October 2008 issue
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WINERY SPOTLIGHT Copain Wine Cellars, Healdsburg, California Geoff Kruth, MS
On a hilltop overlooking the “Grand Cru” vineyards of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley sits a newly constructed winery.
This should come as no surprise to any sommelier—the recent demand for Pinot Noir has made new facilities pop up quicker than coastal mushrooms. And from the crush pad of the eye-catching, 24,000-square-foot Copain Wine Cellars, you can see the vineyards that made the likes of Williams Selyem and Rochioli famous. Contrary to what you might expect, however, the Copain fermentation tanks are devoid of Russian River fruit, or of anything from Sonoma County for that matter, even though the winery owns planted acres in the surrounding area. This controversial policy arises from a decision to let the selection of vineyard sources be driven by stylistic goals. “I am going after the flavors that define Copain,” says winemaker and proprietor Wells Guthrie. “If I can achieve that with Russian River fruit, that’s great, but until then, my focus will be Anderson Valley and the cooler vineyards of Mendocino County.”
The passionate Guthrie is still in his mid-30s, but 2008 marks his 10th vintage as a winemaker. After serving as a tasting coordinator for Wine Spectator, Guthrie packed his bags for the northern Rhône in 1998 and spent two years apprenticing for Chapoutier in Hermitage. He returned to California and worked with Turley Wine Cellars before breaking out on his own with Copain in 1999. Although he was hell-bent on making his own wine, Guthrie said he initially felt like a deer caught in the headlights when the grapes came in. “I have always maintained a French palate,” he says, “but I had no idea how to deliver it.” His soul-searching, self-deprecating style may have made his investor, Kevin McQuown, nervous, but eager wine drinkers had no difficulty sucking down his first 200 cases of Pinot Noir and 100 cases of highly acclaimed Syrah. Now, with Copain up to 5,400 cases a year and seven bottlings each of Syrah and Pinot Noir, McQuown is sure that luck is on his side. As Guthrie says, “I told my investor recently, ‘You basically walked up to a roulette wheel and put it all on Guthrie.’”
It seems to have been a good bet. With the release of the 2006 vintage, Copain has solidified its style. By picking relatively early from cooler sites, fermenting with native yeast, manipulating the cap less, and aging in low-to-medium-toast barrels and a maximum of 30% new oak, Guthrie can achieve an elegance rare in California. “I’ve seen producers wait to pick at 32º Brix. That’s insane!” he exclaims. “If I can’t pick under 23.5º Brix, then I don’t want to make a wine from that vineyard.” This philosophy places him in stark contrast to the hoards of winemakers who worship at the altar of physiological ripeness. As Guthrie explains, “When wines are young, you can hide behind the fruit and freshness that picking ripe delivers. But all of that comes out in the wash with bottle age, and you can’t avoid the prune and compote flavors, no matter how much you manipulate the wine.”
Copain’s decision to pick earlier has allowed the winery to abolish the common practice of adding water and acid to bring ultraripe must back into balance. The wines now finish fermentation at about 13% alcohol, and this lower alcohol appears to leach less wood flavors from the new barrels. Not only are Guthrie’s wines easier to drink at the table, but they also showcase the minerality, freshness, and modest palate weight of California’s cooler sites.
Although many wine buyers were initially brought to Copain by the Rhônesque aromas of its whole-cluster-pressed Syrahs, recent vintages demonstrate that the Pinot Noirs are now their equal in replicating the food-friendly structure of their European counterparts. For example, the Pinot Noir Tous Ensemble has been poured by the glass at leading restaurants around the country, including California’s Michael Mina, The French Laundry, and Cyrus, as well as New York’s Per Se and Cru.
“The wines that Wells has made the last two vintages are just what sommeliers have been waiting for,” says Jim Rollston, wine director of Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, Calif. “They marry the bright fruit that California does so well, but with much lower alcohol and more natural acid than is the norm. I particularly admire the courage it takes to put these wines out there, given that they fly in the face of what many critics are looking for.”
Copain’s releases actually hearken back to the California wines of the 1970s. Fortunately, recent advances in site selection, viticulture, and winemaking have allowed modern producers to achieve greater complexity than was found in many weedy and insipid wines of that period. Guthrie’s wines may never please those consumers who have been led to believe that great wine should resemble alcoholic grape syrup with oak flavoring. But today’s passionate few are committed to a more balanced expression of California wine, and that’s exactly what Copain is committed to providing.
Copain Wine Cellars
7800 Eastside Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448