Things you don’t often hear winemakers say: ‘This is interventionist winemaking.’ Sam Coturri is sitting opposite me in his tasting room in downtown Sonoma. It’s a cool, pleasant room lined with the psychedelic artwork of Stanley Mouse, artist to the Grateful Dead. Behind me there are shelves of iridescent tie-dyed T-shirts. In front of us are bottles of the Á Deux Têtes, the Grenache Coturri made with the late Rhône consultant Philippe Cambie and Cambie’s protegée Isabel Gassier.
We’ve been talking about Á Deux Têtes 2019 Oakville Grenache, which I’m astonished to see is 15.5 per cent alcohol. How does he get that balance of freshness and opulence? It’s about attention to detail in the winery, he says: 20 to 30 per cent whole cluster – a long, cold soak – 45 days on the skins with gentle punchdowns. ‘This is interventionist winemaking. All the attention we pay to the vineyard demands that we do the same in the winery.’
The Coturri family is renowned in these parts. Sam’s father Phil manages around 600 acres across Napa and Sonoma. He was one of the original champions of organic farming, and was instrumental in setting up the Moon Mountain District appellation in 2013. Sam runs the family winery Sixteen 600, which makes small-batch, single-vineyard wines from vineyards farmed by Phil. His mother Arden Kremer and brother Max are involved, too.
Á Deux Têtes is three wines: a Napa Valley Grenache Rosé, an Oakville Ranch Grenache from Napa and a Rossi Ranch Grenache from Sonoma. These are delicious, expensive and accomplished wines, celebrating vagaries of vintage and region while carrying a hallmark of winemaking style through the range. In this case, lifted fruit, lovely salinity and freshness, and that unmistakable perfumed richness of texture.
Sam Coturri was born in San Francisco and raised in Sonoma on Moon Mountain, in the hillside cabin where his parents still live. He studied journalism, got into politics – at one stage in the early 2000s working as Rosalynn Carter’s press secretary. He did a stint as a stand-up comic as he loved the adrenalin – ‘There’s no better feeling in the world.’
The family’s known for its counterculture roots. Phil refers to himself as ‘an old dirt farmer’ or a ‘back-to-the-land hippy’. Sam, a comfortably-upholstered, handsomely-bearded presence, is seldom seen out of tie-dye. His desert-island luxury, he says below, would be ‘access to the 10,000 hours of live Grateful Dead recordings I haven’t listened to yet’.
This is interventionist winemaking. All the attention we pay to the vineyard demands that we do the same in the winery
But the hippy persona is a smokescreen: Sam Coturri is as practical as a mariner. On the concept of place, he says: ‘It starts in the vineyard, aligning the rootstock to the various soil types, the layout, the row direction, then the farming, high attention to detail, keeping crop levels low…’
He’s also as fixed in his time and place as the vines he manages: Á Deux Têtes was always a joint enterprise, first with Cambie and now with Gassier, but these are emphatically American wines. ‘If we take the knowledge and experience of Philippe and Isabel and we apply it to our reality, then we can create something that is singular to who and where we are. The sun shines differently in California – it’s impossible to pick grapes based on the chemistry of grapes in France.’
I wonder what his ambitions are. At the moment they make wine in three different wineries – they’ll apparently build their own if they win the lottery – with three winemakers (including Jeff Baker, an éminence grise of Sonoma). They sell everything they make, so there’s little point in exporting.
As one of California’s great exponents of the Rhône, does he hanker after Paso Robles, which has carved out an enviable reputation for its Rhône varieties? Sam Coturri confesses that yes, he’s a ‘little jealous’ of his friends down there, who aren’t in the shadow of other grape varieties, as they are in Napa and Sonoma. ‘I’d love to get Phil involved in a vineyard down there. Get him in the car. It’s about a five-hour drive, but you can do it in four, if you go hard, early in the morning.’ A fine road trip: father and son in the beaten-up Subaru, hair and beards blowing in the wind, the Grateful Dead on the stereo. The most serious merry pranksters in California.
What was your childhood ambition?
I’m a dreamer, so it’s hard to pick just one. As a little kid I told people I wanted to be a firefighter, and as a teenager I worked very hard towards being a journalist. But really, it has always been about performing and making people laugh, so comedy and/or acting of some sort.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
To lean in on the weirdness, not hide it behind polo shirts and khakis.
What exercise do you do?
Yoga, golf, cycling, skiing in the winter. I have spent the last 12 years working to build a non-profit community swimming pool in Sonoma which opened in late October. I can’t wait to get back in the water.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I might say procrastination, but it’s probably acquiescence and people-pleasing.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?
I’m not a big spender on things. I don’t have a fancy watch, and I spend too much on wine and dinner, so the real answer is probably my used Subaru. The biggest cheque I have ever written was for Moon Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
That’s tough. Sonoma is pretty great: close to mountains, ocean, cities, open space, good weather, great agriculture, great food, great wine. Maybe some idealised version of Sonoma, where all those things are slightly closer, and where there is no climate change and the persistent threat of natural disaster.
If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I’d be a stand-up comedian with a talk show. To talk and tell jokes for a living while a team of writers and producers do the heavy lifting? That’s the dream.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?
Access to the 10,000 hours of live Grateful Dead recordings I haven’t yet listened to. I guess that means the internet?
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Fame and fortune? A hole-in-one? Inner peace?
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
Stop burning fossil fuels.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?
[Basketball star] Stephen and [actress and celebrity cook] Ayesha Curry – wine, food and utter admiration. Also, Anthony Bourdain – I wanted to show him our little corner of Sonoma so badly. I think he would have enjoyed it immensely, along with [poet, essayist and environmental activist] Gary Snyder – the confluence of literature and environmentalism.
Then of course there’s Barrack and Michelle Obama: ‘When they go low, we go high’. And Chief of Police Bruno Courrèges, from Martin Walker’s Perigord-based mystery novels. He can do the cooking! I could go on with this one…
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I don’t find much guilt in my pleasures, but it’s probably electronic-based pop music, for example Beyonce’s new album Renaissance. It’s the best music to clean the kitchen to, that’s for sure.
What’s your secret talent?
I am way too full of myself to keep any talent a secret. I’m pretty good at juggling three balls though.
When were you happiest?
Looking back, it was the day my daughter was born, but that was way too insane and stressful to actually feel happiness in the moment. What really comes to mind is the long summer afternoons spent lifeguarding on the lake at my summer camp.
Who do you most admire?
[Legendary peace activist and counterculture hero] Wavy Gravy: ‘Put your good where it will do the most.’
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘It’s all good’
What’s your greatest regret?
That I didn’t travel more when I was younger when it would have been cheaper and simpler.
What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
I mean, ‘This day in Grateful Dead history’ is first on the docket. Despite having a podcast of my own, the only podcast I really listen to with any regularity is Broken Records with Rick Rubin and Malcom Gladwell. Then I’d probably turn on a violent TV show I can’t watch with my wife.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
Everyone who knows me expects me to say a tie-dye T-shirt, but lately it’s the hemp pocket tee from WhiteBark Work Wear. You can go from working in the winery to a wine dinner and still be appropriate.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
In Sonoma it’s Valley Bar and Bottle, in Brooklyn it’s Faro, and in LA it’s Carnitas El Momo.
What time do you go to bed?
I shoot for 11-11:30pm, but I usually put my book down… well, my iPad hits me in the face as I’m falling asleep, sometime after midnight.