It’s a cool evening in mid-August, and I’m in the Russian River Valley vineyards of Sonoma-Cutrer, chatting with the winery’s head winemaker, Mick Schroeter, about his recent trip to Talon Fish Lodge, in Sitka, Alaska. While there to host a wine and food pairing event featuring Sonoma-Cutrer wines, Mick had the chance to go fishing, and is to thank for not only the pale pink rosé of pinot noir I’m sipping but the Alaskan halibut hors d’oeuvres served at tonight’s winemaker dinner. Both are delicious.
A charismatic Australian with some 30 years of winemaking experience under his belt, Mick has been with Sonoma-Cutrer for about seven years and is the third Winemaking Director in the 44-year history of this Sonoma County winery renowned for its award-winning, Burgundian-style chardonnays. Yet despite his oenological stature, Mick could not be more down-to-earth nor less of a wine snob. He and his engaging wife, Linda, both seem genuinely delighted to be mingling with the twenty or so guests who’ve signed up for this dinner, making us feel like dear, old friends.
We refill our glasses and stroll over to the Pinot Barn, where Mick describes the process used to make pinot noir at Sonoma-Cutrer, pointing out the large, stainless steel tanks in which the grapes, also referred to as “berries,” are left to ferment uncovered outside the barn. Pinot noir, like chardonnay, is a varietal native to France’s Burgundy region, and does well in the Russian River Valley’s relatively cool climate. Although Sonoma-Cutrer did not begin crafting pinots until 2002, the winery has amassed numerous accolades for its four distinct pinot varieties, which make up only 5% of its overall wine production.
All this talk of pinot noir is making me eager to try some, and I’m happy to learn that two of the winery’s pinots will be poured with our meal. Pinot tutorial concluded, it is time for dinner.
Plates heaped high with paella, we take our seats at a long wooden table placed between two rows of leafy chardonnay vines in the “Cutrer Vineyard.” Beyond this rolling vineyard to the south, a heavy layer of fog blankets the horizon, while all around us, perfect clusters of yellow-green orbs hang heavily on their stems, plump with sweet nectar. Yellow and white rosebuds adorn the table and at each place setting four wine glasses glint in the waning sunlight, the first of which is quickly filled with a 1997 Les Pierres chardonnay to accompany a green salad.
Next come the wines I’ve been waiting for: a 2015 Owsley pinot and 2015 Woodford pinot, both paired with the paella. I like them both, but prefer the Woodford, a wine with an unusual story that Mick recounts to the group in his pleasant, Australian drawl. While the Owsley, like a lot of wines, is named for the vineyard from which its fruit was plucked, the Woodford is named after the bourbon that shared the barrels in which it was aged. For its 2014 special edition bourbon, Woodford Reserve Distillery aged its reserve bourbon in French oak barrels previously used for three vintages of Sonoma-Cutrer pinot noir. Sonoma-Cutrer then used those same barrels to age some of its pinot, in a winemaker experiment resulting in the 2015 Woodford pinot.
While the head winemaker himself admits that he is not a big fan of this wine, Sonoma-Cutrer’s Sales and Events Manager, Wendy Cox, tells us she thought the Woodford would make for an interesting wine and food pairing and urged Mick to serve it at tonight’s dinner. I and my seatmates are glad she prevailed, which just goes to show that wine, like so many things, is a matter of personal taste.
It’s getting dark and a chill is in the air by the time we’ve finished our dessert: pound cake with fresh berries and a late harvest chardonnay. Our intimate group of twenty-three dwindles to a cozy twelve, and we scoot our chairs closer to one another, bunching together like grapes beneath the soft glow of the fairy lights. The guitarist, who has been playing and singing all night under a small tent close by, joins us at the table and plays a few more songs, concluding with a downtempo, acoustic version of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”
While my husband, Matt, and I have done our fair share of wine tasting over the course of the nine years we’ve lived in San Francisco, this is the first winery dinner we’ve ever attended and it’s going to be a tough one to top. The food, wine, and al fresco setting were all spectacular. But it was the special chemistry of everyone who shared in this evening among the vines that I will remember most fondly; the warm welcome we received from our Sonoma-Cutrer hosts, Mick, Linda and Wendy, and the convivial conversations we had with our fellow guests. It was one of those special occasions when all the best ingredients came together in just the right way to create something truly magical. Not so different, I suppose, from the wonderful wines we drank here tonight.