Sonoma-Cutrer: Superstar of California Chardonnay

cutrerThe first time I visited the Sonoma-Cutrer winery back in the late 1980s, the main impression I came away with had to do with the lawn.

It was a gorgeous lawn. A green lawn. A manicured lawn. A big lawn.

A little more fuzzy is what that lawn was used for. In the deep recesses of my mind, I’m thinking that it was used for polo matches. Today, however, the winery’s website mentions only croquet being played on that lawn, so I could be wrong.

The reason I remember more about the lawn than the wine was that, at the time, I preferred a big, rich, buttery, “California style” of Chardonnay, and Sonoma-Cutrer was making the variety in a more reserved Burgundian style. The wine was good; it just wasn’t the style of Chardonnay I preferred.

In the ensuing years, after tasting thousands of different Chardonnays from all over the world, I’ve come to appreciate all styles — including Burgundian. And there is no question in my mind that Sonoma-Cutrer is now… and was the first time I visited… a superstar of California winemaking.

So, courtesy of the winery’s website, let’s take a look at this winery’s fabled history…

Sonoma-Cutrer has been producing the finest quality wines since it opened as a vineyard company in 1973.

Its foundation is built in the hillsides and rocky foothills in the region recognized as the Sonoma Coast appellation, which experiences long, even growing seasons thanks to the cool, foggy coastal climate. In the 1970s, the company planted several different grape varieties. Virtually overnight, Sonoma-Cutrer’s Chardonnay grapes had gained a reputation for exceptional quality and were in high demand by many premium wineries.

Discussions about creating a cutting-edge winery began, and Sonoma-Cutrer gathered a crew of wine experts, including Terrence Clancy, Brad Web, Bill Bonetti, Robert Haas, David Reid and Chuck Bennett. Under their guidance, Sonoma-Cutrer made Chardonnay its main focus, and it was to be made exclusively from the estate’s own vineyards. In 1981, ground was broken for the new winery.

Today, Sonoma-Cutrer’s flagship wine, Russian River Ranches, is the most requested Chardonnay in America’s finest restaurants, according to the annual Wine & Spirits magazine Restaurant Poll.

Sonoma-Cutrer is dedicated to the pursuit of original expression in its wines. Each wine reflects its regional and seasonal climate and its specific vineyard character — its terroir. From the very first vintage of Chardonnay to the limited production of its world-class Pinot Noir, this dedication has taken root and continues to grow.

The winery’s “Grand Cru” philosophy is a unique assimilation of traditional Burgundian winemaking methods and its own technological innovation. It’s a balance of tradition and discovery, bringing forth noble wines that express a sense of place, vintage after vintage.

In 1992, Sonoma-Cutrer officially launched its own Grand Cru program for its “Les Pierres” and “The Cutrer” Chardonnays. While wines labeled Grand Cru are made only in Europe, the term is a fitting title for Sonoma-Cutrer’s program, which is defined by the same exacting standards and ideology.

It is a commitment to excellence without compromise. The winegrowing philosophy is a unique combination of traditional Burgundian winemaking methods, enhanced by American state-of-the-art technological innovations.

Sonoma-Cutrer wines are all aged in barrels made of the finest French oak. Investment in the highest quality barrels is a key to producing the award-winning wines. The winery hires Merrandiers to select specific trees from forests in the heart of France to meet the exacting standards of the Grand Cru Program. This wood is then hand-split into staves and stacked on pallets to dry in open air for three years. Exposure to the elements helps to diminish saps, tars, resins and other undesirable components the wood may have. After it is dried, the wood is crafted by two small French tonnelleries (cooperages), where “Old World” craftsmen cooper the handcrafted barrels.

Sonoma-Cutrer adheres to what the French have known to work for decades: Aging wines in a temperature-controlled environment produces the highest quality wines. The cellars are specifically designed to provide space for the wine to age with 90% humidity, and stays at a constant, cool 58 degrees. This protects the wines from evaporation and oxidation.

While it is common for wine caves to be bored horizontally into a hillside, Sonoma-Cutrer’s exacting process led it instead to remove an entire hill. A meticulously designed, 20,000-square-foot cellar was the constructed on the site, and the hill was reconstructed upon completion.

Today, Mick Schroeter is Sonoma-Cutrer’s head winemaker, and his decorated and storied wine background made him superbly qualified to serve as only the third person in that position.

Winemaking is often a trade passed down from generation to generation, and Schroeter is no exception. Starting out on his own as an oenologist at Kaiser Stuhl winery in Australia, he wanted to blaze his own trail and had no intentions of following in his father and uncle’s footsteps at the Penfold Winery. Then in 1982, as fate would have it, Penfold bought Kaiser Stuhl and reunited Schroeter with his family in the business.

Although he was already well versed in winemaking, Penfold allowed him to continue his pursuit of total enlightenment, sponsoring his winemaking education at the famed Roseworthy College and providing him a scholarship to visit and study in Chile’s wine country. This was followed by a six-month tour around the world with his wife and a stop in California to work the wine harvest.

Schroeter rose rapidly through the Penfold system and had the privilege to be part of its red winemaking team, eventually working on the legendary Grange Hermitage, the benchmark of Aussie Shiraz. From there, he accepted an invitation from Geyser Peak Winery in California to take over as Vice President of Winemaking, and for 17 years was in charge of vineyard assessment, harvest scheduling, winemaking direction, budgeting and brand ambassadorship.

It is his long track record of success and illustrious career in Australia and California, along with twice being named “Winemaker of the Year” at the London International Wine & Spirit Competition, that gave Schroeter the encompassing experience to take the reins at Sonoma-Cutrer. He considers it one of the industry’s true dream jobs, and says he is honored to carry on the brand’s storied legacy — and also eager to take it to new heights.

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Posted in Wineries of Distinction
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