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Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

“I was always a hobby person as a kid, but I I would push them beyond where anyone would normally go,” chuckles winemaker Jamie Kutch. The last real hobby I had was DJing. We’re not just talking about playing music, we’re talking turntables, mixing, blending, scratching and shredding. This was an era when I was going to college in the Bronx, smoking a little pot and watching my roommate play with his turntables. He had been DJing for six or seven years at that point. I decided it was something I wanted to do, and within six months I was better than him. I spent literally hundreds of hours with my gear. It wasn’t great for my education, but that’s who I am. It’s where I come from. My dad is workhorse. I remember growing up, he would spend eight or ten hours a day fixing boats, and then come home and spend two hours cutting a full acre of grass with a push mower because riding mowers didn’t do a good enough job. The garden was perfect. He washed the car every weekend without fail. We had a boat for a little while. It was meticulous. That’s just how I was raised.”

If obsession mixed with passion, and then seasoned with a good dose of the fastidious is the recipe for good winemaking, we theoretically could have seen someone like Jamie Kutch coming. But such traits can just as easily be applied to other arenas of life with very different results.

“I sat behind a desk and did corporate jobs and worked in the bureaucracy for twelve years. If someone had come to me before then and said, here’s $500,000 go be a winemaker, I would have been a complete failure. I couldn’t have done this when I was young,” says Kutch.

Kutch was born in New York, and had what by his account was a “fairly normal, boring” childhood in Northport, Long Island, before heading off to Fordham University in the Bronx, getting a job in finance, and moving to Manhattan for his 12-year stint in the corporate life.

During his extended flirtation with the rat race, Kutch got into wine. Pinot Noir in particular. He quickly became a regular fixture on the then-popular wine bulletin board attached to Robert Parker’s web site, engaging fellow wine lovers and winemakers in conversations about everything vinous.

And then came the fateful taste of a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir that knocked his socks off, and his life-changing post to Parker’s bulletin board that led to an invitation to come out to California and make Pinot Noir along with the guys at Kosta Browne.

I’ve written about that chapter of Kutch’s story as a winemaker already. It is a rags to whatever-passes-for-riches-when-you’re-a-winemaker story worth telling. But that, in many ways, is ancient history for Jamie Kutch. He’s not writing next chapter of that story, he’s busy writing a sequel, and it is the story of unlocking the secrets required to make some of California’s most compelling Pinot Noir.

Kutch the winemaker, and Kutch the wines bear essentially no resemblance to the starry-eyed 32-year-old so proud of his jammy, 16+% alcohol Pinot Noir made in the blueprint of Kosta Browne.

These days, Kutch is one of a new breed of winemakers that are pushing the envelope for California Pinot Noir. It is the speed of his transformation from aspirant to adept that makes his story so remarkable.

A year or two after making his first vintage, Kutch began traveling to Burgundy.

“I basically started getting access to what I think are some of the best wines on the planet,” says Kutch, “and I started to ask a ton of questions. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was from meeting [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti co-Director] Aubert de Villaine, and talking with him about stem inclusion. In 2007 they had practically no stem inclusion, because it was a weaker vintage, without nearly as much sunshine as usual. But in 2005 and 2009 which were warmer years, they amped up the whole cluster fermentation. That was one light bulb that went off for me. In Burgundy they struggle with getting the fruit ripe. In California we struggle with not getting the fruit overripe. What they lack, we have an oversupply of. They utilize sugar, we counterbalance with acidity [additions]. So this lightbulb was starting to wonder very hard about what this stem thing was all about.”

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Hirsch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast

Kutch got his teeth into this idea of the relationship between stems and the complexity of Burgundy and worried at it like a pit-bull. And like just about everything in the world of wine, he pulled at one thread and found it tied to another. If you want to use stems in your winemaking, you need to make sure that they’re ripe. Getting your stems ripe depends on how you farm, and in particular how you use water in your vineyard. Trying to do all that while shooting for wines that top out in the low 13% alcohol range adds yet another layer of complexity to the equation, and starts making you look closely at where you farm in addition to how you farm.

“My second year [2006], I still didn’t know much about the choices that need to be made during picking, and when the fruit came in I tried to be gentle with it, thinking that if I was gentle with it I’d get more complexity. It was 15.3% alcohol and had no intensity,” remembers Kutch. “So I decided that the next year I was going to pick really early, and went out and picked my grapes thirty days before anyone else. It was very light in body, and I remember thinking, I have no glycerin, no weight or intensity. I watched the people who picked thirty days after me, and I tasted their wines and they had intense fruit, and they had the glycerin.”

