We recently made the acquaintance of Alice and Eliot Sutro, the couple behind Sutro Wine Co. We had the opportunity to taste their wines and tour the Warnecke Ranch which is the source of the grapes for their wines. We began in the vineyards below Chalk Hill, with Alice, and finished in Healdsburg, where Eliot joined us, for a wine and food pairing at SHED. The vineyard tour and tasting experience is brand new for Alice and Eliot and offers a unique way to learn about their wines. We were recently their guests for the tour and tasting.
Ranch and Family
Alice and Eliot make their home on the Warnecke Ranch, but even before they did the ranch was part of Alice’s life. The Ranch has been in her family since 1911. Over time Alice’s grandfather, John Carl Warnecke, increased the original 60 acres to its current 265 acres. In 1972 he planted the first vineyards to Cabernet Sauvignon. A 12-acre block of that original planting is still in production today.
In developing the ranch and planting the vineyards Alice’s grandfather, himself a well-known architect, consulted with his son Fred (Alice’s father), who contributed his skills as a landscape architect. Bob Demple, whom Alice described as a local pal of her grandpa, contributed his expertise in the vineyards and continues to do so on occasion.
Alice still feels her grandfather’s presence in the outdoor rooms he created throughout the property and that have been the scene of so many family gatherings. She recounted memories of a family New Year’s Eve celebration in one hilltop space and we appreciated the cool of a live oak tunnel planted by him as we passed through it on our walk.
With the vineyards occupying only 80 acres of the total property, the ranch feels very natural. There is a great diversity of shrubs, redwoods and oak trees. The forest silence is punctuated by the calls and chatter of birds. Wildflowers are abundant this time of year and the view from the ridgeline to the Russian River below is spectacular. The lake and reservoir, and even the homes on the ranch, are tucked in among the vineyards in a very natural way.
The Next Generations Work the Vineyards
Alice felt drawn to the ranch with the passing of her grandfather in 2010. She began working with her Aunt Margo who assumed management of the vineyards when their foreman left. Alice learned vineyard management through hands-on experience and together with her aunt they completed the process of certifying the vineyards according to Lodi RulesTM for Sustainable Winegrowing. They were among the first in the area to do so.
Alice continued to work in vineyard management until the responsibilities of a second child and the Sutro Wine Co. project made doing so impractical. She has a strong sense, though, of just how unique and valuable her time spent in the vineyard has been. She also feels the responsibility of maintaining the ranch and vineyards for the next generations of her family.
A permanent crew of 7 now lives on the ranch. They are responsible for, in Alice’s words, “the continuing care of the vines.” A second-generation member of that family recently returned to join that effort.
Plantings now include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. With the Russian River running along a boundary of the ranch, and the proximity of Brooks Creek and Maacama Creek, fog regularly reaches into the vineyards. Alice told us that on many summer days, fog blankets the vineyards until noon keeping temperatures cool, but afternoons in summer are generally warm. This ideal diurnal temperature variation helps preserve acidity in ripe grapes. Alice joked that she welcomes the cool mornings as well. The soils found on the ranch, a combination of haire clay loam and volcanic, are just the kind of low-vigor soils vineyardists look for.
Sutro Wine Co.
Eliot and Alice Sutro’s winemaking experience began with home winemaking. Eliot began making a small amount of wine from Warnecke Ranch grapes for several vintages before officially launching Sutro Wine Co. with the 2012 vintage.
The 2010 and 2011 vintages were challenging growing seasons, ones that many winemakers would just as soon forget, but experience in those difficult years served Eliot well. That experience and a narrow focus on Cabernet and Merlot from the Warnecke Ranch, along with Eliot’s attention to detail and willingness to ask questions of winemaker friends, helped him learn the fundamentals of winemaking quickly.
The 2012 vintage yielded 300 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. With the 2013 vintage their production increased slightly to 260 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 75 cases of Merlot. Their focus will remain on the Warnecke Ranch and the sustainability of it, but look for winemaking to expand in the future to include Sauvignon Blanc and a rosé of Pinot Noir. Over time Alice and Eliot expect production to increase to, perhaps, 1,000 – 2,000 cases. They want to always be able to do all of the winemaking themselves.
Tasting the Wines of Sutro Wine Co.
A table on the back patio was set for us when we arrived at SHED. As Eliot and Alice opened the wines and poured them all around, a chopping block covered with an assortment of pates, meats, cheese, spreads, bread and olives arrived. Bradley, head of the larder at SHED, tasted through the Sutro Wine Co. wines and created the food pairing. Presenting their wines with food is important to Alice and Eliot because their wines are made to accompany a meal.
The wine bottle labels are Eliot’s design and incorporate an image of birds that was inspired by a marble inlay they saw in Florence. The image resonated with them because for years Alice’s family has kept a flock of white pigeons on the Warnecke Ranch.
Eliot described his winemaking style as straightforward and hands-off. Their goal every year is to make the wine that the Warnecke Ranch vineyard gives them.
2012 Sutro Wine Co. Warnecke Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon — medium ruby in the glass with generous aromas of dark plums and rich earth with cedar notes in the background. The wine is bright on the palate with with a combination of dark and red fruit, leather and dried herbs. Tannins are substantial and drying, but well integrated into the flavors of the wine. The length is medium+ and the body medium in weight. Aromas of alfalfa hay waft from the empty glass. 14.9% abv. $50
This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was harvested near the end of October from a 15-year-old block on Warnecke Ranch. It was aged for 32 months in a combination of French and Hungarian oak, 25% new. It is well balanced and flavorful and and beginning to exhibit the complexities that develop with time in the bottle.
2013 Sutro Wine Co. Warnecke Ranch Merlot — dense ruby in the glass with complex aromas of perfumed red fruit. Layers of predominantly red fruit flavors combine with dried herbs and hints of smoke. Tannins are smooth and well integrated with the fruit flavors. The body is medium in weight and the length of the finish is medium. 14.5% abv. $35
25% Cabernet Sauvignon backs up the the Merlot in this wine and the combination produces a Merlot with more flavor and complexity than most. It is lush and flavorful. Aging took place in neutral French and Hungarian oak for 32 months.
2013 Sutro Wine Co. Warnecke Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon — dense ruby-violet in the glass. Aromas are generous and include ripe plums, blackberries and damp earth. Dark and red fruit flavors are concentrated with backnotes of earth and leather. Tannins are substantial and drying. Acidity is bright and keeps this medium-bodied wine lively on the palate. 14.5% abv. $50
Cabernet Sauvignon for the 2013 vintage was harvested from the original block of Cabernet planted by Alice’s grandfather in 1972. The 45-year-old vines are dry farmed, though overhead sprinklers may be used for frost control only. The yield in the vineyard of these old vines is naturally low, only two tons per acre, due to the age of the vines and the loss of vines over time. No interplanting has been done. The 2013 vintage includes 7% Merlot and wood aging took place in French and Hungarian oak (20% new) for 29 months.
Final Thoughts and Thanks
I thoroughly enjoyed the walking tour of Warnecke Ranch complete with the sound of birds, the smells of the forest and the vineyard vistas. Alice’s tour of the property comes from her heart. Talking with Alice and Eliot over their wines confirmed their joint connection to Warnecke Ranch and to their winemaking project. It was truly one of the most unique and enjoyable wine tasting experiences we have had in some time. Thank you, Alice and Eliot, for sharing your story with us.
You will find a detailed description of Sutro Wine Co.’s vineyard tour and tasting on their website.