For over 40 years, Sonoma-Cutrer has been marrying Burgundian traditions with Californian ingenuity and a deep appreciation for Sonoma Valley’s remarkable terroir. The approach has brought the winery global acclaim and the opportunity to work with some of the world’s best winemakers, including Cara Morrison and Zidanelia Arcidiacono, who goes by Z.
We sat down with Cara and Z to learn about their backgrounds in wine, their individual approaches to winemaking, and what some of their favorite bottles are.
Just to start, what are both of your first memories of wine and how do those memories impact the way you each approach your craft?
Z: I remember I was about 6 years old when I first visited a winery in Argentina with my family, the old Giol winery. The intense aromas of fermentations, fruit and yeast. At the time I found it a bit aggressive but so magnificent. Now that I am on the production side I find the whole process fascinating. I always keep in my mind the people who will enjoy the wines and that encourages me to always improve and look for new methods.
My first memories of wine are my dad drinking simple bag-in-the box ‘Chablis’ and ‘Hearty Burgundy.’ He never made a fuss about the wine and simply enjoyed it with friends. I keep that in mind that wine is a fun, social product. While some of us love education and learning about wine, there are times to simply enjoy the wine and not analyze it. How that memory impacts the way I approach my craft… when I feel really stressed out during harvest, I remember that wine is fun & focus on the positive. I appreciate how I live in a beautiful place and get to do a job I love.
Zidanelia, you’ve worked in Argentina, the South of France, and California. Are there differences to the way each place approaches wines? How about similarities?
Z: Of course there are differences and that makes it super entertaining and diverse. Each winery has its own style and each region with its terroir has a special influence on the growth of the vines. In Mendoza, Argentina I had the opportunity to work with multiple varietals both white and red, of course, with great typical examples such as Malbec and Torrontes.
In the south of France in a large volume cooperative winery I was able to assist in the production of light and very fruit forward rosé wines.
In California, I was able to discover new varietals such as Zinfandel and had the opportunity to work with diverse regions such as Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Santa Maria. I finally found my passion for making Pinot Noir in Sonoma Cutrer.
What they have in common are the basics of winemaking and the desire to produce the best wine possible.
Cara, you’ve worked in wineries and studied wine across the world, including in Australia, Chile, New York, New Zealand, Eastern Europe, Italy, Germany and France. Are there any defining characteristics that successful wineries from every region all carry?
Cara: Great question! Just like the most successful restaurants specialize in a type of food or a few signature dishes, the same can be said for wine. The defining characteristic of successful wineries almost anywhere is to choose what wine they really can make well and focus on those wines, and not try to do every different kind of wine. Burgundy is an ideal example, the climate & soil, terroir if you will, are ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so that is what the wineries specialize in. Alsace in Germany has a much cooler climate, so they embrace that by making amazing Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer. Sonoma-Cutrer is in the cooler region of Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley, so we focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
What has been your favorite wine region to spend time in? Do they have any unique approaches to craft that you particularly enjoy?
Z: I don’t have a favorite region, I have beautiful memories and friends from Mendoza and the south of France. Currently in Sonoma County I am very happy, the quality of wines we produce in Sonoma County is spectacular, it is a very good place to live.
Cara: While I have visited many wine regions, there are so many more to explore! Every winery has their own unique approach to the same basic process of harvesting grapes, fermenting, aging, and blending. I have picked up something in each of these regions. What I notice the most is how similar we all are in the winemaking approach (we all want to make the best wines), the difference is the terroir.
What is unique about making wine in Sonoma County?
Z: Sonoma County is such a diverse winegrowing region, multiple grape varieties are grown here, you can find countless expressions of the same variety due to the winemaking style.
Cara: The fog defines Sonoma County and allows so many wine varietals to thrive in this area. One thing most people outside of Northern California do not know is that the Pacific Ocean is VERY cold here and causes quite a bit of fog. I put on a jacket & sweats to go to the beach, and rarely go in the water. The Russian River Valley is closer to a coastal mountain gap where the fog from the Pacific Ocean sneaks through, this fog causes the coolest weather, so whites & Pinot Noir do best here. As you go North from this gap, in the Dry Creek and Alexander Valley, the fog wears out sooner and it is much warmer, which allows for good quality Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fog allows for a diversity of wines and defines the uniqueness of Sonoma County.
Can you tell us a bit about Sonoma-Cutrer… the terroir, the grapes you grow, and the wines you make?
Cara: (from question above) The Russian River Valley is closer to a coastal mountain gap where the fog from the Pacific Ocean sneaks through, this fog causes the coolest weather, so whites & Pinot Noir do best here.