But the wines made by others were also too heavy and too high in alcohol for Kutch’s taste. Winemakers have one chance per year to get things right, and Kutch wasted no time trying to figure out how the million-and-one variables come together to produce a wine that matches the vision of its maker.

Armed with his advice from Aubert de Villaine, and everything else he was able to soak up from every Pinot winemaker he had ever met, Kutch struck out for new vineyards and new ways of doing everything.

Kutch sought out cooler, higher-altitude sites in the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley with rockier, shallower soils. Convinced that dry-farming was one key to making the kinds of wines he wanted to make, he began working with growers to avoid putting water on his vines.

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McDougall Vineyard, Sonoma Coast

“There are all these ‘rules’ out there, not really rules, per se, but, you know, the things that everyone says you need to do to make wine the normal way,” explains Kutch. “When a farmer sees in the forecast that there’s a heat spike coming in the late summer, he is quick to turn the water on before the heat comes. He sees his grapes are at 20 brix and knows that the fruit is going to go to 21 or 22 brix with that heat, but with crazy amounts of acidity. That’s close to where some people could think about picking, but most winemakers would taste those grapes and say, ‘whoa, that’s way too acidic, I need more hangtime.’ But there is actually fruit flavor under that acidity. I know because I picked way too early in 2007. I can now taste all the fruit underneath that acid and know it is not going to be a tart green bomb.”

In addition to water, Kutch has gotten what passes for religion when it comes to managing yields in the vineyard.

“This other thing that everyone does that they think is the ‘right’ way to go is dropping fruit,” says Kutch. “They usually wait until about 80% of veraison is complete, and find all the clusters that haven’t fully turned color, and drop them to the ground, thinking they have ‘balanced’ the vine to the point that it is capable of ripening what is left. But from my perspective that is all wrong. When I look at that vine I think to myself, I don’t have much longer before I pick that vine and it has already wasted all that energy on the fruit that is laying on the ground. I learned by drinking Burgundies with Raj [sommelier Rajat Parr, of the Michael Mina Group] about years like 1971, which produced such intense wines after hail reduced the yields to practically nothing. The hail in Burgundy comes early in the season, just as the bunches are starting to close. And this is exactly the time you need to go through and drop fruit. At this point the vine has shown you how much fruit it is going to make, but hasn’t worked to get it ripe yet. When you go through at that point, the vine doesn’t know if it’s a human or hail, but it is left with a small amount of fruit that ripens earlier, with higher acidity and great intensity.”

Convincing his farmers to buck the conventional wisdom hasn’t been easy. “Even when you’re buying all your grapes by the acre [instead of by the ton] and you have good communication with the farmers and workers, you’re still at the mercy of when they can get things done,” sighs Kutch. “You can say ‘No Water! No Water!’ but if they disagree they just go ahead and put water on if they want to. Usually they know more than me so I don’t argue, but it makes it hard to push the envelope.”

Still, Kutch is finding some growers amenable to his approach. “It’s taken a couple of years, and number of big arguments,” laughs Kutch. In 2012, he finally convinced grower David Hirsch to let him try farming this way. “I did it only in one block,” says Kutch, “but that is the greatest wine I’ve ever made.”

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Savoy Vineyard, Anderson Valley

Kutch readily admits that what has become his holy grail isn’t some big secret. “I can’t say I’m doing anything miraculous. A lot of other people share these ideas,” says Kutch. “I’m just one guy trying to put all the pieces together.” He gives great credit to growers Rich Savoy and David Hirsch, as well as vineyard manager Ulysses Valdez, all of whom he considers mentors.

There are, indeed, a number of winemakers who seem to be successfully farming for and then producing the exceptionally bright, dynamic wines that are changing the definition of what is possible in California Pinot Noir. But most of them have been making wine for at least a decade longer than Jamie Kutch.

Kutch vibrates with energy — the kind of raw, almost childlike enthusiasm that you expect from a cheerleader at halftime — except that Kutch’s intensity doesn’t seem to flag at any point. This has clearly driven both his boundless quest to learn as much as he can about growing and making Pinot Noir, as well as the energy required to do it all himself.

