Sonoma County region
Exceptional winemaker brings unique style to Cutler Cellars wines.
Some people think of Lance Cutler as a rebellious rascal, others recognize him as a talented writer and daring entrepreneur, but without exception everyone agrees Lance Cutler is a winemaker of exceptional talent. Today, we are fortunate enough to provide you with a sample of his winemaking prowess bottled under his own limited edition Cutler Cellars label.
The birth of the Cutler Cellars label grew out of nearly 15 years of winemaking experience. Lance Cutler began his wine odyssey in 1978 working as a "cellar rat" at the historic Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, California. Joining with wine scion Jim Bundschu, who was reviving his family's 140-year-old winery, Lance quickly worked his way into the role of winemaker.
"I rapidly rose in the ranks because I was the only employee," quips Cutler. In those days Lance was in charge of producing 7,000 cases a year, working 70 to 80 hours a week, all by using third-hand equipment. By the time Lance left Gundlach Bundschu in 1994 the winery was producing 50,000 cases and had more than thirty employees. Along the way, Lance Cutler and Jim Bundschu earned a reputation as the wine industry's renegade, non-conformists. They were “wine-outlaws” who crafted wine that appealed to their own palates and not just because a certain variety happened to be popular or commercially profitable at the time. They celebrated farm hands and cellar workers as the true heroes of fine wine. They did things their own way and often set wine traditionalist on their ear.
It was their desire to bring attention to Sonoma county (and away from that other famous county) that prompted some of Lance's and Jim’s most memorable and outrageous antics. Some of his headline making stunts included dawning masks and raiding the Napa Valley Wine Train. Once aboard they admonished startled tourists to throw out their Napa wine and drink better wines from Sonoma Valley, while pouring their own wine as they paraded down the aisle. In another famous adventure, Lance and Jim "hijacked" two busloads of European travel writers, who made the mistake of visiting Napa Valley instead of Sonoma County. They were brought to Sonoma and convinced to drink Sonoma wines. Cutler also conceived the idea of printing clever fortune-cookie-type messages on corks and created zany and humorous posters to promote the winery.
Despite his lighthearted, non-traditional approach to winemaking Lance had a penchant for making serious wine. In 1983 he was named Winemaker of the Year at the Sonoma County Harvest Festival and in the years that followed, produced a string of award winning wines for Gundlach Bundschu and then his own Cutler Cellar label which he began producing in 1985.
His first vintage of Cutler Cellars wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon made from Batto Ranch grapes in Sonoma. The concept was to produce just a couple of varietals that he enjoyed to drink and sell the wines in only a few select markets around the country that he regarded as “wine friendly”. Referring to wine wholesalers and distributors he commented, “There are areas of the country that seem to appreciate more than others the artistic efforts and creativity of wine producers.” He didn’t want to play the traditional game of what have you done for me lately, in order to sell his wines. He sold to who he wanted and where he wanted. “I knew that I couldn’t approach the traditional marketplace in the way I was doing it and expect to grow much” he confesses. “So I was resigned to make just a small amount each year.” Each year Lance produces about 1,500 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and about 600 cases of a blend he calls Satyre, consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
While Lance enjoyed making wine under his own label, much of his energy remained focused on crafting Gundlach Bundschu wines and promoting the winemaking industry of the Sonoma Valley. But in 1991, after 10 years as winemaker, Lance opted to begin phasing out of the everyday winery routine. During three years of transition from 1991 to 1994 he acted as General Manager while he trained another winemaker and other support people in preparation for his eventual departure.
“There has never been a better working relationship in the wine industry than my years with Jim Bundschu,” Lance flatly states. “It was the best possible situation that anyone could hope for,” he affirms.
Lance Cutler - one crazy winemaker
The story of Lance Cutler started a long way from the picturesque vineyards and wineries of Sonoma County. Lance was born and raised in the urban environment of Los Angeles, California. His father was a school teacher and for awhile it seemed as if Lance would follow in his footsteps. He received his bachelors degree from Cal State Northridge, and went on to Pepperdine University in Malibu for his teaching credential. With a particular interest in literature, Lance began teaching high school English in East Los Angeles. While he enjoyed teaching, in 1977 he got caught up in the romance of the back-to-the-land movement. The lure of rural living brought Lance, his wife Sandy and their seven-year-old daughter-Dawn, up to Sonoma County. "We were really living the hippie dream of living off the fat of the land. We raised a garden with everything from asparagus to zucchinis.
We had pens of rabbits and quail, and a big outdoor oven for baking bread," says Cutler.
For a year after his arrival in Sonoma county, Cutler maintained his ties with education, taking a job as headmaster for a private school. Then his passion for wine brought him to the cellars of Gundlach Bundschu. ‘I kind of fell into the job,” Lance says. ‘I needed a summer job and answered an ad in the local paper,” recalling how he met Jim Bundschu. It was a perfect match.
To Cutler, winemaking in Sonoma County was a metaphor for the work of an artist, a creative act borne of a free spirit. That free spirit has shown itself not only in his wine but also in his series of entertaining but brutally honest portrayals of the wine industry which he wrote for wine-industry magazine Practical Winery. Several years ago he compiled the best of these articles, and under the pen name of Jake Lorenzo published the collection in a book called ‘Cold Surveillance”. Another hugely successful project he completed was a winemaking video and workbook called, "Making Wine at Home the Professional Way", an entertaining and insightful approach to basic home winemaking skills. This original video production has received rave reviews from wine enthusiasts across the country and can be purchased at a special wine club discount (see page 3). He is now in the finishing stages of yet another book called, ‘Tequilla: A Taster’s Guide to Mexico.”
With so much on his plate one might wonder if there is still time for wine making’ The answer, is ‘of course”—the wine making passion never really dies, it just ages for awhile! So although the Cutler Cellars label is on hiatus, Lance still makes a small amount of wine under his label Guerrilla Vino. ‘It’s just for me and my friends,” Lance smiles.