Sutro Wines: Love Letters to the Land

Alice and Eliot Sutro. (Photo courtesy of Sasha Gulish)

Alice and Eliot Sutro. (Photo courtesy of Sasha Gulish)

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Alice Sutro and touring Warnecke Ranch with her. Even in winter, with the vines bare and waiting to be pruned, there was so much beauty. We hiked up Chalk Hill, with her dog rushing past us, and took in the majestic view of the Russian River rumbling below as I listened to Alice speak about her family history and deep connection to the land. It took just a few minutes to be transfixed by the place, I can only imagine a lifetime here—I thought I had discovered something special. Then, when I tasted the wines, I knew it. Like love letters to the land, Sutro wines are a true expression of their unique terroir, which blends the best attributes of the four Sonoma AVAs that meet on the ranch. Balancing elegance and power, these wines are nothing short of excellent.

The Warnecke Ranch has been in your family since 1911, what brought you to live on the Ranch, as you do now?

I lived on the ranch as a baby, and then spent every summer here.  We would spend July and August sleeping under the stars with trees for walls on platforms in the hills above the river.  When I finished school and was free to choose where to live, it was immediately the only choice: the ranch.  I wanted to feel all seasons, I wanted to be immersed—hot, cold, muddy, dry, flowers, green, golden hills the whole spectrum.

What sparked your interest in viticulture and, later, winemaking?

My interest in viticulture comes from it being the nature of my family business: grapes are the product that this land yields and what sustains our ranch.  I love viticulture because it is what this place that I love does.  If growing apples or raising sheep or cows were what this place does best, then that’s what I would love.  Winemaking was an obvious and lucky extension of that.  Lucky because I got the chance to launch it as my own business, to carve out a place for myself in a family business already well established in the wine industry in terms of grape sales.

When did your family first begin cultivating grapes and when did you get involved?

My grandfather established the vineyard in 1973 with the help of a knowledgeable grape grower who supervised the grape growing for many years.  My grandfather had the foresight to plant vines so that our property could be self-sustaining, but he was not a farmer.  When he died in 2010, my aunt took over and I jumped at the chance to join the family business.  The first thing we did was become certified sustainable through the Lodi Rules program.  It was, and still is, the most rigorous sustainability program.  It is the only one that is third party audited with site visits every three years.  That project fell on my lap.  We implemented many new best practices with our long standing in-house vineyard team who has worked for us for almost 20 years; they live here and know the vines intimately.

What makes your family’s property particularly suited to grow fine wine?

Every winemaker says this, but I’ll just have to be another one of them: the Warnecke ranch site is incredibly unique.  We’re right in the middle of Chalk Hill Rd, with neighbors like Lancaster and Verite, and the actual Chalk Hill is on our property.  In fact, the corners of four Sonoma County AVAs (Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Chalk Hill) all meet at the top of the hill.  “Chalk” is a misnomer for he white appearance of the soil here, which is actually volcanic ash from the formation of the Mayacamas, which separate us from Napa County, some 5 million years ago.

At the “four corners” we benefit from the sustained heat of Alexander Valley, but also are subjected to the Russian River’s influence—we have a mile of river frontage along the property—which brings the coastal climate this far inland: very cool evenings all summer long and marine fog every morning, sometimes until midday.  The result is an extended growing season, more hang time.  Sometimes we harvest a full two weeks later than our neighbors in Alexander Valley as the sugar levels don’t spike so quickly, thanks to the favorable diurnal rhythm.  The grapes have more time to develop complex phenolics that give our wines more refined flavors than typical hot climate Bordeaux varietals.

Can you talk about your winemaking? 

Eliot, my husband, is our wine director or “master palate”.  He created our winemaking protocol in the first few years when we were working with a consulting winemaker (we’re not anymore).  Our wine is made across the street from our ranch, at Medlock Ames, where there is the infrastructure, equipment, know-how etc., so that we didn’t have to invest in building a physical winery up front.  We have full control of the winemaking and Eliot is hands-on at critical times, like for blending.

Our philosophy is to make an excellent wine, that is transparent to the terroir.  That means harvesting not over-ripe, showcasing fruit flavors with our choice of yeast, and using low temp fermentations as well as soft pressing so we’re not over extracting harsh tannins.  We’re also very light touch with oak so as not to mask those flavors we’ve tried so hard to bring forward through the growing, harvesting and fermenting.  The style is new world, but not Napa.

What is your overarching vision for Sutro?

