Back in 1981, the world of American wine was a very different place. For one thing, we were only five years removed from the Judgement of Paris, and many connoisseurs still didn’t take California wine seriously. For another, varietal labeling was gradually replacing generic jug wine categories such as “Chablis” (usually Chenin Blanc mixed with table grapes such as Thompson Seedless) and “Burgundy” (whatever the winemaker had on hand at the time).
Into this landscape strode Brice Cutrer Jones, an unlikely vintner who had graduated from the Air Force Academy and spent nine years as a fighter pilot in Southeast Asia. Jones founded Sonoma-Cutrer in 1973 as a grape farm and decided to turn it into a winery eight years later. It’s safe to say that he was the first winery owner to treat California Chardonnay as an art form, as least as far as the general public was concerned.
Jones was intensely hands-on, to the extent of making a yearly pilgrimage to France to select the trees from which Sonoma-Cutrer’s barrels were made. He joked that it took him 17 years to break even, which was probably true. Once focused exclusively on Chardonnay, he eventually expanded the winery’s scope to include Pinot Noir.
Everything changes, and in 1999 Jones sold Sonoma-Cutrer to the Brown-Forman corporation. It was a decision he never regretted, despite being abruptly forced out in 2001 over an internal policy dispute. He went on to establish Emeritus Vineyards, a boutique Russian River Valley producer of Pinot Noir now headed by his daughter, Mari.
Sonoma-Cutrer is a different brand today than it was in 1981. In the beginning, the winery insisted on restaurant placements and forbid distributers from selling to retail stores, thus creating the illusion that Sonoma-Cutrer was hard to get. Today the wine is a staple of the retail shelf and appears in a range of outlets including supermarkets. Since many years had passed since I sampled the wine, I approached it with curiosity.
The Cutrer Vineyard is Sonoma-Cutrer’s midrange Chardonnay offering, bracketed between the entry-level Russian River Ranches and the more upscale Les Pierres. The 2019 Cutrer ($32) has a clean, fresh nose highlighted by aromas of melon, pear and whiffs of vanilla. Citrus and green apple flavors dominate in the mouth, with good acidity framing the fruit and carrying it onto a long and resonant finish.
Sonoma-Cutrer’s 2019 Grower Vintner Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($33) is deeply colored, with a fragrant nose redolent of dark berries and spice. In the mouth, the wine is medium-bodied and well-balanced, with flavors of black plums and cherries framed by bright fruit tannins. It gains in amplitude through the mid palate and onto the meaty finish.
These wines are throwbacks in the best possible way: they recall a time when wine didn’t have to make a statement, when it was pleasurable rather than serious, when you didn’t have to refinance the house to buy it, when it was better suited to a picnic than a grand tasting. Those days aren’t likely to come back, but you can still indulge.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats.