40 years of Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay

Brice Cutrer Jones started planting vineyards in the Russian River Valley in the early 1970s and began making wine under the Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards label in 1981. His timing was good: The popularity of chardonnay was soaring.

Sonoma-Cutrer became practically synonymous with California chardonnay, and its Russian River Ranches bottling became one of the most popular chardonnays sold in restaurants.

Jones sold the business in 1999 to drinks company Brown-Forman. Meanwhile, the winery had been quietly experimenting with pinot noir, too, and added it to the mix in 2002. Now pinot noir has its own production facility.

The Cutrer Vineyard is Sonoma-Cutrer’s home ranch. (Photo courtesy of Sonoma-Cutrer)

Sonoma-Cutrer’s chardonnays have been remarkably consistent over the years, even with the change in ownership. That probably helped the winery weather the Anything But Chardonnay trend that got so much attention a few years back. One reason for the consistency almost certainly is the small number of winemakers responsible for Sonoma-Cutrer over the past 40 years.

Mick Schroeter, who joined the company in 2010 after longtime stints at Penfolds in Australia and Geyser Peak in Sonoma County, is only the third director of winemaking at Sonoma-Cutrer. He works with chardonnay winemaker Cara Morrison, who has been at the winery since 2005. (She tried her first glass of Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay in 1999, she said, and “I just fell in love with it.”)

Director of winemaking Mick Schroeter with chardonnay winemaker Cara Morrison. (Photo courtesy of Sonoma-Cutrer)

When the winery decided to produce a special bottling marking its 40th anniversary, it seemed appropriate to include the two previous head winemakers, Bill Bonetti and Terry Adams, in the blending process. Schroeter said he and his two predecessors agreed on the blend. “We still had a clear vision of what is Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay,” he said. Schroeter singled out the contribution of Bonetti, who died last September at the age of 94. “His palate was amazing,” Schroeter said.

The 40th anniversary wine was released in the spring. During a recent Zoom tasting to introduce the wine, we tasted that bottle along with three others. Schroeter and Morrison led the tasting.

First up was the 2018 Russian River Ranches Chardonnay ($28), which despite its name bears a Sonoma Coast appellation (Russian River and Sonoma Coast overlap). The wine has generally been sold in restaurants, but much of it made its way into retail during the pandemic shutdowns. It’s crisp yet fleshy and rich, with pear, Meyer lemon and touches of mango and grapefruit, and a racy, persistent finish. “I think Russian River Ranches is the epitome of what we do,” Schroeter said. The current release is 2019, but you might still be able to find the 2018.

The 2018 “The Cutrer” Chardonnay ($35), from the winery’s home ranch in the Russian River Valley appellation, is creamy, with Meyer lemon, pear and a hint of mango. It has some weight, power and a hint of alcoholic heat, but a racy core of acidity keeps the wine fresh.

The 2018 “Les Pierres” Chardonnay ($45) is from a rocky (pierres means stones in French) vineyard in a part of the Sonoma Valley that overlaps with the Sonoma Coast appellation. It’s powerful yet refined, with citrus and a stony note.

Finally, the main event. The 2019 Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay, Limited No. 40 Edition ($70) is mostly from Les Pierres. It’s rich, with firm acidity and flavors of white fruit, Meyer lemon and wet stone, some oak and a very long finish. A fitting birthday tribute.