Until 2013, Kutch literally did everything but pull every grape cluster off the vines himself. Now he has a single helper during harvest, but that’s only four hands to help manage fruit from five vineyards that goes into almost 2500 cases of wine.

“I wake up and think wine. I go to bed and think wine,” says Kutch.

As harvest approaches, Kutch can spend six or eight hours driving between his vineyard sites many days in a row until he settles on the day to pick his grapes. “The pick is crucial,” he says, “It’s so important to nail that.”

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Once the grapes are in the winery, Kutch’s winemaking resembles what many crusty old Burgundian winemakers would dismiss as “just the way it’s done.” Whole clusters of meticulously sorted grapes go into open-top fermenters where they begin to ferment with ambient yeasts. Kutch practices punchdowns the old-fashioned way, with his feet. As the wines ferment to dryness, they are pressed off to old French oak barrels where they go through secondary fermentation and a racking before slumbering away until bottling, without fining or filtration.

Kutch’s personal triumph has been tuning the delicately balanced web of technique in the vineyard and the winery to the point that he can make his wines with 100% whole cluster fermentation.

“I wanted to do whole cluster in 2008, but I was too scared of the smoke taint because of all the fires that I destemmed everything,” says Kutch. “But I started with extensive trials of whole cluster in 2009. I watched the intensity and complexity of my wines tick upwards to the point that it was staggering. Very quickly I didn’t enjoy drinking the wines that had no stems in them at all. 50% was the target at first, but over time, I loved the wines that had 100%. But I wasn’t sure consumers would like them. So I started in 2010 with 50% whole cluster and just saw what the reaction was. The wines were good. I pushed 2011 to about 75%, and in 2012 I had the greatest fruit I’ve ever seen, so I finally did everything 100% whole cluster. I have to say, I’m thrilled with the results.” In recent vintages, Kutch has begun to sort out which vineyards he prefers to ferment 100% on their stems, and which require a portion of destemming.

In eight short years, Kutch has firmly established Kutch Wines as one of the state’s top makers of Pinot Noir, if only measured by the scores doled out by notoriously tough critic Alan Meadows of Burghound.

Despite his somewhat meteoric rise to prominence, Kutch’s tiny 2500 case production hasn’t translated into a tidal wave of fortune. He has no problem selling out his wines within ten days of their release, of course. But he does have a hard time putting the money in his retirement account.

“I gave up a rich bank account for a rich lifestyle,” quips Kutch. “I came out to California with 100k in the bank — the whole of my net worth. That’s not much money when it comes to starting a winery. Last year I bought thirty tanks. I bought a basket press the year before. This year I bought a new toy — the same wooden tanks that Romanée-Conti uses. They don’t have an importer. That was fun.”

“I’m not struggling now. The pennies that I can save, I’m saving to at some point have my own vineyard. And after that, my own winery facility. For now I’m just buying equipment.”

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Kutch is on the long-term hunt for a vineyard that he can buy and control completely. “I have my hopes and desires on pieces of land to buy or lease, but the parcels are so big, and so expensive. The perfect property would be five to eight acres that I could buy or lease for twenty five years. I’ve been dropping business cards in people’s mailboxes when I see interesting plots. I’ve sent out 250 letters to people, and tell people I’d pay them a referral fee if they find me the right piece of land.”

Until he finds the patch of land that will become his first estate bottling, Kutch feels like he has gotten to where he wanted to go with his wines. And it’s hard to argue when you pour some in the glass and experience the layers of aromas and flavors he manages to coax out of berries that most winemakers in the state would consider dangerously, even disgustingly unripe.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with Jamie and his wife Kristen, and I have come to consider them friends. This is important to mention in the context of such a praiseworthy article, but doesn’t affect in the slightest the admiration I have for Kutch and the path he has managed to forge for himself in wine. The more I get to know the guy, the more I want a prescription for whatever he runs on 20 hours a day.

And the more I taste his wines, the more I begin to wonder how it is that more producers of Pinot Noir in California aren’t figuring out how to grow wines like these. They are now among my very favorite California wines, and simply required drinking for anyone who wants to see where Pinot Noir is headed in America.

The real question is whether we’ll be saying the same thing about Chardonnay in a few years. Kutch made his first Chardonnay this year, along with a rosé.

Full disclosure: most of the wines reviewed below were provided to me as press samples.

