Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jamie Kutch and His Pinot

I spent a fair amount of last spring delving into the world of Wall-Streeter-turned-Sonoma-Winemaker Jamie Kutch and his prized boutique Pinot Noirs. Kutch is making Pinots that are not typical of the big California style and much to my liking. Here's the resultant article, which just came out in the July/August issue of Imbibe.

Jamie Kutch’s Stock Is Rising
How a former Wall Street trader is securing his spot in California’s wine world
Story by Robert Simonson

Jamie Kutch doesn’t lack confidence. A tall, muscular man with close-cropped hair, he looks a little jockish and gives off a slightly swaggering energy that he picked up during his decade as a Wall Street trader. His patter is the smooth line of someone who’s spent hours on the phone convincing people to buy something they hadn’t necessarily planned to, but these days he’s traded in selling stocks for a more understated career in winemaking.

In 2005, Kutch, now 35, abandoned his $250,000-a-year Wall Street career in favor of an unsalaried position working as a novice California winemaker. His sole tools were a decade’s worth of wine tasting, a reputation as a fevered habitué of wine chat rooms, and the practical tutelage handed down from winemaker mentors like Michael Browne and Robert Rex. (Well, that and $150,000 in savings.) “It’s the best single decision I’ve made in my life, no question,” he says.

Other people seem to agree. Kutch scored a 93 in Wine Spectator with his first release, a 2005 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. His 2007 vintage is considered his best yet and has been given the nod of approval by Robert Parker. By April, it was nearly sold out, leaving the thousands on his waiting list disappointed.

Kutch (pronounced “Hutch”) keeps production on his three lines of Pinot Noir low and practices minimal intervention, using natural yeasts and punching down the grapes with his bare feet. For the 2007 vintage, his third, he produced only 600 cases, having sold off 10 out of 34 barrels because they didn’t meet his standards. With the reviews he’s gotten, he could easily raise prices, but he’s kept his three offerings in the $40 to $50 range. He says he has yet to make much money on his wines, pouring most of the revenues ($88,000 in 2008) back into the business. He and his wife, publicist Kristen Green, live in a 900-square-foot apartment in San Francisco and drive a 2002 Honda he calls “vineyard-dusted brown.”

As a barnstorming winemaker with limited finances, Kutch does not own a vineyard, but, like many fledgling vintners, he buys grapes from well-regarded, existing estates, such as McDougall Ranch, Kanzler Vineyard and Spring Hill, which is now in the process of planting five acres of Pinot Noir earmarked for him. In April, Kutch nailed down a commitment for Pinot Noir grapes from Anderson Valley’s prized Savoy Vineyard, a coup that will likely result in a new Kutch bottling for the 2009 vintage. In the next few years, he hopes to secure his own vineyard and release a couple new wines, one of them possibly a Chardonnay. “I’ve read all these novels where the characters have second chapters and I thought, ‘Those are people in books,’ says Green, who has gamely thrown herself behind her husband’s new career by handling his label’s publicity. But family members say not to write Kutch’s success off as a simple fairy tale. “Jamie is a perfectionist,” says his uncle Donald Moonjian. “Unless it’s going to meet 100 percent of his expectations, he’s not going to do it.”

Perfection, for Kutch, basically means Burgundy. At a time when most California Pinots have become increasingly big and bruising, he’s made his name crafting Pinots in the French model. “I got bitten by the Burgundy bug,” he says. “And that’s high acidity, low alcohol—it’s more earth and soil than fruit-driven … the approach that wine is meant to be consumed with food.”

Kutch first discovered the joys of wine—and, specifically, wine with food—while a student at Fordham University, where a gregarious professor named Gerard Reedy noted Kutch’s budding interest in wine and invited him to dinner. “We had Champagne, Sauternes with foie grois, Burgundy with lamb chops,” recalls Kutch. “It was an experience I had never had.”

After that, the stock trader and wine maniac remained perpetually intertwined. While working the NASDAQ board at Merrill Lynch, Kutch spent a good deal of work hours burning up online wine chat rooms and finding a way to justify his obsession by tracking down choice cases for his cellar-building bosses. “It was similar to what we would do in our trading,” recalled Nelson Barriocanal, a former fellow trader at Merrill Lynch. “He would put together several different investors and buyers to fill in the wine order. That way, he could participate in the buy and everyone else would subsidize it a little bit.”

