Mea Culpa, finally after 25 years in California, I paid the pilgrimage and went to see Tony Coturri at his place in Glen Ellen a few weeks ago. In the past, he was considered a kook, irrelevant and even a pariah. Today, he is rightly credited as the godfather of natural wine in California.
Coturri Cabernet Sauvignon Vines
He is not just a pioneer but also an iconoclast, maverick, and, as my 8th grade math teacher would have said, “an individual.” Lighter reds are hip in the natural wine world, yet Coturri’s wines often have girth. His practices are about as natural as it gets yet he appreciates great conventional wines made by legends such as Bob Sessions.[i] A left-leaning self-described old hippie, he thinks Texas, which on the whole is not known for its liberalism, is a “great place.” He’s actually made wine there but more on that later. No question about it, Coturri has his beliefs but he’s not pompous.
Coturri grew up in the Bay Area. His grandfather came from Luca by way of Ellis Island in 1903. He found a job at a hardware store in the Marina, helped family that came to the Bay Area previously near Lakeville Highway and also worked in a cooperage in San Francisco. His mother’s family was from Germany and his maternal grandfather was the first president of the cooper’s union in San Francisco. By the time the family bought a piece of property in Glen Ellen in the 60’s, wine was running through their blood.
Tony Coturri in the original cellar
They converted a garage into a cellar, planted vines and by the end of the next decade became one of 13 wineries in Sonoma Valley. Putting that into perspective, today there are over 180. The same year as Tony’s first vintage, 1979, his brother Phil, created Enterprise Vineyards and has become a godfather in his own right as a leading organic viticulturist in the state.
In 1997, Coturri created another cave next to the original cellar. Pointing out the white clay walls he said, “The ultimate plan that we want to do here is eventually clear these barrels out and put Kvevri in here. The ultimate, ultimate is to start making pots out of our own clay. But I may not live long enough for that one.”[ii]
I’m not so sure about that. While it has taken others decades to catch up with Coturri, he doesn’t seem to me like someone who is slowing down. Actually, from the outside, it seems as if he’s in his ascendancy. I asked him how he feels about being a super star and basically, he shrugs it off. “It doesn’t matter. It’s what happens tomorrow, not what happened yesterday.”
The purpose of this visit was to continue an email conversation we’ve been having about sulfites. A while ago I asked him why from the beginning, he chose not to use SO2 in his wines. This was his response:
TC: This is an interesting question. I suppose the proper question is to ask conventional and so-called natural winemakers who added SO2 to their wines is why do they do that? I’m a child of the 60’s. I’m also a child who grew up spending a fair amount of time with my grandparents and other relatives. I was brought up with a clear sense of who my family is and what they were about. I saw my grandfather plant a garden and make wine. He never added anything that was poisonous. He said, “Never put anything on your tomatoes or in your wine that you wouldn’t eat.”
I came of age in the ’60’s. The times were questioning everything that went before. Stripping out and off any pretensions, chemicals included. Sure wineries were putting SO2 in their wines. My traditions and education said no. The most basic premise is SO2 is poison and should never put in our food or beverages.
White clay wall in the Coturri cave
PSB: Now, unsulfured wines are slightly more common but up until recently they were almost unheard of, at least in California. Did you ever feel like a pariah? If so, do you feel like you are now being redeemed?
TC: In some ways, I feel redeemed but the vast majority of modern “natural” winemakers add SO2 to some cuvées and would not hesitate to put some in if it would “save” the wine. I’m totally committed to unsulfured wine. There is never any in our wines from crush to bottling. If you talk to these winemakers they say, “We have a lot invested and can’t afford to lose the wine.” This supposes they have a clue of what’s going on in their barrels or whatever they store their wine in.
This is about as far as we got electronically. After the big tour, Tony opened a bottle of a 2005 Dickson Cabernet Sauvignon made by La Cruz de Comal Wines, which he helped his friend, Lewis Dickson, start in 2000. The vineyards and winery are located in the Texas Hill country and it is the only natural winery I know of in Texas. With 11 years of age, it was vibrant but also had secondary and some tertiary characteristics. Whether or not it is going to get better, I can’t say but it is far from dead and was as pleasant as any Cab I’ve tried this year from California.
