After you get through reading about the success stories in the wine business, about the Gallos and the Mondavis, and after stories of the wealthy who spent their millions to create monuments that rival the Parthenon, there is the story of the Cutters.
It is not a story that will make you want to give up your comfort zone in La La Land, but it is a tale that many people will identify with, and the story has a happy middle (there is no ending, yet), which is why it’s a good one to tell at this time of year.
Andy and Debra Cutter own a winery called Duxoup Wine Works. Duxoup is low-key. Make that no-key.
You will not find Duxoup advertised. You will not find any signs tacked to wine shop shelves underneath a bottle of Duxoup wine. You may not even find a bottle of Duxoup without trying very hard.
The winery is not listed in guide books, nor is it even listed in the Sonoma County phone book. The Cutters prefer their privacy, up on the side of a mountain northeast of here.
Inside the Cutter home, there is no television. There is a stereo and a lot of classical records. And 13 cats.
Not a drop of white wine is made here. Nor is any Cabernet Sauvignon made here, or anything else that a traditional wine collector would prize. But the traditional wine collector would be missing out.
Andy and Debra make red wine. Specifically, Gamay. They call it Napa Gamay because technically that’s what it is. It has no relationship whatever to the Gamay Beaujolais of either France or California, and certainly not the way the Cutters fashion it.
Andy and Debra also make Charbono and red Zinfandel. And that’s it, 2,000 cases of red wine. The wines are great. Prices are extremely fair.
“I was managing a series of family companies back in Minnesota, and a corporation bought them out, so I had to go look for another job,” said Andy the other day. At the time, in 1973, wine sounded interesting.
“I had been studying French cooking in Minneapolis with Verna Meyers, and Verna told me to go out (to California) and see (wine author) Leon Adams, to see if there was a way I could learn wine making.
“Well, Leon told me I could go work in Germany and be treated worse than a slave, or I could go to France and be treated worse than in Germany, or I could stay in California and get a job as a cellar worker.”
By chance, Cutter met Chuck Carpy, a partner in Freemark Abbey Winery. Andy, who stands 6-foot-2, then weighed about 280. He was dwarfed by Carpy.
Carpy needed someone to hold the door shut on Chardonnay tanks. It required someone big; Carpy had been doing the job. Andy was hired.
“I guess that was why he hired me,” said Andy, who since has slimmed down to less than 200 pounds. “I was big enough.”
Working at Freemark Abbey, Cutter came to know one of the greatest wine makers in California history, Brad Webb, a partner in the winery. He also got to work with Freemark Abbey wine makers Jerry Luper and Larry Langbehn, brilliant talents in their own right.
Debra, meanwhile, was a single mother raising four children and working at Franciscan Vineyards as production wine maker under Tom Ferrell.
Andy left Freemark Abbey after 2 1/2 years and joined Dave Stare at Dry Creek. While there he met Debra. They were married in 1978.
The Cutters also worked as managers at Field Stone winery, and their association with consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, probably the state’s greatest wine maker, helped Andy’s depth of wine-making knowledge.
The Cutters quit their jobs in 1978 to build a home on a slope at the northern part of the Dry Creek Valley. Their design was unique: the house would be hung on posts set deep into the earth.
“It was a great design, but it was complicated to build,” said Debra. The house-building project led to the naming of the winery, which is pronounced just like the Marx Brothers movie, “Duck Soup.”
As the building project proceeded, and as complications arose, someone would ask Andy, “How’s the house coming?” Andy would answer, “Easy as duck soup.”
Later, Duck Soup was selected as the name of the winery and, swears Andy, it was spelled Duxoup because at the time, vanity license plates in California had only six letters and he wanted the name of the winery on his license.
Everything at Duxoup is that way, a little hard to buy. There are, for instance, 104 barrels in which wine is aged. Most wineries number the barrels, for record-keeping purposes. Andy and Debra named their barrels after people. One is called Pavarotti (they love opera), one is Uncle Dave (for Dave Stare), another is Halley’s Comet and others, naturally, are Harpo and Groucho.