Most of Sonoma-Cutrer’s vineyards are in the Russian River Valley and benefit from the fog. The cooler weather allows for slower ripening, which benefits the ripe tree fruit aromas and crisp acidity of Chardonnay and the dark color and mouthfeel in Pinot Noir that we make at Sonoma-Cutrer.
Due to the cool weather, in 1981 Sonoma-Cutrer decided to do one thing and do it really well and we chose Chardonnay. After over 20 years we felt like we dialed in our style, vineyard practices and winemaking techniques for Chardonnay and started to make Pinot Noir. Now we are 40 years in and proud of the fact we focus our attention on these special wine varietals.
What is unique about Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay? How about Pinot Noir?
Z: The Russian River Valley boasts near ideal conditions for growing Pinot Noir grapes. We always focus on crafting wines that reflect their unique terroir. The grapes for our Pinot Noir come from Vine Hill and Owsley vineyards. The unique terroir of each vineyard, from Owsley’s dramatic temperature fluctuations to Vine Hill’s 400-foot elevation change, is directly responsible for producing fruit with concentrated, complex flavors.
Cara: The most unique attribute of Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay is the consistency year after year. I first tasted Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay in 1998 and fell in love with the style. In the 1990s, when most California wineries were making super oaky and buttery Chardonnays, Sonoma-Cutrer still respected the fruit and pairing wine with food. To this day, we still follow that food friendly style of a crisp acidity, bright fruit, and full mouthfeel. We are one of the few wineries that is not looking for a strong influence of the winemaker on the wine, but to make sure the current winemakers respect the style year after year.
How would you both describe your philosophies when it comes to winemaking?
Z: I like to produce wines that express the natural characteristics of the varietal and the area where they are produced; when you have high quality fruit such as our Pinot Noir, the less the winemaker’s hand intervenes the better the wine is. Knowing this, I just concentrate on harvesting the grapes at the desired point, guiding them through fermentation and barrel aging to reach their full potential.
Cara: I agree with Zidanelia, and that’s why we both work at Sonoma-Cutrer!
What’s something that people generally don’t think about when they think about making wine, but it’s essential to the job?
Z: To make wine you need to be in contact with the vineyards as it is an agricultural industry and there is a lot of science as well as a touch of art involved in winemaking.
Cara: Logistics and flexibility are essential to making wine. Mother Nature always throws you a curve ball throughout the grape growing season, and it is hard to plan for. So, winemakers need to be masters of logistics and consistently flexible, especially at the busy harvest season in fall. Not only do we need to decide which grapes should to be picked and how to make the wine, but how there will be enough pickers, timely trucking, planning presses, scheduling cellar employees, and organizing juice to tanks or barrels depending on the style of the wine and what is available at the time. Another example is planning bottling with the logistics of supply chain on packaging, which has become a much bigger job than it used to be!
If you each had to choose your three favorite bottles of wine, other than your own, what are they?
Z: The truth is that my memory is very bad and I prefer to talk about wine styles and regions. I love fresh and fruity sparkling wines and the complexity of some Champagnes. Among the white wines, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand attracts me a lot. Finally blends (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) from the Pic St Loup area in the Languedoc region are very special.
Cara: There are so many beautiful wines! They all come with a story, of course, so bear with me.
When tasting wines in Burgundy about 10 years ago, the winemaker at Domaine Sauzet shared 11 different white Burgundies (Chardonnays) with my husband and I, all the same vintage from different sub appellations. While I understand the concept of terroir, I have never experienced it in that way. All these Chardonnays were so different yet the grapes were grown within 5 miles of each other, some vineyards within a few feet, and made by the same winemaker at the same winery. The final 11th wine, which was a Premier Cru, was so elegant and beautiful I actually started to tear up.
When I attended UC Davis, I received a scholarship from a local wine group based in Sacramento. Two representatives from this group wanted to take me to lunch, and 2 of my professors said they would be joining me. At lunch, I was able to taste the 1974 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. It was in 1973 that won the ‘Judgment of Paris’ and put California wine, especially Napa Valley on the wine map (also inspired the movie ‘Bottle Shock’). Since I was born in 1974 and they had it on hand, that is what they brought. I was just 21 and hadn’t experienced high end wines much, so it was an education on the history of wine, on how there are times to enjoy wine and times to really analyze and focus on the wine. They brought some other wonderful wines, and I realized why 2 of my wine professors offered to join me. They didn’t want to miss out on some great wines!
Another favorite wine was more recent. My husband and I had some friends over for wine and cheese outside just after we were all fully vaccinated from COVID. We happened to have a bottle of Bollinger Champagne in the fridge (rule #1, always have a bottle of Sparkling in the fridge just in case!), so we shared it. It was a tasty Champagne, a beautiful pairing and a wonderful memory!
For more information, head over to Sonoma-Cutrer’s official website.