On the Pacific

Pruning Vines & Sonoma Cutrer

sonoma cutrer sign
Stone wall at entrance to Sonoma Cutrer - Photo by Yvonne Carpenter-Ross
wine barrels
Wine barrels at Sonoma Cutrer – Photo by Yvonne Carpenter-Ross

Part 5 in our Series: Wine Tasting in Sonoma Valley

Inspired by some fabulous wine dinners that we attended in the Midwest, this trip was a chance to see (and sip) how wine gets its start! Our final stop for the day was to be at Sonoma-Cutrer, a winery that is unfortunately not open to the general public. It was our good fortune have tasted Sonoma-Cutrer at a wine dinner (back home in Illinois). But we knew a friend in the industry who agreed to see if he could get us an appointment at the winery. NOTE: Sonoma Cutrer is now open to the public for tastings. Reservations are required.

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Vineyard Character, Soil Types & Pruning… By Hand

Sonoma-Cutrer graciously agreed to host a visit, and on that very sunny and beautiful California blue-sky day we entered the estate. At approximately 1500 acres, the winery is divided into six “Ranches”. Each Ranch has a distinctive terroir – vineyard character – that is at the beginning of a process that produces world-class chardonnay. Soil types range from those that were originally ocean floor to those resulting from the volcanic eruptions of Mt. St. Helena to sandy loam and gravel to clay. Micro-climates are equally varied in the area.

We met our hostess, Beth Ghashghai, at the massive oak doors at the front of the winery. She was as personable as anyone I have met and her knowledge of all things wine and Sonoma-Cutrer seemed endless. It was going to be an incredibly interesting afternoon. Our first stop was in the vineyards. Here, Beth demonstrated the art of vine pruning, informing us that the entire vineyard is pruned in such a fashion… by hand! 

Our Turn to Try Some Pruning

pruning grape vines
Ready to prune some grapevines at Sonoma-Cutrer. Photo by Richard Ross

Asking if we had remembered what we had just learned, Beth then handed the pruning shears first to me and then to Yvonne and asked us to replicate the task she had just demonstrated! Instructive as it was fun, the act of pruning was almost addictive.

I quickly realized that actually performing a task is always the best way to learn it. My pruning was… just OK.

Nevertheless, I quickly handed the shears to Yvonne, who effortlessly pruned a few vines. She is a born natural and her pruning was far better than mine!

Informed that we had passed the test, Beth also added that all vines thus pruned were left on the ground, later to be chipped/mulched and returned to the soil. Nothing here was burned or wasted. Even the pomace is piled under huge black tarps, allowed to decompose, and become compost to be added to the vineyards. Pomace is the solid remains of grapes after pressing for juice, containing the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of the grapes, resulting from the winemaking process.

Sonoma-Cutrer: Superb Chardonnay

There is a good reason for that. For many wine consumers, the name Sonoma-Cutrer is synonymous with superb Chardonnay. What began as a company that planted and grew several wine varieties, a decision was made in the late 1970’s to create a cutting-edge winery that focused on a single wine: Chardonnay.

Extremely close attention is paid to what might seem like minute details. But coupled with the willingness to spare no expenses in the production of world-class wines definitely sets Sonoma-Cutrer apart from the rest. One example I recall vividly is Beth sharing with us the fact that each barrel of wine – and there are many thousands of them – is stirred by hand, once every week. Each stirring results in flavor particles that continually filter through the barrel, creating multiple, subtle nuances of flavor in the wines.

Hand-pruning, Hand-harvesting, 100% French Oak Barrels

Start with hand-pruning to hand-harvesting to the temperature and humidity-controlled, earthen-floor 20,000 square-foot cellar beneath the surface of the land. Add the special attention provided by a unique philosophy that produces very special wines. The result? A superlative Chardonnay!

Here’s a small but very instructive example. Take oak that will season for three years to allow undesirable elements to leach from the wood. Hand-selected trees are hand-split into the staves that will ultimately impart the subtle complexities of the 100% French oak barrels. It’s just one of many reasons for the resulting exquisite Chardonnay.

I was truly beginning to understand and appreciate how complex the winemaking process can be. It was at the same time easy to see how proud Sonoma-Cutrer and winemaker Terry Adams (now retired) can be of the results of their efforts. Terry by the way, returns to France every four years to enhance his knowledge and blend his wisdom right along with his award-winning Chardonnays. Speaking of which, we were now more than ready to sample some of Sonoma-Cutrer’s best.

The Vineyard’s Premier Wines

wine bottles in case
Sonoma Cutrer Wines – Photo by Yvonne Carpenter-Ross

Beth led us back inside where four of the vineyard’s six premier wines awaited us. We sampled the

  • Russian River Ranches Chardonnay (a cuvée crafted from a combination of all six ranches),
  • the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (representing vines from the Cutrer and Vine Hill Ranches),
  • the Les Pierres Chardonnay (from the “gravelly clay loam in an ancient riverbed thick with cobblestones” in the Les Pierres Ranch) and
  • The Cutrer Chardonnay (“Planted on what was once an ocean floor, The Cutrer vineyard stands hardly a dozen miles from the Pacific shore“).

Each of the four exhibited subtle, yet unique and wonderful flavors of various fruits, some clean and crisp and others soft and sensual. It was almost impossible to pick a favorite. They all had attributes that would allow one to enjoy them, especially when paired with a wide variety of foods. View available Sonoma Cutrer wines at Wine.com.

Sonoma-Cutrer’s Flagship Wine

Although the Sonoma Coast is the only Chardonnay in the group available at retail, one can dine out and enjoy Sonoma-Cutrer’s flagship wine, Russian River Ranches: the number-one-selling Chardonnay in America’s finest restaurants according to the annual Wine & Spirits magazine 15th annual Restaurant Poll, April 2004.

Although we didn’t taste it there, we did purchase a bottle of Pinot Noir to bring to my sister’s house for Christmas dinner. Loaded with dark berry flavors and a balanced acidity, this was indeed an amazing wine coming from a winery that specializes in Chardonnay. Available only to Club Cutrer members, the wine is well worth joining for.

It was time to head back to our hotel for some well-deserved rest. There was much to think about: everything from microclimates, soil types, and terroirs, to appellations, varietals, oak barrels and blending… and more! My head was spinning, but not from the wine tastings! The sun was beginning to move behind the Coast Range as we said our goodbyes. Thanks much to Sonoma-Cutrer for a great day, the opportunity to visit and to Beth Ghashghai for the tour, tasting and knowledge imparted. Many thanks also to Fred Tragemann at Judge and Dolph, Ltd. for setting up our tour.

Places to Stay in Sonoma County

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We launched this website in 2004 after getting married on a beautiful bluff just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, on the patio of a small restaurant called Rocky Point. Since that time, we have returned to the West Coast as often as time and funds would allow, always seeking new restaurants, wineries, beaches, unforgettable memories…“


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