A tale of two winemakers:
Johannes Leitz of Rheingau, Germany and Jamie Kutch of Sonoma, California
By Jeannine Sano
People always want to know which types of wine are my favorites. My answer is generally, “I love everything.” If I had to choose, however, I would have to say Riesling from Germany and Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Wine drinkers who turn up their noses at Rieslings, dismissing them with the closed-minded declaration, “I don’t like sweet wines,” are missing out on some of the greatest treasures of the wine world. While I will admit that there are a lot of clunker Rieslings out there, the Rieslings from quality producers like Josef Leitz from Rheingau are haunting, ethereal and utterly addictive. I was fortunate enough to meet Johannes Leitz, the latest member of the Leitz family to run the estate of Josef Leitz, from Rheingau, Germany on one of his annual promotional trips to the United States two years ago and have been obsessed with his wines ever since.
But I am myself guilty of being closed-minded. I used to scoff at those who would claim that Pinot Noir from California could compete with its Old World counterpart from Burgundy, France. Having experienced mostly syrupy, extracted Pinot Noirs from New World producers, most of which resembled Syrah more than the lacy, silky elegance of Burgundian Pinot, my reaction when I received a sample bottle of Kutch Pinot from Sonoma could only be characterized as impatient skepticism. Had it come from anyone other than Kristen Green, a public relations manager with whom I had interacted previously and trusted, I probably would have cooked with it or given it away to anyone who wanted free alcohol, especially given my general experiences with wines that are sent to me as samples. I shudder when I think of what I might have missed.
When I opened that bottle of 2006 Kutch Pinot Noir, the diaphanous, translucent crimson liquid that hit the wine glass caused an unmistakable scent of twig, earth and bramble to waft out of the wine glass. I almost never find this kind of fragrance in Pinots made outside of that 200-mile strip of precious land between Paris and Lyon. In the same way that who is cooking is more important than the type of food being prepared, it reminded me that who is making a particular type of wine is more important than the type of varietal being used for the winemaker’s expression. (Of course, consequently I have ended up tasting a number of disappointing wine samples since then, but I am too afraid of potentially missing another hidden treasure.)
In talking with Johannes Leitz and Jamie Kutch, I found a great deal of similarities between these two very different men: the experienced Old World winemaker whose family has been in the wine business from essentially the same site in Rheingau since before the Declaration of Independence; and the young, denim-clad former NASDAQ trader who gave up life in the fast lane in Manhattan and convinced his girlfriend (now wife) to come out West with him to chase his dream of making beautiful wine. Both love music and sheepishly describe themselves as having been troublemakers in school. Both will easily spend a solid two to three minutes smelling wine before taking a sip. Both firmly disregard what is popular in favor of creating the kind of wine they personally enjoy.
During each of his annual visits to the United States, Leitz makes a point of making a pilgrimage to his favorite restaurant, The Slanted Door. Interestingly, Kutch was featured on the local television program, Check Please Bay Area, in which three local diners talk about their favorite restaurants, and Kutch’s pick was The Slanted Door. Both winemakers are passionate about wine and food and cannot envision doing anything else with their lives but making wine.
The Leitz family has been making wine since 1744. When Johannes Leitz took over the reigns of the family business in 1985, Weingut Josef Leitz consisted of about seven acres. Today, the winery has grown to almost 70 acres in the top sites of Rüdesheim, including Berg Roseneck and Berg Kaisersteinfels, recently expanded to Geisenheim. In 2007, the winery produced 30,000 cases of wine, 85 percent of which were exported around the world. Leitz describes his different vineyard sites as though they were people, describing one site as wise and serene, reminding him of the Star Wars character Yoda, and another vibrant vineyard as raucous and racy, like Pink.
Unlike Kutch, who walked away from everything he knew to chase his dream of becoming a winemaker, for Leitz it was manifest destiny that he take over the family winemaking business. His mother had been struggling to keep the estate going after his father passed away when Leitz was just an infant by growing and selling flowers, with relatives helping to make wine, most of which was bartered. Leitz jokes that he almost became a florist, but it cannot have been easy to have the fate of his family and generations of expectations on his shoulders as he was growing up. While his fellow classmates in school talked about leaving the area to become doctors, bankers, lawyers, Leitz knew he had no choice but to stay in the family business. He remembers hating the prospects. They had old tractors, old equipment, and farming and making wine was hard work with little glamour.
