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Evolving From Strength to Confidence: The Wines of Jamie Kutch

I have written about the wines of Jamie Kutch several times here on Vinography. This is due, in part, to the fact that I have closely watched Jamie’s career as a winemaker from the moment it began as merely the dream of a young finance guy in New York who fell in love with Pinot Noir.

“For a long time, we had a schtick. I had my story. It was about lifestyle, a story of me following my dream,” Kutch says at the cluttered kitchen table of his modest San Francisco home where we sat down to talk late last year, not long before the global pandemic set in. “But all along in the back of my mind, I was focused on something more serious than that story. I want to make great wines that can play on the world stage. It’s fine to have a lifestyle narrative, a dream of a lifetime to introduce people to the wines, but that’s not enough for me. I think about people like Adam Sandler or Mark Walberg, underneath their public image, they’re hustlers. They’re serious professionals who work hard and produce.”

Having observed his fairly meteoric rise from enthusiastic, first-time winemaker to what passes for (at least according to critics’ scores) mastery, I find myself thinking about how the stories of wineries evolve and change. It seems quite clear that Kutch has in both literal and figurative ways outgrown his origin story. Now in his mid-40s, he’s filled out a little on what was once a wiry frame, his close-cropped hair graying noticeably. While he still shows hints of his trademark frantic energy in bursts of ideas and speech, time and fatherhood seem to have exerted something of a mellowing influence.

Returning to Kutch’s Hollywood metaphor, he has clearly moved beyond being typecast as the Doogie Howser of California Pinot Noir. The man, and his winery, have clearly passed an inflection point where the narrative can cease to be about where he came from, and now must focus on what he, as one of California’s current virtuosos of Pinot Noir, intends to do with the rest of his career as a winemaker. After many consecutive vintages of scores in the low and mid-90s from the notoriously tough grader Allen Meadows at Burghound, Kutch’s wines display the meticulous, nuanced work of someone who thinks deeply and carefully about what he is trying to express. He has become more focused than ever on the combination of site and vintage, as he tunes both in his winemaking and his farming regimens to allow the characteristics of each to play a larger role in the character of his wines.

I’m just more confident now at letting wines be what they are. I have more confidence in my vineyards.

WINEMAKER Jamie Kutch

“I continue to learn that less is more with wine in general,” continues Kutch. “For several years now I’ve used no new oak at all. Now it’s fewer punchdowns, less extraction, and less heat. Every year is another experience, of course. I’ve been on a journey of observation. Learning to watch and see how, if Mother Nature throws a ball on the outside, I can see that pitch coming and step out a bit too hit it a little better. I’ve learned to manage my extraction techniques in the winery to adapt to the fruit.”

“Some of these wines,” he says, gesturing to the set of 2018 wines we have in front of us, “have had maybe two punchdowns. We used to do that twice a day over a 14-day fermentation. That could mean 12 to 18 punchdowns for each wine. We’re now down to two or three. And guess what? The wines show a better sense of their place. There’s more distinction of where they were grown, what type of soil they were grown in. That has been joyous to see and gives me more confidence. I’m just more confident now at letting wines be what they are. I have more confidence in my vineyards.”

It’s going to be epic, actually, to the point that I hope it doesn’t eclipse my other wines.

Winemaker Jamie Kutch

To that end, Kutch has been making changes to the lineup of his wines, essentially dropping vineyard contracts for sites in which he lacked faith for how they would perform long term or in which he struggled to get the farming done to increasingly exacting specifications, including as close to dry-farming as possible. That has meant dropping vineyards such as the Savoy Vineyard in Anderson Valley, and focusing his portfolio of Pinot Noirs on the Sonoma Coast AVA, with single-vineyard designates from the Bohan Vineyard, The Falstaff Vineyard, and McDougall Ranch. In 2014 Kutch also recently began making a Chardonnay from the Trout Gulch Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and began making commercial quantities of his rosé, something of a closely guarded secret wine for several years.

In the course of our conversation, Kutch let drop that he will be adding a new single vineyard designate wine to his lineup in the 2019 vintage. “I’m always hunting and searching for sites that really stand out. In 2019 I made a wine from Mindego Ridge Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s in the rock-star upper elevations in the northern part of the site. A husband and wife bought the property and have been organically farming it to make their own wines, but they’ve been selling some of their fruit and I got some in 2019. I tasted it out of barrel the other day and I can say without a doubt it is every bit as good as any of my other single-vineyard wines. It’s going to be epic, actually, to the point that I hope it doesn’t eclipse my other wines.

Kutch continues to save his pennies towards his ultimate goal of having his own estate vineyard. He’s come close a few times. “I bid on a property near Falstaff, but I got outbid by Bill Price [cofounder of the TPG group, a $30 billion hedge fund] so, what are you going to do,” shrugs Kutch. “I’m always looking for a spot. I guess I need a recession or a big hiccup to get into the game. The time will come.”

We always have to be careful what we ask for, but perhaps there will be a silver lining in this pandemic for Kutch.

