Among the best Sonoma County wineries you will find the names Matanzas Creek, Gundlach-Bundschu, Hacienda, Iron Horse, Grand Cru, Ch.ateau St. Jean, Dry Creek and Sonoma-Cutrer. All but one make several wines, which is standard practice in California and part of the search for the perfect grape for various microclimates and soils. Not all of the wines are of equal quality -- one winery may make a better sauvignon blanc than a cabernet, or vice versa -- but the wines are all well made and contribute to the individual vineyard's ability to prosper and grow.
The exception is Sonoma-Cutrer, which produces only chardonnay, from grapes grown on slopes once considered hopeless, with equipment that would have been incomprehensible to winemakers a few years ago. Sonoma-Cutrer wines are exceptional -- sensational, in fact -- as is the method of harvest and vinification, a curious blend of old-fashioned ways and newfangled technology.
The vineyard was started in 1972 by Brice Jones, 43, a former fighter pilot and Harvard Business School graduate, and a group of investors. (Cutrer is Jones' mothers' maiden name.) His ambition was to make a single wine and make it well enough to compete with the great white burgundies. (He eventually hired an experienced winemaker, Bill Bonetti, to help him.) Today Jones has 750 acres in Sonoma, much of it in the Russian River valley, some of it on rocky, inhospitable slopes in the Los Caneros region of southern Sonoma.
"We bought it," he says, "because we couldn't afford that nice, fertile land in the valleys." He named it "Les Pierres" ("the stones"); the stressed vines require water from drip valves and produce a chardonnay of intense varietal characteristics that has shown extraordinarily well in tastings with other California wines.
What happens to the grapes is equally important. At Sonoma-Cutrer, the chardonnay is picked later than at most vineyards, allowing great concentration of flavor; instead of using big bins, where the grapes tend to be crushed, they are transported in old-timey, smaller wooden lugs with holes to allow air circulation. Then, at the winery, the lugs are slowly passed through a unique cooling tunnel on a conveyor to preserve freshness. They are hand-culled, a step that has been eliminated in most modern wine-making. "Wineries using stemmer-crushers," says Jones, "get the leaves and stems, the dirt and the worms. There's no way that's not going to affect flavor."
The grapes are not sulfured, another common practice used to prevent oxidation -- the cause of rapid deterioration of wine. They go directly into a gentle, airtight (and expensive) press where oxygen has been eliminated by the introduction of inert gas. The wine is barrel-fermented and stored in Limousin oak in a cellar with an old-fashioned dirt floor to ensure proper humidity. Sonoma-Cutrer wines are neither filtered nor centrifuged, so the elements that give taste and body remain. The prevention of oxidation continues throughout racking and bottling; the result is wines of exceptional grace and complexity, capable of aging.
"We're labor intensive," Jones says, "when everybody else is going to machines." Actually, they have the best of both at Sonoma-Cutrer, a good example for their peers. You would expect their chardonnay to cost a lot more than it does. The Russian River Ranch's costs only $10.50, Cutrer vineyard's costs $12 and the Les Pierres about $15.50, still less than most first-rate California chardonnays.