“Step over here,” said Andy as I toured the place. “And watch your step.” I looked down and saw that the bricks on which I was walking were not cemented together, just stacked one on top of another.
This is because Andy wants a winery with ultimate flexibility, and since he has no employees he doesn’t have to conform to any Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
I noted he had no grape crusher.
“You don’t need to crush grapes if you don’t pump,” he said.
He pulled the tarpaulin off an open-topped wooden tank of fermenting Napa Gamay. The aroma was heady, intensely fruity and filled with scents that, alas, will be gone by the time the wine is bottled.
Andy extracts color from the grape skins by pushing down the solid layer of grape pulp with a stainless steel, 10-tined gizmo designed for him by a friend, Tom Beard. I asked if the gadget had a name.
Andy shrugged and then accepted the suggestion that since it had 10 tines and looked like a trident, perhaps it was a deca-dent.
Duxoup’s wines are not for the meek. They are bold, rich wines with a level of tannin that goes well with hearty, cold-weather dishes like hunter’s stew or wild duck.
The 1987 Napa Gamay (just released, $7.50) is a magnificent wine from a great vintage that will be truly enjoyable within a decade. Perhaps. It is as inky dark as any wine you can imagine, but has amazingly deep fruit and spice.
I first had a wine made like this one day a few years ago after I tasted a range of Zinfandels with the late Joe Swan. Swan, a quiet retired airline pilot, rhetorically asked if I had paid my dues.
Then he brought out a bottle of a 1970 Swan Gamay. It was dense and wonderful.
“That wine came from the same grapes,” said Andy, crediting Mike Teldeschi and his sons, Gary and Ray, with growing the grapes that make the wine so exciting.
I tasted all the Duxoup Napa Gamays going back to the first, 1981. The oldest wine, poured from a magnum, was just beginning to show its finesse, but my note sheet uses the word brawny in describing this wine. All the other vintages were more youthful, still with lots of time left to develop nuances.
Another great wine is the 1987 Duxoup Charbono ($10), made from grapes off old vines in Calistoga that are farmed by Jean Frediani and her son, Jim. The opaque wine appears to have the stuffing to age at least a decade.
The only traditional grape variety the Cutters turn into wine is Zinfandel, and it too is made from Teldeschi grapes, which are just across the road from Duxoup. I love the coarse, rich, peppery quality of this wine, which sells for $8.50.
I asked Cutter if he was a hermit: his place is so hard to find, unmarked, and his number isn’t even listed in the phone book.
“No, we like visitors,” he replied, “as long as we don’t have to reinvent the wheel for them.”
And to illustrate the point, literally, he showed me the removable doors to the back of the winery that are signed in various colors of ink by dozens of visitors over the years.
Just a handful of retail stores carry Duxoup wines, such as Fireside in Santa Monica. They’re also available at the cafe Bouzy Rouge in Newport Beach. Those interested in trying the wines may buy by mail from Duxoup, 9611 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, Calif. 95448.
Visitors are welcome, as noted, as long as they don’t ask for white Zinfandel. And as you can imagine, duck artifacts pervade the now-completed and stunningly creative home, just up the hill from the winery.
The final word on this place may be seen on the cork that the Cutters use to seal their wine. It says Facilis Par Duxoup.
“I don’t know Latin, but it’s supposed to say, ‘Easy as Duxoup,’ ” said Andy.
Wine of the Week: 1988 Hess Select Chardonnay ($8.75)--Donald Hess, the Swiss entrepreneur who has owned Mount Veeder vineyard land for a decade, is the owner of the most exciting new winery in the Napa Valley, the Hess Collection, which formally opened this summer. His Chardonnays and Cabernets are prized, and this new wine, a lower-priced alternative to high-priced Chardonnays, is a stunning value. The fruit aroma is combined with complex notes normally found only in much more pricey wines, and the depth in the finish is remarkable. I haven’t seen a wine this good in the under-$9 price range in a while. The wines is a blend of grapes, some from the Napa Valley, some from Hess’ vineyards in Monterey county. To paraphrase Yakov Smirnov, what a wine.