Chow Town

Sonoma Cutrer, known for its Chardonnay, has set sights on making world-class Pinot Noir

Even the winery calls it their “best kept secret,” so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to only recently discover that the famed Chardonnay producing estate, Sonoma Cutrer, also makes world-class Pinot Noir.

“Interestingly, we have been making Pinot since 2002,” wine making director Mick Schroeter told me. “As the other great Burgundian variety, it was not a huge stretch for us to take our same philosophical approach to crafting the best California Chardonnay and apply it to Pinot Noir.”

Schroeter said they offer the wine from a small base. Originally, it was only sold on allocations. And, even though Sonoma-Cutrer’s Pinots are now in national distribution, there are still lots of folks who are unaware the winery procures the two great Burgundian varieties: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

So, are there any particular challenges in producing a Pinot after solely focusing on Chardonnay for so many years?

“It’s not so much a challenge, as it is exciting. We use the same mentality of an artisanal, hands-on approach,” Schroeter said. “Our Pinot winery is located in a separate facility on our Cutrer Ranch. It’s set up with small open top fermenters. We do hand punch downs, and the grapes are all gravity fed, so it’s minimal impact from start to finish.”

To truly understand how big of a deal it is for Sonoma-Cutrer to be making Pinot Noir, you have to understand its history. It first opened as a vineyard company in 1973, focusing exclusively on Chardonnay, primarily in the Sonoma Coast Appellation, which is largely wild and untamed today. I can only imagine what the appellation must have been like back then.

After carving out a richly deserved reputation for growing some of the best Chardonnay in the New World, discussions began about creating a winery. They gathered six of the top Chardonnay experts in the world and in 1981 ground was broken for the new winery.

For the following 33 years, Sonoma-Cutrer produced outstanding Chardonnays, building its reputation as one of the very best Chardonnay produces in the United States. In fact, its flagship wine, the Russian River Ranches Chardonnay, is the most requested Chardonnay in America’s finest restaurants, according to an annual Wine and Spirits Magazine poll.

I was truly impressed when I visited Sonoma-Cutrer while filming a segment for my television show, Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert. I saw first-hand the care the winery took with the grapes, first chilling the clusters by running them through a cooling unit on a conveyor belt, before hand-sorting not just the clusters, but the individual berries.

They call their philosophy “Grand Cru,” which combines traditional Burgundian wine making techniques and Sonoma-Cutrer’s own technological innovation. Schroeter said they seek to create “noble wines that express a sense of place, vintage after vintage.” From what I’ve tried through the years I’d say Sonoma-Cutrer meets its goals more often than not.

Sonoma-Cutrer makes four Chardonnays: Russian River Ranges, The Cutrer, Les Pierres, and Founder’s Reserve. While my palette runs more to the flinty, mineral-influenced style of the Les Pierres (think Chablis, but in a New world-style), all of their Chards are terrific examples of the heights that the noble Chardonnay grape can achieve here in America.

I was very excited to try the Pinot Noirs, though not really sure what to expect. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of domestic Pinots, especially California Pinot. However, one whiff of the single vineyard Owsley Ranch Pinot and I knew I was in for a treat. Schroeter describes it as “dark and brooding,” and it is.

But, it’s also incredibly complex with dark, ripe fruits and earthy notes of the forest floor. It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of Pinot, but it was certainly mine. I loved it, as in I would seek this out in a store, in a restaurant, and on-line. I would, and am, recommending the Owsley Ranch Pinot Noir to friends, family and total strangers.

I enjoyed the other single vineyard Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot offering, Vine Hill, but not quite as much. The Russian River Valley Pinot, meantime, was pleasant, but didn’t quite pack the punch, nor deliver the complexity, of the single vineyard bottlings. I did not, unfortunately, get the chance to try the Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir, but I’m sure it’s a stunner.

Bottom line is it’s been a seamless addition for Sonoma-Cutrer as it ventures into the world of Pinot Noir, one of the most difficult grapes to grow. I asked Schroeter what the future holds for Sonoma-Cutrer, whether you’re talking about Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or the new Winemaker’s Release series featuring a new and interesting product every year. This year, the release was a late harvest Chardonnay, which is both rare and delicious.

Schroeter said he wants to continue to advance the cause and quality of Pinot Noir.

“As a winery that actively works to be on the forefront of innovation, we are always exploring new ideas. The Winemaker’s Release series is a good example of that. It brings together the history and foundation of Sonoma-Cutrer with our commitment to innovation,” Schroeter said.

And, that means more delicious drinking for the rest of us.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.