Until he finds the patch of land that will become his first estate bottling, however, Kutch seems quite satisfied that he has gotten to where he wanted to go with his wines, and spends his time and focus on the minute details that lie between that satisfaction and perfection, a task which seems a lifetime’s work.

“I’m going to make wine until I’m dead,” quips Kutch, almost-but-not-quite self-consciously saying something that he and I have both heard vintners twice his age utter as they stand over a barrel in their centuries-old family cellar. Kutch has accomplished so much and progressed so fast as a winemaker in 15 years, it’s hard to imagine where he will be in another 15 years, let alone 30.

Luckily, we’ll all have the pleasure of watching, and drinking, as he moves along.

Tasting Notes

The following are notes on some of Kutch Wines recent past releases, provided as press samples or opened for tasting during a visit.

2017 Kutch Wines Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and a hint of apple. In the mouth, apple and a touch of citrus pith mixes with stony wet chalkboard. Fantastic bright acidity, and nice linearity. 12.25% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.

2017 Kutch Wines “Trout Gulch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and citrus pith with a hint of floral overtones. In the mouth, gorgeous bright lemon zest and lemon curd have a bright zingy quality thanks to excellent acidity. Gorgeous minerality and a hint of pith on the finish with floral overtones. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2018 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass this wine smells of bright raspberry and cherry fruit with a background of herbs. In the mouth, juicy and bright flavors of raspberry and cherry fruit mix with floral and herbal notes. Faint tannins add a bit of muscle to the wine and linger with hints of herbs in the finish. Excellent acidity. 13.2% alcohol. A blend of Bohan, Falstaff and McDougall. Which means very expensive fruit, in a not-so-expensive bottle. Score: around 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.

2018 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed stones, red fruit and dried flowers. In the mouth, muscular, supple, fine grained tannins wrap around a beautiful crystalline core of raspberry and wet chalkboard. Hints of dried herbs linger in the finish. Fantastic acidity. I would give this a year in the bottle, and watch out! 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2018 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard – Graveyard Block” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry fruit with amazing sweet floral overtones. In the mouth, powdery but powerful tannins wrap around a core of pure raspberry fruit tinged with cherries and flowers. Gorgeous acidity and wonderful rocky depth, this wine comes from a specific block of the Bohan Vineyard that is solid sandstone rock, where the own-rooted vines dig deep and yield smaller, according to Kutch “gnarlier” clusters. As a result and quite uncharacteristically for Kutch, the wine is 100% destemmed. Kutch felt the wine needed it, despite his typical focus on 100% whole cluster fermentation. 13.1% alcohol. 100 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.

2018 Kutch Wines “Falstaff Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright raspberry and redcurrant fruit with a hint of sour cherry and chopped dried herbs. In the mouth, gorgeous sour cherry and redcurrant fruit mixes with raspberry pastilles under a gauzy blanket of tannins accompanied by wonderfully green wood and fresh herb flavors. Gorgeous acidity brings in faintly bitter notes of citrus peel into the finish, where the tannins add grip.12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.

2018 Kutch Wines “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and floral notes that soar away. In the mouth, gorgeous acidity enlivens and gushes flavors of cherry and wet chalkboard draped in suede-like tannins. Notes of herbs and earth and pure raspberries linger in the finish. Gorgeous. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.

2017 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth, dried flowers, and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, beautifully mineral flavors of raspberry, cherry and wet earth are wrapped in a muscular skein of tannins that speak the language of stone. Gorgeous fruit, outstanding acidity. Utterly delicious. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2017 Kutch Wines “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry and wet earth. In the mouth, beautiful cherry and raspberry flavors are wrapped in a gauzy blanket of tannins even as bright acidity makes them gush across the palate. Deeper bass notes linger in earthy tones through the finish. Delicious. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.

2017 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, flavors of berries, herbs, tree bark and a touch of dried flowers have a nice brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. A faint herbal bitterness lingers in the finish along with scents of raspberries. The faintest of tannins add texture to the wine. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.

2017 Kutch Wines “Falstaff Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and cranberries. In the mouth, faint tannins dust the edges of the palate while intense raspberry and pomegranate flavors mix with aromatic herbs and flowers. Gorgeous citrus acidity makes the wine vibrant and mouthwatering, while the floral and berry notes linger long through the finish. Outstanding. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.

2017 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard – Graveyard Block” Pinot Noir, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries, dried flowers, and dusty earth. In the mouth, fantastically bright flavors of redcurrant and raspberries mix with dried herbs and a touch of potters clay. Faint, powdery tannins hang in a cloud above the palate while the wine finishes with a touch of red apple skin and sawdust. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.

2017 Kutch Wines “Signal Ridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Mendocino Ridge, Mendocino, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of camphor wood, forest floor and raspberries. In the mouth, powdery tannins dust the edges of the palate while raspberry and redcurrant flavors dance with brilliant acidity on the palate. Gorgeous incense and exotic wood notes mix with floral components as the wine lingers through a very long finish. Distinctive and outstanding. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.