La Cruz de Comal Dickson Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005
We continued our discussion.
PSB: Do you think that wines can hold up just as well for the short or long term if they do not have sulfur additions?
TC: Pasteur didn’t discover yeast until 1850 so what were they doing before then? Why would you put sulfite in yeast if you didn’t have a name for the things that were in there? Bakers and cheese makers and winemakers knew it wasn’t heat that was making some change. So they knew there were critters in there. One of the legendary wines of the world was when the year of the comet was being drunk into the (19)20’s.[iii] What were they doing? They weren’t adjusting; they weren’t doing anything.
PSB: I know you think that adding sulfites is tantamount to putting poison in your wine but do you think that commercial yeast poses a similar problem?
TC: Two points. Natural yeast, natural bacteria, that’s another realm that we’re working with, the bacteria that’s coming in off the grapes. If you put sulfite to must off freshly pressed grapes, you kill the bacteria. Most conventional wineries would put sulfite in to hinder or kill the natural yeast and then they pitch whatever yeast they want – standard yeast that tastes like mangos – I mean there is a whole range of things they do. The point being, those (commercial) yeast can do their job in a high sulfite solution. In nature there’s no sulfite to start with and the natural yeasts are killed by it. So we’re using yeast that is not commercial, they are specifically from a place where they are killed off (by sulfites) a lot easier than commercial yeast.
So when they do add yeast, should they just add yeast? That’s the first question conventional, winemakers ask. They ask, “What do you do about the bacteria?” I love them. They make my life easy. What’s there to worry about? It’s like your cooking a pot of stew. You don’t worry about it, you’re cooking a pot of stew. It’s the same thing. I’m a custodian at a winery. I’m not a winemaker. I can’t make wine. There’s no way of making wine. You just take the grapes in and ferment them and take care of them, shepherd them.
The other point being I read a couple of years back that there was a controversy going around from the yeast companies that somebody was making the point that yeasts don’t stand still but mutate; that all the different yeasts from all the different sources are the same. There’s not a difference between a Bordeaux yeast or Burgundy yeast; because there are so many interplays going on in their labs, there’re no more differences.
PSB: But that also happens if you share a winery space with someone and you’re both using natural yeast but from different sources.
TC: But that’s part of the deal. I think that’s a positive thing because it adds complexity and nuances to the vintages. There are going to be dominant yeast from the vineyard.
Time to taste Sandocino, a non-vintage blend of several grapes. Coturri has several carboys filled with wine from older vintages in the original cellar that often find their way into this cuvee. Says he, “If it tastes good you throw it in.” While my focus at this point was the conversation, the wine was noticeably delightful for the late a.m. hours, in a slightly rustic sort of way. It’s an every day, split a bottle with a friend kind of wine but don’t mistake it for glou glou.[iv]
PSB: What can a winemaker do to mitigate reduction or off-putting aromas without using SO2?
TC: It starts with the climate. Find some cool climate grapes that you can bottle six, eight months after the harvest. If you go to Sonoma or Napa and bring in these grapes at 28 brix and (it’s) just a monster, what can you do, you have to wait, just like those Spanish guys.[v] If you say I can’t take a chance in losing my investment does that mean you can poison people to keep your investment? If you don‘t have enough money to see through a couple of vintages you got to start searching for your fruit.
PSB: Why does it make a difference in cooler climates?
TC: You can hang the fruit out and work with the acidity. Those kinds of areas are prone to rain in the harvest so its experience and not tinkering with it. When I ferment things everything is done the same way. I don’t have a special way of harvesting Zinfandel and then Pinot Noir because then when it’s over if it went bad or good, I know the fermentations were the same.
I have a really close friend who grows vegetables up north. He goes to the farmers’ market. He got into the wine business and he goes, “Tony how do I know when I should rack the wine, how do I know when I should bottle the wine?” I said, “Same thing with your vegetables. Your vegetables wake you up in the middle of the night and say I need to be watered, I need to be picked. It’s the same thing.”
