The new California: dinner with Kutch and Sandhi

On Monday night I had dinner with two very interesting Californian producers: Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines, and Jamie Kutch of Kutch wines. It was hosted by Roberson Wine (www.robersonwine.com) who import these wines into the UK, at the impressive Bar Boulud.

This are the new faces of California: wines of natural balance and complexity.

Rajat Parr (above) began Sandhi back in 2010 as a collaborative effort between himself, Charles Banks (who used to own Screaming Eagle, and now has a couple of South African wineries, Fable and Mulderbosch), and winemaker Sashi Moorman. He sources grapes from top vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. Sandhi is sanskrit for ‘alliance/collaboration’, reflecting how much is owed to the growers for the quality of the wine.

Raj’s approach is to add as little as possible – for example, he doesn’t like sulfur dioxide during elevage, just at bottling – but he doesn’t call his wines ‘natural’, even though they are. For his Pinot Noirs he uses a high proportion of stems.

Jamie Kutch (above) caught the wine bug while working as a NASDAQ trader for Merrill Lynch in New York, and this led him to change careers before he’d broken 30. Through internet discussion boards, he chatted to Michael Browne of renowned Sonoma Pinot Noir producer Kosta Browne, who invited him to take an internship in 2005.

So Jamie and his partner swapped New York for San Francisco, and he began living a double life. During the day, Jamie worked as a trader in San Francisco, and then after work and weekends he immersed himself in vineyard and winery work. The day job lasted six months. When his internship came to an end, Jamie started his own project making Pinot Noir.

Jamie’s first wines were monsters, with the inaugural vintage weighing in at 16.3% alcohol, and the second at 15.2. Since 2007, though, he’s never made a wine over 14%, and this is without adding any water, a common practice in California.

Suckling pig: works with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir!

I’ll write up all the wines in full later. For now, some impressions.

For Sandhi, the Chardonnays are the main story. They show thrilling acidity and minerality of the sort rarely encountered in Californian Chardonnay. We tried three: the 2011 Santa Barbara Chardonnay, the 2010 Sandford & Benedict Chardonnay and the 2010 Bentrock Chardonnay. All were superb, with my slight preference being for the second, with its finesse, richness and acidic tension all in perfect harmony. The Pinot Noirs (2010 Sandford & Benedict and 2010 Evening Land Tempest) both shared a lovely smooth, sweetly fruited, textured, mineral personality. They’re seductive and ripe without being over-the-top, the stem component adding lovely framing to the sweet fruit.

Kutch is just about Pinot Noir and the five we tried were all superb. Frustratingly, perhaps, for Jamie, he knows that subsequent releases will be even better, but we will have to wait for these. Kutch is a producer where you can happily buy blind. He doesn’t make bad wine. The Pinots all share a lovely tension between the sweeter, riper cherry fruit notes and the more savoury structural characters. Of the five, three had the slight edge for me: the 2010 McDougall Ranch, with 50% whole cluster, the 2010 Savoy Vineyard, with its silky, elegant black fruits and the 2009 Falstaff, with great purity and length coupled with fresh structure. By California standards, pricing is pretty sane, too – these are all around £30 in the UK.

All wines are available from Roberson.

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