Interview with Winemaker Alice Sutro of Sutro Wines

Alice Sutro Sutro Wines
I know that your family has Warnecke Ranch & Vineyard, how did growing up involved in the Ranch & Vineyard inspire you to become a Winemaker?

Actually, it was a yearning to become involved for the first time that inspired me to move back here and make the personal commitment to be a part of the family business and land. Growing up, my Dad was not directly involved so I did not have that insider’s view. I only ever spent summers at the ranch. I really had this deep desire to get to know all the seasons here and feel the progression of the year uninterrupted. So I took the leap, following the instinct to want to build a deeper connection to the place that always brought me so much joy. To learn how to tend it for the long run. And make a life here. Which is where winemaking comes in.

Was there a moment that you remember when you knew that you wanted to be a winemaker?

Yes, you see at first I was just working for my aunt Margo, she manages the family business and vineyards. After getting to know grape growing intimately and the terroir, I had the growing curiosity to find out what a vineyard designate wine could be like from Warnecke Ranch, because I had learned how special this place was for grapes. It seemed necessary to me to know that in order to do better growing the grapes. To do justice to the place. It was also a decision about contributing to the legacy planning for my little family, my kids, and my nieces and nephews. I wanted to create something that was part of this land that we all love but that offered some alternative ways to be involved. Then the winemaking became an amazing creative outlet for me as well, I never could have expected that.

What was your first wine job?

Oh, this is my only wine job, the only one I’ll ever have. I worked my way in, educated myself, found a good support team and built my company. It’s really about place, this spot on Chalk Hill Road, along the Russian River, at the Southern tip of Alexander Valley and focused on the varietals that are grown here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

Can you share more stylistically about Sutro Wines for those who haven’t had them? What is your winemaking style/approach?

At Sutro Wine Co., we make wine that reflects the place, and our place is most easily defined as Volcanic. The vineyards are situated in the Mayacama benchlands, on rolling topography that end in the River and on compressed volcanic ash bedrock. Skipping a few explanatory steps, all those points make for wines that are high acidity, complex aromas profiles, minerality, and reds that have strong but elegant tannins.

Speaking of winemaking, where did you learn to make wine?

I learned from consultants, friends, labs, university articles, and books. And I still do work that way. The further you go the less you know! Lisa Bishop Forbes in my consulting winemaking as of this year. Previous to having her on the team I depended on a lot of varying advice from different sources and I could finally afford to consolidate that into one person, who could witness the vintages year over year with me. She is my walking talking viticulture degree! I direct the winemaking, and Lisa provides in-depth knowledge.

As a winemaker, you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you LOVE it so much?

Haha! Every wine! I hate spitting. I really need to truly drink wine to appreciate it. The small tastes that you do (and spit) are “on the job” and the teeniest snapshots and require a lot of focus and experience and are usually about detecting remarkable and distinct aspects for troubleshooting, or characterizing a wine to make a specific decision. If I’m really going to get to know a wine, I have a full glass, and I have it with food. And then I drink the bottle over a few days to experience how it evolves and try it with different pairings as well.

What has it been like to be a female winemaker in a predominantly dominated male business?  On your website, you share quite a few blog posts about Women in Wine and leading Women important to the industry. Can you share more about this topic….

I’ve found mostly that I have to up the ante on being brave and trusting my instinct to keep moving forward and following my curiosity. It’s mostly about making those first moves to go into a meeting room almost 100% men, finding the one other woman and sitting next to her and becoming friends. I’ve definitely followed the advice to lean in and ask for what I’m trying to achieve. I asked to join the Alexander Valley Grapegrowers board and it’s been really fulfilling to participate in promoting our AVA. I decided to start more actively sharing Women in Wine stories when I understood that amplifying voices can help other women to be brave as well and to lean in. Seeing and hearing female role models in the positions you want to inhabit is very effective encouragement. My blog has a whole section on interviews, and I am diligent to represent women from different backgrounds and in different aspects of the wine industry, not just winemaking or somms. Because there are lots of different opportunities to be involved in the wine industry so that whatever you are good at, can be turned into a useful employment in wine, if that’s what you are passionate about. And when you love something as much as I do: wine growing and winemaking, I just feel like I want to do what I can to make it a better place.  Read more on Sutro Wines website here where they talk about Women in Wine.

