Alcohol Alchemy: Old methods, unusual grapes yield wines like no others

carl sutton of sutton cellars
Carl Sutton checks the brix on just-picked zinfandel grapes. Photo: Stacy Ventura

A dozen or so glass demijohns sit on the right-hand wall of Carl Sutton’s winery, Sutton Cellars. Smears of brick-hued sediment coat the insides of a few, and others are filled with inky purple wine. This is not how most people age wine, in full sunlight, but Carl Sutton is not most people. The demijohns are the poster children of his particular brand of weirdness: an ode to a centuries-old style of winemaking that, despite Sutton’s best intentions, is suddenly in vogue again.

In a certain light, Sutton himself is a character ripped straight from the 2015 Guide to Being an Artisan in San Francisco. He’s a stubbly one-man show who runs one of the city’s few wineries. He hasn’t filtered a wine since 1994, doesn’t use commercial yeast, swears, wears thinning band Ts and makes wine you probably don’t understand with a manual press under the slogan, “Sutton Cellars: Put some in your mouth.”

In 2009, he released the first new vermouth that California had seen in 10 years—ending a two-and-a-half-year project that began with a trip to Rainbow Grocery and a month of macerating 10 dozen botanicals in his kitchen in brandy-filled Mason jars. The vermouth netted Sutton a profile in the New York Times, and made its way to the top shelf of the burgeoning craft cocktail scene. But Carl Sutton doesn’t give a damn. He’s just making wine he wants to drink.

sutton cellars vermouth
Sutton & Soda with a spritz of grapefruit essential oils. Photo: Stacy Ventura

In his cavernous Dogpatch winery, Sutton makes three categories of wine: aperitifs and digestifs, rosé and red wines, and fortified but not aromatized wine. The first category includes the aforementioned vermouth as well as a dry, robust vin de noix flavored with green walnuts and spices. The second category is perhaps the most straightforward, but those rosés and red wines still bear the Sutton trademark: they’re drier, slightly lower in alcohol, and surprising.

The last category includes what might be called dessert wines, fortified with brandy to stop fermentation and retain residual sugar. The first is a vino generoso, a young, sweet but tannic wine, and the second is the solera, which is actually a blend of every solera Sutton has been aging for the last 10 years. Left in full sunlight, the oldest wine is stratified and softened, the youngest slightly livelier on the lips.

No demijohn is ever emptied entirely, which makes the average age of the solera older as time goes on. It fills your mouth like a balanced sherry and lingers like sweet raisins and weighty port. Sutton bottles it once every two years, and if you miss it, you’re screwed. It’s the kind of thing that’s sophisticated in small amounts, although it makes you want a lot more than that. He also makes a blended table wine that comes in jugs and goes well with pizza. To Carl Sutton, what makes a wine good is how well it suits an occasion.

For over 20 years, Sutton has been making wine under his own name, but he’s been in the business ever since he dropped out of art school 25 years ago and found a summer job at a short-staffed winery in Penngrove. In the mid-’90s, he opened Sutton Cellars in Sonoma, and moved it down to San Francisco to be closer to his customer base five years ago.

Sutton’s wine works in a single, esoteric food city whose most moneyed market cherishes the weird, the precious and anything that’s 100 years old, but it’d be sad to think the zeitgeisty cachet is what’s actually driving sales. Sutton is more optimistic than that.

sutton cellars solera
Sutton’s solera ages in clear glass, exposed to light. Photo: Stacy Ventura

“I can give you an answer that’s an opinion, because I want to believe it, and I want it to be the truth. I think there’s a broad enough customer base that is bored stiff with grocery-store wines. And they want something with real flavor and real personality. You can never transcend your raw material. You can also never transcend the capabilities of a person that’s making a product.”

What he means by that is, integrity has a taste. It’s a hard thing to say without wanting to slap yourself, which Sutton nearly does when he says these things, but he means it. Making good wine means loving the process, and knowing what you don’t know.

“You should be scared shitless of everything you’re doing, because you need to have respect for the process. Otherwise it’s hubris. You’ve got to age into that confidence.”

When he buys grapes, he finds “unique sites,” by which he means “not the fucking valley floor of Napa.” In other words, forsaking the monoculture of the valley floor for higher, secluded vineyards in interesting climates. He likes unusual grapes and sites that feel good when you walk through them. He’s interested in older vines—the kind with 25 feet wide by 25 feet deep root systems, deep enough to find their own water. From a marketer’s perspective, old vines look like dollar signs, but that’s not why Sutton buys them.

“Just like antiques, cheese and people, just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good. But sometimes, things have stood the test of time because they are worth keeping around.”

Sutton’s wine is a case in point. Before it was cool, it was just good. And even when the zeitgeist moves on, Sutton will likely still be there, making wine he likes to drink. And we’ll be drinking it.

Sutton Cellars • 601 22nd St, San Francisco, CA 94107

Alcohol Alchemy: Old methods, unusual grapes yield wines like no others was published in the Fall 2015 issue. © 2015 Edible San Francisco. Photographs © 2015 Stacy Ventura.