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A Little Bit Softer Now

Northern California winemakers tone down their approach

Author Michael Kaplan

PHOTOGRAPH BY SARA SANGER

DRIVE DOWN THE BYWAYS of the Napa and Sonoma valleys at the right time of year, and you’ll pass vines heavy with glistening grapes just waiting to be turned into the big, tannic, high-alcohol wines—generally cabernets and zinfandels—that have made the region famous. These days, though, you’re also liable to spot a few vines that have been stripped of fruit early. These point up a new movement afoot in Northern California— a burgeoning faction of vintners interested in making more balanced vintages (read: less jammy, sun-ripened and strong).

One such producer is Jamie Kutch, a former Wall Street trader who launched Kutch Wines. Though now he’s a purveyor of lighter, more finicky pinot noirs, Kutch’s early offerings were big and rich in the classic California style. There was only one problem, he says: “I didn’t like them.” So when producing his 2007 releases, Kutch experimented by picking an acre of his grapes earlier. He also watered less, to push the grapes to develop flavor quickly without becoming too sugary. Satisfied with the results from his first acre, he picked everything earlier the next year and has been proceeding in that manner ever since.

Kutch and other advocates of balance have also been pushing back against what they argue is the overly intense oak flavor that often turns up in California vintages. To reduce it, Kutch ages 30 percent of his early-picked grapes in new oak and the rest in barrels that are three to five years old. He also ages the wines with grape stems to further soften their taste profiles.

Asked to describe what he likes about his new, lighter, less oaky vintages, Kutch says they’re cleaner and more precise. They’re probably also easier to sell. Well-structured wines like these have been experiencing a renaissance among restaurateurs and wine buyers, who find that they pair well with a vast array of foods rather than just the traditional charbroiled slab of rib-eye. “I think of short ribs when I make my pinot noir,” says Kathleen Inman, whose Inman Family Wines shares Kutch’s philosophy. “But with the chardonnay, just for kicks I paired it with truffle-butter popcorn—and that worked.”

“For me, wine enhances food. I’m not one for sitting on the porch and sipping it,” says Chris Howell, who chose to plant the vines for Cain Vineyard and Winery on a mountaintop estate above Napa Valley to encourage more balance in his wines. “Good wine is not about power or complexity—it’s linked to the wine’s finish and character. The wines that seduce you are the ones that stick with you.”

3 Responses to “A Little Bit Softer Now”

  1. Peter Faustino Says:
    March 2nd, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Kutch is among the best Pinot I’ve had. His passion and hard work is paying off. Great article showing a beautiful trend in the wine world.

  2. John Caldwell Says:
    April 2nd, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Dear Michael,

    Thank you for this informative and well-written article about a topic that is of great interest to many of us chardonnay lovers. I and a couple of my friends have a number of comments about this recent trend towards so-called “balanced” and “well-structured” wines devoid of the “overly intense oak flavor” of many chardonnays. However, it all comes down to this: WE LIKE OAKEY CHARDONNAYS, and if other people don’t, why don’t they just drink chablis or some other white wine rather than depriving many of us of the basic characteristic that attracted us to chardonnay in the first place? Is it really necessary to homogenize everything to the point that it takes a mass spectrometer to tell the difference between one varietal and another? I don’t think so. And if it’s the conflict between food flavor and wine flavor that is truly the issue, I would recommend serving a nice high-end bottled water instead of wine. The “clean” and “precise” flavor of good water surely goes with just about everything.
    Yours truly,

    John

  3. John Aloha Says:
    April 2nd, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    The shift toward producing wines with less distinctive characteristics has been a work in progress for the past 15 + years, especially with California whites. Now it is occurring with the reds? The industry is dictating characteristics that create non-identifiable wines based on costs, not consumer tastes. At one time a fume’ blanc could easily being distinguished from a chardonnay, yet today it is becoming next to impossible to find the “big, oaky, buttery” chardonnays due to the costs associated with quality oak casks and the longer aging process.
    So the move to create more “Caberpinomerlozins” is very interesting as perhaps the price points seem to be driving the changes. This harkens back to Ripple Pagen Pink and the plastic garbage cans filled with whatever was brought to the frat houses. It was cheap, indistinguishable and did the job.

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