What is something you’d like to share about Alexander Valley California’s Region that many consumers may not know or have a misconception about?

Alexander Valley is Sonoma County’s Cab Country right outside of Healdsburg. It’s a perfect climate for Bordeaux varietals, with hot days and cool nights. There is enough variety too within the region that you can experience leaner mountain Cab, to opulent hotter Valley floor Cab, to a balance in between from the foothills. What I love is that the wineries here are predominantly owner-operated. Like I mentioned above, it just means that the relationships that underpin our industry around here are rich and super fulfilling. Maybe people would be surprised to know that Geyserville and Cloverdale are in Alexander Valley and although lesser known than Healdsburg, they all boast great restaurants, cafés, farmers markets, art galleries, antique shops and cute B&Bs. I’ve been meaning to make an itinerary that is a 3-day exploration of our area and never leaves Alexander Valley!

What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?

Nothing I couldn’t recover from, but there are definitely things that have hurt or had a lingering effect. I almost spoiled a whole vintage from not tracking my barrel maintenance well enough. The wine made it through, but it’s a vintage that stands apart from the rest of my wines and throws a curveball in my vertical tastings. I also bought blending wine that had a defect I couldn’t detect, but that was noticeable on lab tests and seem better palates than mine. I ended up using the wine and the defect was masked by the majority of the varietal, but now I can taste it every time and it bothers me, even if I know the wine is good, and even great to everyone else.

Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?

Possibly Ondine Chattan. She is the winemaker for Cannonball right now and she makes a variety of types of wine and with no qualms. From quaffable to a super boutique. I love her attitude about wine that way, that there is something for everybody and it’s all valuable. She is also a mom of three and always so graceful and kind. When I met her she was buying Warnecke Ranch Sauvignon Blanc for Geyser Peak, where she was the winemaker about 8 years ago. It was inspiring to see her bobbing through the vines, tasting for ripeness, as we approached harvest.

Recently you partnered with a few other friends of mine, the ladies at Maker Wine to do a collaboration featuring Sutro Wines in their beautiful Maker Wine canned wine program? Can you share more about that for those not familiar?

Maker Wine company is a great concept. They are supporting small winemakers by canning portions of their wine production for a broader reach in 250 mL cans and shining the spotlight back on the source winery with great marketing and packaging. I know they created the company with the desire to support small independent winemakers and it’s really working. I will be releasing a 2018 canned Cabernet Sauvignon with them as well. It’s different from my bottled 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon by the added attention I put into the blending and aging process. The canned version, however, makes the wine more accessible by price point and easier to consume as a “single serve” (one can is 1/3 of a bottle).

What is your favorite after-work drink?

Depends on the season! In summer I like white wine or a margarita, or sparkling water with aromatic bitters and lime. My favorite summer beer is Peroni. In winter I like full-bodied red wine or my favorite winter beer is Winter Solstice by Anderson Valley Brewing Co.

What is your favorite local spot in Alexander Valley and San Francisco since you spend time in both beautiful areas of Northern California?

Other than Warnecke Ranch? I love Jimtown. There’s the Hawkes tasting room and the Medlock Ames tasting room. Those are great spots and always fun for me to visit being friends and colleagues with the people there. It’s so fun to live where you work. I like having multi-level ties with people. We’re friends, we’re parents at the same school, we serve on the same boards, we participate in each other fundraisers, and we’ve also gone through the same hardships: fires, floods, difficult growing seasons, market fluctuations. It’s a deep bond.

In San Francisco, I love walking around alone. It’s a really important time for me since I’m such a country mouse. I have to go get my fix occasionally and take in the architecture, the multitude of people and just feel immersed in humanity. Charles Baudelaire encapsulates that feeling with the term flâneur in his poetry.

Tell us something that would surprise people about you?

I grew up in Boonville and then France, where I went to public high school. Those two very different environments have really shaped who I am.

Alice Sutro Sutro Wines

Photos by Sutro Wine Co.

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