But fate clearly knew what it was doing. Today, Leitz cannot imagine doing anything else. Wine critic, Jancis Robinson, has described Johannes Leitz as “one of the absolute superstars, not just of the Rheingau, but of German wine in toto.” A life in wine has allowed him opportunities to travel and explore his other passion – food. During his last visit to California, Rajat Parr of Restaurant Michael Mina invited Leitz for a food and wine extravaganza, documented by digital photos of multiple empty bottles of La Tâche from the 1960s that Leitz had taken and proudly showed me as he exclaimed over the memories of the smell and taste of each wine. Not to be undone, I introduced him to the delights of the omakase sushi at Sushi Sam’s. Leitz snapped a photo of each plate, exclaiming that he had never tasted so many different kinds of fish. He says that if he had not gone into winemaking, he would have liked to become a chef. When he was young and his mother was working all day in the vineyard or in the flower shop, he often cooked for his family and still loves to cook when he has time.
As much as he loves wine, food and travel, his greatest love is clearly his family. Leitz proudly displays a photo of his 10-year-old son in a tree house built on the property, and a photo of his 13-year-old daughter with their 22-pound rabbit, Philip. He sometimes holds tastings with them, and already they can detect nuances and difference across vintages. Winemaking apparently flows in the veins of all of the Leitz family members. Despite his hectic travel schedule, Leitz spends as much time as he can with his children, remembering even now how it felt to grow up without a father.
When asked what he would do if he won the lottery, Leitz answered that he would do nothing different so firmly that I could not help but be a little jealous. He loves what he does, he loves the expression of terroir, and he cannot imagine letting down the people who work for him by deciding to do something different. Leitz wines are generally available at K&L Wines and Dee Vine Wines. Johannes Leitz: Theodor-Heuss-Strasse 5, 65385 Rüdesheim, +49-6722-48711, www.leitz-wein.de
In the midst of his fast-paced existence as a NASDAQ trader in Manhattan, Kutch had a secret second life. He spent every possible free minute that he could spare on wine chat boards discussing his primary passion, wine. Then in 2003, Kutch was laid off, and until he got his next job at an investment bank, he spent every waking minute on wine chat boards, attending wine tastings, and absorbing every bit of information he could find on wine and winemaking. Even after he returned to work, Kutch could never completely get his head out of obsessing about wine. His avatar was blinking grapes.
The life-changing moment for Kutch occurred when he first encountered Michael Browne of Kosta Browne Winery on the chat boards. Kutch told him that his dream was to become a winemaker; Browne responded that if Kutch came out to California and was willing to sacrifice a year or two of his life, he would make those dreams come true. Kutch convinced his then fiancee, now wife, Kristen Green, to quit her high-flying job at a major public relations firm in New York, pack up their East Coast existence, and come with him to California. When he announced his plans to his wine chat board buddies, he had 400 people asking to buy his wines before he even departed for his internship at Kosta Browne.
In 2005, Kutch turned 30 and bottled his very first vintage. Without an estate to grow grapes, Kutch has to buy his grapes from growers. He researches the geographical plots he is interested in by viewing climate charts, searching for cool vineyard sites in the clouds, reviewing Google Earth and spending his time on the phone, using his trader skills to convince growers to sell him their grapes instead of selling them all to Patz & Hall, Lynmar or Paul Hobbs. Apart from the hands-on learning he acquired with Browne, Kutch has never taken any formal winemaking classes, but continues to supplement his learning with online research to create the ephemeral, restrained style of Burgundian Pinot that he covets: “I’m making wines that I want to drink. My target audience is me.”
Kutch likes to harvest on the early side, when the grapes are no longer green, but before they start puckering. He intends to use more stem for structure and is compulsive about learning from winemakers he admires, like Josh Jensen of Calera. He prefers to use bare hands to punch down the cap of skins. He does not ferment in tank but in small bins covered with Mylar and he uses no enzymes.
When asked what he would do if he won the lottery, he answers instantly that he wants to buy his own vineyard to grow his own grapes, “and take Kristen for a vacation.” Looking at Kutch, brimming with enthusiasm, I could see what the young Johannes Leitz must have been like when he first started in the winemaking business. If his life were made into a movie, a young Adam Sandler would play the part of Kutch: good-natured, infectious smile, with a slightly goofy edge. Kutch has no investors, only his savings and a loan from his father. He has no employees and leases equipment. No matter what, Kutch wants to stay independent and jokes that since he and Kristen tied the knot, he had to “cut her in for 50 percent.”
I had no idea how lucky I was to get a taste of the 2006 Kutch Pinot Noir. Because of his limited production (approximately 1,000 cases), the best one can hope for to get a taste is to get on the contact list and keep your fingers crossed. He currently sells to 900 individual customers, with another 3,000 names on the waiting list.
Jamie Kutch: 1890 Clay Street #408 (at Franklin), 917-270-8180, www.kutchwines.com
Regardless of their divergent backgrounds and the different phases of their winemaking career, the things that Leitz and Kutch share are passion and perfectionism to pursue what they love – refined, graceful, stunning wines.