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TASTING NOTES FOR MOST RECENT RELEASES:

2014 Kutch Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of piney citrus peel and white flowers. In the mouth, smoky flavors of lemon peel, lemon juice and a touch of butterscotch have a silky smoothness. I had expected brighter acidity than the delicate, filigreed acidity this wine brings to the table, but that doesn’t keep it from being excellent, and easily mistaken for White Burgundy in profile. 12.75% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $48.

2015 Kutch Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Palest baby pink in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, watermelon rind, and rosehips. In the mouth, juicy rosehip, hibiscus, and tangy exotic citrus flavors blossom on the palate and vibrate with electric acidity. A tiny hint of salinity emerges on the finish along with a burst of citrus oils and zest that pushes salivary glands into overdrive. This is one stellar bottle of pink that should be consumed in ice cold multiples. Yowza! One of the best California rosés I’ve had in some time. 12.3% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??

2014 Kutch Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of candied raspberries. In the mouth, bright raspberry and cherry flavors have a snappy zip thanks to excellent acidity. Cedar and mixed dried herbs make for an aromatic finish with just the faintest whisper of tannins. Juicy and delicious. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 9 . Cost: $45. click to buy.

2014 Kutch “Falstaff Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in color this wine smells of freshly turned wet earth, a bit of pine duff, and dried flowers. In the mouth, incredibly silky flavors of wet earth, dried herbs, raspberries and redcurrants are dusted with faint powdery tannins. Fantastically aromatic and distinctive, this wine leaves notes of dried flowers and raspberry pastilles vying for attention along with the deep humous in the finish. Fantastic. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2014 Kutch “Bohan Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth, dried flowers, and cherry fruit. In the mouth, supple, suede-like tannins coat the mouth while flavors of cranberry and cherry mix with green herbs and a deep crushed stone minerality. Forest floor lingers in the finish. I’d lay this bottle down for a couple of years for sure. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2014 Kutch “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers, raspberries, and wet stones. In the mouth, gorgeous, supple tannins wrap around a core of raspberry and redcurrant flavors tinged with forest floor and a bit of wet chalkboard. Gorgeous balance and poise, with fantastic acidity and length. Killer stuff. 12.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf with a hint of blueberry. In the mouth beautifully floral flavors of raspberry, raspberry leaf, and crushed green herbs nestle into a bed of powdery tannins. Excellent acidity and length. Very pretty, and quite savory in the finish, despite the bright fruit of its beginning. 12.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines “Falstaff” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, green herbs, wild raspberries and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a floral delicacy that is profound. Incredibly filigreed and complex, with deep wet stone character and aromatic wafts of berries, flowers, and forest floor drifting across the palate this wine is a shimmering gem of flavors. Barely perceptible tannins creep into the back of the mouth through the long finish. Stunning flavor at an astonishing 12.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries, wet stone, and forest floor. In the mouth, gorgeously bright flavors of raspberry and forest floor take on a floral high note even as they rumble earthily through the finish. Fantastic zingy acidity and wonderfully supple, powdery tannins round out the absolutely poised and perfectly balanced picture of this wine. Utterly delicious and compelling. 12.3% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $59. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, raspberry, and cherries. In the mouth muscular, fine grained tannins wrap around a core of raspberry and cherry fruit tinged with green herbs. A salty juicy note lingers in the finish. Nice balance and texture. 12.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $46.

I also pulled a couple of older wines from my cellar to see how they were faring with some age, and they are doing beautifully:

2009 Kutch Wines “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of cranberry, cherry and forest floor. In the mouth, earthy forest floor and bright cherry flavors have a delicious bright sappiness thanks to excellent, even mouthwatering acidity. The tannins are so fine as to be nearly creamy, and linger nicely with dried herbs and a citrus zing in the finish. Fabulous. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

2009 Kutch Wines “Falstaff” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, gorgeously bright flavors of raspberries, redcurrants, and freshly crushed green herbs have a snap and a sizzle thanks to phenomenal acidity, even as darker, earthier notes offer a bass counterpoint to the citrusy high notes of berry fruit. Very fine grained tannins are barely perceptible until a while into the very long finish. 13.1% alcohol Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2009 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry, cherry, and a hint of blueberry. In the mouth, exceedingly silky flavors of raspberry and black raspberry mix with a forest floor and crushed stone earthiness that is quite compelling. Excellent acidity and length, with fine tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

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