If you’re in tune with what’s going on in the winery you’ll know what to do. It will talk to you. But you have to be in tune with it. You have to cut off the head but listen to the heart. I always compare it to music. Even a half-ass guitarist can’t be thinking about every note while they’re playing, at some point you just got to play. If you think about it it’s done. Any venture you get into, and then you start over thinking it or even thinking it, it’s going to turn on you. That’s the important thing. Let it be. Let it be. Let it talk to you. Let it show what it’s going to do rather than say I don’t like this in Pinot Noir. Here it is. It has nothing to do with anything, the baby’s born. What are you going to say, I don’t like that kid? Why? That’s what I think. I just appreciate what we get. Look at this. Look at this beautiful fruit.
If you can’t afford to lose the money you shouldn’t be gambling. If you want to play the wine game you need to have enough money to play the game because if you don’t it’s going to show up in the wine.
Next, he opened a Zinfandel that he sources from a vineyard in Hopland. “This family emailed me three, four years ago. They said they had a totally organic vineyard, all the stuff you hear a million times so last year I went and looked at it and it’s totally real. All head pruned vines, no trellis systems. The father and son take care of 80 acres. It goes on and on and on. In our business, one of the marketing tools is the name of the vineyard on the label. Their last name, “Poor.”
This makes him chuckle. It’s good, hardy stuff, with earth and soul. Maybe not what I’d drink when it’s 80 degrees, but perfect for most summer evenings in San Francisco.
PSB: Are there alternatives for someone who is just not that flush?
TC: Go to Texas. Land is cheap. Interesting thing about Texas, here 30% sugar is high in the vineyard. There 25% sugar is high. Great Texas story, in California it’s hot during the day; it’s cool at night. In Texas, it’s hot during the day and gets dark at night. And that’s it. The ripening process continues through the night. So if you try to pick by California numbers they’ll be no acidity left. The biggest key to wine is acidity. If you have good acidity you can make good wine. That acidity doesn’t mean super high. It’s that little narrow band.
PSB: Can you explain the difference between using elemental sulfur and using SO2?
TC: We use sulfur. I went for a few years without using it but one year I had the biggest outburst of mildew. It completely exploded and I needed to do something out there. Properly used, the last application of sulfur is at veraison. And there is enough time between veraison and picking. The thing about sulfur is that properly applied it volatilizes and turns into a gas and dries out at the vine so the mildew can’t get into it. There’s a difference between sulfur and SO2. We use SO2 as a sanitizer on our equipment. It’s a great sanitizer. We also use hydrogen peroxide.
PSB: Do you think there is a metaphysical side to winemaking?
TC: It’s reverence of the wine. There’s one side, the commodity of the wine. It’s also how it fits into a person’s life and their diet. But it’s the reverence you give it. It’s one of the things that’s sadly missing. What about the reverence for what you’re doing?
PSB: What do you think about the idea of “sustainability.”
TC: It means they didn’t kill the vines; that’s all it means. We didn’t knock them over with tractors. Or spray it or do something stupid. That’s it.
Coturri Sangiovese, 2000
A couple of weekends ago I shared a bottle of ’00 Coturri Sangiovese with my family. In spite of our different tastes, we agreed it was delicious. It reminded me a bit of an older Chianti. It was 16 years old and vinified without any sulfur, and it made me think, if he can do it, why can’t everyone else?
The reality is that it takes growers and winemakers a long time to figure things out. Coturri’s been making wine in more or less the same way for 37 years so by now, he knows his grapes. His four decades of perseverance have paid off not only for him, but also for new and aspiring producers he’s inspired. And that is why he is finally getting his due, as the godfather of California natural wine.
[i] Bob Sessions was the winemaker at Hanzell from 1973 – 2001. The wines he made throughout his tenure, especially the Pinot Noirs, were arguably among the best to have ever sprung from California’s vineyards.
[ii] Kvevri, also spelled quevri, are large clay vessels embedded in the ground that are used for fermentation.
[iii] He was referring to the Great Comet of 1811, which could be seen at night for 260 days. It was also hailed as an excellent vintage, at least in France.
[iv] A French term meaning “glug glug,” wine you can chug easily.
[v] He was referring to Spanish producers, especially in Rioja, who sometimes wait many years after the vintage before releasing their wine.