There is a bigger vision hidden behind the day to day vision of making a damn good wine to drive a viable economic future for me to raise my family in a place I can’t live without.  I’d like to see more enterprises happen here at Warnecke ranch to enrichen our little internal economy.  I have a cousin who is in coffee, and it’d be rad to have a country coffee shop here.  My vision is that Sutro be one of many small businesses that take place here and allow family members to thrive with businesses based off the land.  We all love this place, and I hope to inspire my generation of Warneckes to come home and invest in the property too with their own enterprises.  For example, I helped my family start the Chalk Hill Artist Residency in 2010.  We host about 20 artists a year here. I’ve stepped down from running that, I was the director for the first 5 years, but my aunt and uncle really love it and have made it thrive.  I guess it’s a vision of Sutro being a catalyst for a commune sort of thing—there are a lot of hippies in my family.  The Grateful Dead even spent time here, they wrote Alligator while living in one of the tent cabins above the river on our property.  But this overarching vision includes making reliably excellent wine that harnesses our exceptional terroir.

You’re also an artist and a writer?

Yes, I have a website where I post odd thoughts that combine my love of art and my love of the wine industry.  I studied art history as an undergrad and in high school. I’m curious of the visual world and cultural circumstances that make those visual things happen.  I like applying art theories to grape growing.  It helps me frame them so that I understand them better from my point of view: my mind that is always grounded in art thoughts.  More to the point, I wrote recently about the philosophy of being, and how relationships define us, especially physical ones, where actual stimuli shapes who we are.  It’s an existential line of thinking.  It led me to consider that terroir itself is a sort of identity like that, and it gets shaped too by stimuli from the outside world.  Kind of obvious when I put it that way, but terroir is very mysterious and I thought I could demystify it a bit.  The essence of the transactions, in both cases, is the interchange of stimuli taking place: molecules transversing skins, permeating them to influence character.  That type of transference across a boundary is also the heart of an art historical term known as the grotesque.  I love the grotesque—anything that breaks down the refined perfect vision of beauty, which is a pretty false picture of how the world really works.

Do you think your background and training in art influences Sutro?

I think being trained in a creative field has helped me take the risks necessary for building a new brand – putting myself out there with something that is quite personal and being ok with rejection, and being able to make the most of good feedback.  It’s all things I learned in how to promote myself as an artist and kind of get used to being hardened off to personal opinions.  You want feedback but you don’t want it to get you down or make you give up.  Being an artist is full of that, and so is making wine because wine is subjective like art too.

What excites you most about the future for Sutro?

Immediate future: making money!  We’ve been investing for a long time, starting a wine business is a lot of investment up front for the making and storage while waiting for the first vintage to be ready for release— three years later!  The average time for a new wine label to actually make money is about 7-8 years, we are at year 6 and just might be in the black this year.  This is probably TMI but I don’t care, it’s interesting and realistic.  We’re just lucky that we have a low overhead, very simple lives, and that Eliot’s architecture can float our boat until the wine turns a profit. We’ll get there!

What is your favorite thing about working in the wine industry?

Diversity! The range of people is amazing. From the vineyard team, to the trucking drivers, to the marketing people, the packaging sales people, it’s just super fun and a giant range of people to be in communication with throughout the year to make this business go around. I also love love love that it’s related to the seasons and the earth. The last one is that being in the wine industry links us to the food industry and all the exciting farm to table locavore stuff that is going on around here.

Both your and your husband’s families are deeply rooted in the Bay Area, can you share some of that history?

My family’s history here goes back to before the gold rush, we were pioneers. Dutch relatives came west on the first transcontinental train.  Some of my family settled up north right away, I am 6th generation Sonoma County and 5th generation at Warnecke Ranch. We’ve owned our spot on the river since 1911 when my family bought the acreage to run sheep and fish on the river for Salmon and steelhead. We don’t have sheep anymore but we still fish.

Eliot’s family, the Sutros, came to San Francisco in the 1870s, a couple of brothers and cousins that came direct from Bavaria. One is famous, Eliot’s great great great grandfather’s first cousin: Adolph Sutro. He made money in mine engineering and used it to buy most of the western side of the San Francisco, which was still sand dunes back then. He developed this crazy place with the Sutro Baths, gardens and a mansion; he put up a rail line to bring visitors out there. No one else lived out there at that time. When he died, he gave a lot of that land back to the city, so now there is Sutro Heights, Sutro Tower, and the ruins of Sutro Baths.

We both have architects and builders in our family – Eliot is one and so is my Dad, my grandfather John Carl Warnecke, my great grandfather Carl I Warnecke and, on my mom’s side, her grandfather Oliver Rousseau (who is famous for the cute houses in the Sunset district). We’ve shaped the skyline of San Francisco, so to speak. Now, with Sutro as a wine brand, I hope to shape San Francisco with something enduring too.

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