Right, exactly, yeah. There’s pros and cons to everything that you do to intervene. While sometimes it’s necessary because Mother Nature doesn’t give you everything perfectly, I strive to intervene as little or as not often as possible.
So are you picking the grapes early then?
I think that’s a loaded statement. Because people will say I pick early, or do you pick early. Your wines are at 12, 12.5 percent alcohol — you must pick early. For me, my taste doesn’t tell me that I’m picking early. I pick when I think that these grapes — and in turn these wines — are ready. And it just so happens that for my taste, I like this level of fruit. If we go to the supermarket today and buy raspberries there in season, week one they could be tart, week two they could be perfect and week three they could be sweet and in my opinion overripe. Now, there’s tons of people that like them on week one. A lot more that like to eat them on week two and tons more that like to eat them on week three. So it really is subjective to your tastes: What are your taste buds like? My taste buds tend to like wines that have a crispness, tartness, a freshness. Instead of a ripeness, a sweetness and a fruitiness.
This is one of the things that’s so alarming about tasting one of your Pinot Noirs. I had a California Pinot Noir last night that’s exactly what you just described. And now I’m drinking this Falstaff, and it’s like a totally different style of wine.
It is, this is even different from my 2011 and ’12. This vineyard in this vintage, it struggled with ripeness. There was a choice to be made. I could have let the grapes hang longer, so that there would have been more alcohol, there would have been more glycerin. Think about a sip of scotch — it sticks to the side of your palate; you get weight in alcohol. But I would have lost the acidity and the freshness. So anytime you’re farming a vineyard, decisions have to be made. So while I would have had more weight, I wouldn’t have had the freshness and the purity of this, what we have here, captured in the glass. So it’s just a decision that I made this year.
Now, what attracted you to the Pinot Noir grape in the first place?
I spent about 10 years in Manhattan, fascinated about wines and the thought of drinking it.
You were working on Wall Street in the early 2000s.
Yes, I was; I worked for Merrill Lynch. It was probably the peak of the career. I was a Nasdaq trader for Merrill. And after hours I would sneak out and go to wine dinners with six, eight, 10 guys, and everybody would bring a bottle, and we’d put ’em in bags; we’d put a theme on the evening. I had different groups of friends that did different groups of things. We would put a theme of ’82 Bordeaux and everybody would bring a big, expensive bottle, a thousand-dollar bottle of wine. It was fascinating to me to live in that moment — that moment of wildness. The market was booming, and it was a lot of fun. That translated into really drilling down in the wine world and figuring out what I liked, what I didn’t like. I truly loved feminine wines. I liked elegant wines; I liked finesse. Rather than power. My palate wasn’t really big and keen on Bordeaux or Cabernet. I had a softer palate where I preferred Pinot Noir.
Burgundy I loved. Absolutely. So I kept on learning and understanding more about wine. I networked and spent a lot of time learning via wine chat boards. Because I would rather learn from a consumer than somebody who writes for a living and might have biases. So these consumers steered me into the directions of what wines to taste, opinions and things. I networked and I met a winemaker, and he said come out, I’ll help you get started and make some wine. I said to him, you’re living my dream. He said, why don’t you come out to California, put your career on hold.
So who was the winemaker?
That gentleman’s name is Michael Browne of Kosta Browne. So Kosta Browne went on to be Wine Spectator’s number-one wine of the year [with] a 98-point score. So they’ve gone on to great success. But I tasted something in one of their earlier wines, their ’02, and I loved it. And I was enamored with learning more about that wine and about getting to know the winemaker and the wines that he was producing. So I did one year with them, helped them make their wines, and in turn, I made a little bit of wine with them. And it got me started. By year two I was on my own.
Did you have a vision for Kutch Wines at that point?
Not on day one or not even year one. By year two I had strong opinions and choices that I wanted to change. And do things differently. Those first one or two years, the wines were very much riper. Much sweeter. Higher in alcohol. So I shift gears. I mean, I could go through the whole list, but every single year I make wine I learn something different.
What year was that?
The first year was 2005. And it’s important also to say that those wines were all destemmed. I took the berries off of the stems. These wines today, all four of them are — I leave all of the stems on all of the berries and I ferment the wines a hundred percent whole cluster. That’s very unique for California standards. It’s not something new. It had been done 20, 30 years ago as well by other early pioneers of California Pinot Noir, and it’s been done for hundreds of years in Burgundy. But today, in 2014 in California, to make California Pinot Noir that’s a hundred percent whole cluster — not that common.
Why is that? Because winemakers want to bring out more of the flavor?
Yeah, they want to have the wines immediately accessible. They want the wines to have a fruit – a nice underlying flavor of fruit.
These winemakers don’t want to mess with a good thing, right? They’re making money off of these —
Of course, yeah, they want to pop and pour. This [Kutch Pinot] is an easier wine; it captures freshness. The other thing is that those fruit flavors get preserved. If we cut an apple right now and we left it for this whole conversation on the table, by the time we leave, it’ll brown. If I cut a grape and break a grape in a tank, it’s immediately susceptible to oxygen. And it starts oxidizing. Now, if I leave the grape with the stems in the tank, generally the berries don’t break that easily. Because the stems act like egg crates. They protect berry after berry so the tank can get really big and none of the berries break — they start to ferment inside each other. That’s called carbonic maceration. And now to go a step further, that tannin that gets leeched out from the stem protects any grapes that are broken. So take that apple, take some of the tannin from the stem and rub it on the apple: In my personal opinion, that apple doesn’t brown. Or, translated, it’s putting a protective shell over the fruit flavors. I’ve had a hundred old California Pinot Noirs, and ones that have aged the best are whole cluster. And that’s again because, in my humble opinion, it protects against the oxidation — and it captures freshness and purity of the fruit. All of the things that I love in wine.
I have to ask: Did your friends from Wall Street, or your family on Long Island — where you grew up — think you were crazy to walk away from your life in New York?
Oh, sure! Yeah. They’re like, you’re leaving a finance job to move to California to try and start a whole new profession.
It’s one thing to follow your dream and move from New York to California, go work in a winery, start making your own wine. It’s another thing to actually make it a big success. And you kind of made it seem easy, but I imagine it wasn’t so easy.
Oh, shit, it’s seven days a week. It was living a lifestyle with [my wife] Kristen [Greene] where we were each making six-figure salaries to living back to how we lived when we first graduated college and were living at home with our parents for the first year or two. No going to dinner, a tiny little 750-square-foot apartment.
Even in California?
In California, this was our first three, four, five years. Just everything was tight. We were very careful and cautious. The money that it took to start everything — it was challenging. [There’s] a huge learning curve. I built my own website; I sourced all my own vineyards. Made all my own wines. Picked out all my labels, corks, barrels. Tried to learn how to make wine —
But it all worked out!
I think it’s worked. If you want to become a great basketball player, sure, there are people that are naturally 6’4″, 6’5″. A pianist, there’s naturally guys that have really long, open fingers. But something like wine, you just have to do it seven days a week. Think about it when you wake up, think about it when you go to sleep. Talk about it with everyone you know, and then you just try to put together the pieces. This is almost like a humongous chess game for me.
For information on where to buy Kutch Wines, visit the company’s website.
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