Kutch might still be a trader if it weren’t for winemaker Michael Browne. In 2005, Kutch was making the rounds of the chat rooms when he sent Browne—a California Pinot-making star—an e-mail note of adulation about a Kosta Browne Pinot he had tasted, saying, “You’re living my dream.” Browne recognized Kutch’s yearnings. Once intent on becoming an architect, Browne leaped from restaurant grunt work into a collaboration with Dan Kosta as a lauded guerilla winemaker. Browne offered to mentor Kutch.

“He planted the seed,” said Kutch, who was trading technology but fantasizing about enrolling in winemaking classes at UC Davis. Two or three days after Michael sent that e-mail, Kutch found out about a job opening at a trading company in San Francisco, and feeling the location alone would get him a step closer to his goal, he and Green moved.

In San Francisco, he lived a double life. He worked his trading job during the red-eye West Coast market hours (4 a.m. to 2 p.m.), then drove up to wine country after work and on weekends to labor with Browne. Within six months, he quit the trading job and dove into the deep end of winemaking, helping Browne with everything from pushing down wine bins to sorting grapes during harvest. “I learned by doing,” Kutch says. “Michael did a great service for me. He assisted me in getting started and opened my eyes to how [winemaking] gets done.”

With Browne’s help, Kutch bottled his first vintage, using fruit from Amber Ridge in the Russian River Valley. Browne had been buying fruit from the vineyard and put a few tons aside for Kutch to purchase. He bottled the wine at Robert Rex’s Deerfield Ranch winery (where he’s capped every vintage since) and tapped the Sonoma business Paragon Labels for the labeling. He created a 400-strong mailing list for his first vintage by returning to his old haunt, Robert Parker's chat board, and relating his winemaking journey as it happened. The vintage was sold out before it was even made.

After that, he was on his own. He quickly put his hard-driving Wall Street skills to use for the most central task: securing quality fruit. “He had to make sure he got the right grapes,” said Barriocanal. “Pinot Noir was pretty popular, so it wasn’t an easy task. He really pounded the pavement. That requires being aggressive and not afraid to pick up the phone and take rejection. In trading, people may not be responsive the first time you approach them, but you have to be persistent.”

“I’m an ex-New Yorker—maybe a little pushy,” Kutch says. “I tried to give as many options as I could to get the fruit. I said, ‘I’ll pay you in advance. I’ll show you my bank account.’ ” Karen London took notice.

“Jamie called me out of the blue,” recalls London, a Petaluma farmer who, with her husband Chris, sells grapes to highly regarded wineries, such as Patz and Hall, Nickel and Nickel, and Talisman. “I invited him out and fell in love immediately. Jamie is young, like us, and it’s hard to find younger individuals in this industry, because it is very expensive to get into and it’s a lot of hard work. He’s by himself, and he’s motivated.”

But others in the comparatively laid-back California winemaking world have sometimes bristled at what they see as Kutch’s brashness, as well as his marketing prowess. He managed to garner press even before his first vintage was released and is the subject of a recently completed documentary by filmmaker Stefan Sargent titled Pinot: Escape from Wall Street. “He’s a star,” says Sargent, explaining why he made a film about Kutch. “He doesn’t care what people say, what they think about him. He doesn’t really care too much about what people think about his wine, as long as he loves it. He’s got the passion.”

Kutch, who admits that he and Green are still “New Yorkers by a mile,” doesn’t apologize for blowing his own horn. (He also admits it doesn’t hurt having a publicist in the family.) “How do you not tell the story? You could make the greatest wine in the world and if no one’s out there talking about it, that wine would never be discovered. Being small, I think we have to work extra hard to get the story out.”

What no one disputes is that Kutch backs up the hype with results. His 2007 McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir is a masterful wine, with a dusty, rose-perfumed nose and a focused, elegant, yet earthy palate of cherry, grapefruit and vine-like notes. The Sonoma Coast bottle, meanwhile, is light-bodied at 13.2 percent alcohol, with a balanced blend of spice, tobacco, plums and cherry—a wine of easy, but not shallow, personality.

“I’m driven to quality,” says Kutch, who is fond of saying he makes his wines for a test market of one: himself. He’s also not concerned about making a fortune from his wines. “I have never in my entire thinking of this project thought about money. I need to make money to make this work, but it’s all about making great wine. I don’t think like Wall Street. I think great wine and passion, and the other things will follow.”

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