Alice Feiring, Special to The Times
When the powerful wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. first tasted Wells Guthrie's 2000 Copain Wine Cellars wines, he turned up his nose, giving the winemaker's various bottlings scores that ranged from 87 to 89 out of 100 possible points a sorely disappointing response to Guthrie's second vintage. Worse, Parker showed no interest in giving the neophyte winemaker a second chance by retasting his wines.
Last spring, Guthrie's distributor sought damage control for the next vintage. He brought the riper, lusher 2001 Copains to lunch with Parker in Hagerstown, Md. They dined and tasted, of course at the critic's regular haunt, Oregon Grill, where he frequently holds informal tastings.
Parker took notice and, within six months, was sitting with Guthrie in the Copain winery and custom crush facility, a bare-bones outfit in a dumpy Santa Rosa, Calif., industrial park. Parker swirled and spit, talked tannin and high-altitude grape growing and extolled the glories of single-vineyard wines.
The result: Parker rated Guthrie's 2002 Hawks Butte Syrah an attention-getting 96 points in his December 2003 newsletter, proclaiming it Hermitage-like.
And so a new winemaking star is born.
The surprise in this success story is 33-year-old Guthrie's wines. Rather than the high-alcohol fruit bombs everyone associates with Parker's darlings, the Copain wines are, for the most part, elegant, firmly tannic, European-style Syrahs, Pinots and Zinfandels.
Unlike most California winemakers, who fear the hard edge tannins can impart to a wine, Guthrie reveres it. He crushes whole clusters, including the pips and stems; these, he says, "give wine delineation and hem in the overly fruity aspect you can get from most California wines." Serious tannins also are necessary for long aging, a big plus because many California wines don't have great aging potential.
If that weren't enough to make him feel like the lone wolf of the West Coast, Guthrie also picks earlier than many of his peers. He does this in a concerted effort to avoid the high alcohol levels typically associated with California wines, while keeping acidity higher. Last year his grapes came in at around 23 brix (a measure of sugar concentration), while, he says, some neighboring winemakers pushed ripeness to over 30 brix. His 2003 wines are labeled at 13.5% alcohol levels, not low by European standards, but they have ample acidity to balance it.
Seeking the complexity that stressed vines can bring, Guthrie's strategy is to source his wines from high elevations, such as Eaglepoint Ranch in Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, which is at 1,800 feet. He also favors unsung viticultural areas such as Booneville, where he can farm on his own or at least exert some measure of control over the farming.
Although he's proud of his tiny, five-acre vineyard in Sonoma's Moon Valley and wants to purchase more acreage like it, he's thrilled to work with any grapes from edgy, minerally, rock-laden land, such as the Hawks Butte Vineyard in Mendocino's Yorkville Highlands.
He so prizes such grapes that his single-vineyard Copain wines come from as far north as the Walla Walla Valley and as far south as Paso Robles. Priced from $25 to $35, they are wines that Caroline Styne, partner in A.O.C. and Lucques, says work for both fans of European wine and ready-for-the-next-step drinkers of California wine.
The 2001 Arrowhead Mountain Zinfandel (originally priced at $25 but now found at the Wine Commune in Berkeley for $50), squeezed out of a rocky, steep vineyard overlooking the town of Sonoma, has Zin's hallmark delicious brambly fruit, with a good dose of spice-dusted raspberry. But the wine is tempered by its serious structure, and a squeeze of great acidity brings it all into balance.
The 2002 Cailloux & Coccinelle Syrah ($35) also comes from a stony vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. More like Chteauneuf-du-Pape than Cornas, the young wine is full of personality, with a racy animal undercurrent, a fierce, stony, dusty component, touches of violet and a substantial but not in-your-face dose of blackberry.
Syrahs from the Rhne are in fact Guthrie's passion.
On the heels of his first job in the wine business, a low-paying two-year stint as a tasting coordinator for Wine Spectator magazine, Guthrie accepted an apprenticeship in 1997 in the northern Rhne Syrah central at the venerable ngociant M. Chapoutier. Chapoutier is an organic and biodynamic operation.
By the time Guthrie returned to California, he had become a devotee of low-intervention wines, organic when possible, biodynamic perhaps. That means no laboratory yeast, no inoculation, no enzyming, no tricks.
When he was back home and looking for work, Helen Turley made him an offer he couldn't refuse: his first California winemaking job. He stayed with her for only one year.
"Helen was very instrumental in encouraging me to start my own label," he says. "It wouldn't have happened without her. She let me use her bin trailer for harvest, she tasted crushed samples of my fruit and gave me her unsolicited opinion. She gave me the Zin vineyard we have today, saying she thought it could be the equal of Jackass Hill or Hayne Vineyard."
Sticking with his own style
Stylistically, however, the two were worlds apart. "I love Helen and her work for Marcassin," he says, "but I learned more about what I didn't want to do with my wine than what I wanted to imitate." He distanced himself from Turley's "hot fruit and oak-driven wines," like Martinelli, "that are just not my style."
Through mutual friends, he found business partner Kevin McQuown, who took a chance and sank his entire million-dollar nest egg from the high-tech industry into Copain.
"It was a big risk putting that much money into a person with two years of experience," says Guthrie. "We're not completely there, but as long as the wine stays, we'll be OK. So far, so good."
Before his Parker anointment, Guthrie liked having enough of a supply for his word-of-mouth fans. His 1999 vintage sold out because of a rave review posted on Robin Garr's Wine Lovers website.
Paul Roberts, wine director for Thomas Keller's restaurants, created special blends of the Copain Syrahs and Pinots for the French Laundry in Napa; they'll also be offered at Per Se, Keller's new restaurant in New York.
With the 2003 vintage, Guthrie's Copain has grown to 3,000 cases. His latest addition is a $15 label called Saisons des Vins, from a biodynamic vineyard in Mendocino's Potter Valley, yet another unglamorous area.
Guthrie continues to draw inspiration from the Rhne. At the 2003 Hospices du Rhne, Thierry Allemand, a renegade Rhne winemaker who works with little or no sulfur (a controversial practice that can make a scarily unstable wine), admired the Eaglepoint and mentioned he was looking to do a project in California. "After a few glasses of wine," Guthrie says, "he asked if I'd be into it."
Starting work with Allemand in California this fall, Guthrie is eager to explore no-sulfur winemaking, a hot topic in today's natural-winemaking circles.
"I am not familiar with the details of the technique. That's why I'm fired up to work with Thierry, who is a bit of a master on it," he says. He notes that it involves leaving carbon dioxide in solution, "like that of a Moscato d'Asti," to keep the wine stable.
"It helps to be in touch with French winemakers to remind me that I'm not just about reviews and press," says Guthrie. "America is just taking baby steps when it comes to wine. We don't know anything."
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