Monday, November 13, 2006

Wines of the World

Following the ‘path of the grape’ with winemaker, Terry Adams

I recently toured the gorgeous Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards with winemaker, Terry Adams, as the guide. (Might I say, that is the ultimate way to tour a vineyard!!) Spanning 1100 acres in Northern California’s wine country, Sonoma-Cutrer’s first vintage was produced in 1981. Adams has been integral to their wine production since the first grape was plucked from the first vine.

A fourth-generation Californian, Adams came to the wine industry with a background in Biochemistry. After several years at the UCLA medical center, he moved to St. Helena, where he made the leap from medicine to winemaking. Terry calls it “a very natural progression,” noting the similarity in the chemistry used in the two fields. (For example, CO2 is regulated in both blood and wine.) With a gleam in his eye, Adams points out, “Blood and wine even have biblical connections.”

Terry sees wine as an expression of its terroire. Foggy mornings and cool nights make for ideal conditions in Sonoma. Rocky with rolling hills (natural drainage) the varying soils include an ancient riverbed and volcanic stones. The Sonoma-Cutrer vines are divided into blocks, or Terry’s “spice rack of wine.” One wine from each block is made and later, Adams individually blends them into the final products. (Over 200 pre-blend chardonnays were made in 2005!) At harvest time, he walks through every wine block tasting grapes. When they are sweet enough, he calls for picking.

Though harvest takes place in the fall, caring for the vines is a year-round endeavor. They are pruned once in the winter, and become active in late March. By spring, “canopy management” begins. Normally, each vine sprouts 2 shoots, each yielding 2 bunches of grapes. Extra shoots are cut off or “suckered.”

A grape goes from bloom to harvest in 100 days. Harvesting happens in about 31 days. Sonoma-Cutrer produces approximately 4000 tons of grapes. (There are about 375 grapes to a bottle of wine). Each fall, twelve crews of twelve people scour the vineyard. Paid by the ton and as a team, they run from vine to vine. Adams notes, “If people walk, they won’t last.” There is even a championship for the fastest pruners taking into account both speed and accuracy. (Last year’s winner is from Sonoma-Cutrer.)

Sonoma also has a friendly rivalry between winemakers. With pride, Terry states, “We do little things differently which make an impact on the wine. We don’t have a lot of secrets, just attention to detail.” For example, Adams cools the grapes before pressing them, believing that cooler fruit has fewer tannins. After an hour in cooling tunnels (at 30 – 40 degrees, Fahrenheit) extra foliage is removed on the sorting table. Finally, the fruit is pressed, yeast is added and within 3-4 days, fermenting begins.

Once blended, the wine sits in 3 year-old French Oak barrels, giving the wine an opportunity for integration and “finesse.” When ordering a new batch of barrels from Burgundy (also the home of the original chardonnay grapes) Adams goes for quality. At 670 Euros (around $800 dollars) per barrel, each one is marked with the barrel maker, the forest from which it comes, and the year the tree was felled. Sonoma-Cutrer also has a traditional earthen-floor cellar, which Adams says “keeps the room alive. It doesn’t feel like a warehouse.”

Asked his favorite Sonoma-Cutrer vintage, the winemaker insists, “Choosing a favorite is like choosing a favorite son. Sometimes, I’m influenced by memories from a particular year.” Terry laughs, “And, basically, I like Chardonnay with everything. A lot of people say they only drink Zin or Cabernet. I get them to taste this…and, they come back.”

The buzz at the moment is about the 2005 Sonoma Coast, the first wine allocated 100% for retail wine shops. (80% of Sonoma-Cutrer’s wines are produced exclusively for restaurants.) A cornucopia of fruit, balanced with acidity, the ‘new kid’ is refreshing and satisfying, with soft edges. Says Adams, “Sonoma Coast is about the fruit from the region. There is a lot of Cutrer inspiration in here… richness, texture, depth. It’s great to sip in front of a fireplace, or talking with friends, and lends itself easily to food. I think I achieved what I envisioned.”

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards is not open to the public for tours, or tastings. However, the public is welcome at the various charity events held at the winery each year:

Croquet Anyone? Each spring, world-class professional croquet players compete on Sonoma-Cutrer’s croquet field. The event, along with a silent auction, benefits the Make A Wish Foundation.

Care for a Mint Julep with that wine? Derby Day raises money for the Council on Aging. A Kentucky Derby simulcast is tied in with an iron chef competition.

Keeping it local. In July, the Sonoma County vintners get together to raise money for local charities. Festivities include a barrel auction and music by “Private Reserve” a local band made up of winemakers, including Terry Adams.

Spending a weekend in California’s Wine Country? Book a luxurious stay at Vintner’s Inn. Giant, fluffy beds, in-room fireplaces, tiled balconies and the sounds of rustling trees and a babbling fountain make this upscale-yet-rustic hotel the perfect transition point from home to heaven (and its just down the road from Sonoma-Cutrer!)

No comments: