with wine has been on the rise since I moved to San Francisco in 2003, but it really peaked when I dated two winemakers this past year. I witnessed a fall harvest, learned to appreciate grapes with a bad rap, and discovered that winemakers are an eccentric bunch – all of which made me want to learn more about my favorite beverage and those who make it.
The restaurant folks I asked about urban winemakers all mentioned Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars. Few people are crazy enough to seek out space in a pricey city fit for grape-crushing, barrel-storing, bottling, labeling, and shipping. Carl’s charisma goes beyond his adventurous spirit, though.
Carl possesses the rare gentlemanly charm – and plenty of luck – that often accompanies entrepreneurial success. At least that was my impression the day we met up at his San Francisco winery.
I arrived at Sutton Cellars on a Friday at noon. As I rounded the corner of the building, I saw two men laughing – Carl was the one with the old-timey mustache. He reminded me of a jolly train conductor.
The second thing I noticed was Carl's T-shirt, which read: “Sutton Cellars. Put some in your mouth.” Edgy. I liked it.
I then got the tour of his shop. The Dogpatch space perfectly fits the needs of a 3,000 case per year wine producer, yet is situated amongst cool eateries and artist studios.
Sutton Cellars is 15 years old this year, though it has called San Francisco home since May. Carl said he moved to the city because everything is here: “the restaurants, the people I know, the people who drink my wine." Really, it makes sense, because Carl can develop the personal relationships here that out of towners can’t.
For years, Carl has been producing a single-grape, unfiltered Carignane and Syrah, in addition to various blends. He’s also brought dry vermouth back. Vermouth? Yes, for sipping. It’s hip again in California thanks to Carl. His is the first artisanal vermouth to be released in this state in a decade.
After two years of tinkering, he arrived at the perfect 17-botanical-infused wine that lasts a month in the fridge, mixes with everything, and is the talk of the town. Carl poured me a taste; it was delicious.
Vermouth is stronger than other wines because it is fortified with brandy (17% alcohol content), is herbal (good for you, right?), and is seductive because it’s different. You’ll also never guess what’s in it (rosemary, orange peel, and chamomile is all Carl will admit to). The rest is magic.
And speaking of the supernatural, I'm beginning to think that good winemakers could be described as such. Carl designed the Sutton Cellars label himself, and he manually fills, corks, and labels vermouth the day it needs to be delivered. He macerates roots, herbs, barks, seeds, and flowers in mason jars. He knows how to do dude stuff, too, like fix the pumps and valves on the newer keg equipment. And he's inspired cult San Francisco establishments to commission custom blends: Carl is currently working on an exclusive vermouth for Maverick and has a custom Syrah/Carignane blend available at Magnolia Pub & Brewery.
After a quick wine-packaging session, this particular Friday's agenda involved deliveries. We set off in a Volkswagen station wagon at 2 p.m. with a sixer of vermouth, a five-gallon keg of Pinot Noir, and a five-gallon keg of Magnolia Blend (more on kegs in a minute).
Our first stop was SR24 in Oakland. Carl breezed through the restaurant, dropping the Pinot in the kitchen and the vermouth in the back room. We were out of there in less than two minutes and back on the road. Next stop: San Rafael.
Carl explained that normally he would have dashed over to Rockridge to check on another client, but he knew their supply didn't need replenishing. He makes personal visits as often as he checks email. They are part of his routine, and surely part of the reason why people keep his wine in stock.
Carl then checked his phone for messages. Jeff Hollinger, copartner of Comstock Saloon (my favorite new happy hour spot) had called. Jeff was inquiring if Sutton Cellars would be interested in donating vermouth for SF Cocktail Week, which was a no-brainer for Carl. For publicity, he often donates wine and volunteers to pour at events.
The other message was from a winemaker who wanted advice about the logistics of kegging wine. Draft wine is the next big thing. Think about it: It's cheaper and greener – no bottling, labeling, or cardboard casing – plus it takes up less space and the stainless steel kegs can be reused. Often this means cheaper wine for customers, and better yet, select small-batch wines from lesser-known winemakers are available by the glass – so you don't have to gamble on an unfamiliar bottle.
After running a personal errand in San Rafael, we headed back to the city and found rock star parking at Out the Door, Bush Street (OTDB). Finally, after talking about wine all day, I was going to drink some – plus get a look at this wine-on-tap operation.
We sat at the bar and chatted with OTDB’s manager Johnny Reinert, who graciously let us taste a few unique wines on tap – a 2009 LIOCO Carignane Rosé, a 2009 N2 Wines Sauvignon Blanc/Viognier/Gewurztraminer, and something red and delicious (I was getting a little buzzed at this point).
Johnny described OTDB as the Cadillac of the SF wine keg movement; the restaurant has a whopping 12 wines on tap. Other pioneers include Salt House with three, Frances with two, and Magnolia Pub & Brewery with one (Carl’s blend).
Before we left, Carl grabbed an empty keg of his 2007 Cuvee La Bouche Syrah from the back. In storage he saw kegs with shiny, engraved logos. This kind of branding is evidence that draft wine is more than just an industry experiment. I appreciated Carl's DIY signature: His kegs have hot-pink tape around the top.
We thanked Johnny and set off toward Magnolia Pub & Brewery to drop off a full keg. After getting another rock star parking spot, Carl pushed a buzzer to the right of the restaurant entrance and – I kid you not – a guy walked by, pointed toward Magnolia Pub & Brewery, and said to his lady friend, “Sutton Cellars has an amazing..." He then left our earshot, but we knew where he was going. What serendipity. Carl swore the guy wasn't a paid actor.
We continued through the back door, dropped the keg in the basement, said hello to manager Scott Mason, and promptly walked upstairs to order a pint. While sipping Oysterhead Stout and devouring goat cheese stuffed dates cuddled by bacon (aka heaven), Carl told me about the chili cook-off party he throws each June. Chefs from some of the best restaurants in the city (Nopa, Maverick, Alembic) take the day off to make chili – this year at Golden Gate Park. Industry folks and friends get together to drink wine, eat all the chili they can manage, and vote. He pointed to a giant prize can of Stagg Chili with Beef suspended in a ceiling corner; Magnolia Pub & Brewery chef Matt Kerley was the 2010 winner.
Aside from being a trendsetter and an early adopter, Carl is an organizer. He is an energetic participant in the city's evolving food and beverage scene. He has loads of community event ideas swimming in his head: film screenings, parties with food trucks and jug-o-wine takeaways, and a kinetic soapbox derby on the railroad tracks behind his space (the perfect activity for him and his mustache to officiate!).
My day in the life of Carl Sutton ended pleasantly at 5:30 p.m. I was full of delicious beverages, snacks, and new wine wisdom. I also learned why Carl has been successful thus far: He is both old school (chivalrous and dedicated) and new wave (savvy and innovative).
This minute, as I sip a glass of 2007 Sutton Cellars Rattlesnake Roséfrom Cask, it makes me very happy to know that this wine is being made in the city where I live. I could, in theory, run into Carl and his wife having dinner at a restaurant in my neighborhood – or even better, I could drop by a winery without having to drive over an hour to get there.
How to put some in your mouth:
Sutton Cellars is currently private, but the winery may have a tasting room in the future. In the meantime:
Go to Out the Door, Bush Street and sip a glass of the 2007 Cuvee La Bouche Syrah and order the pork buns.
Belly up to the bar at Magnolia Pub& Brewery and order the 2007 Magnolia Blend Syrah/Carignane, and the devils on horseback – you won’t regret it.
Grab a bottle of 2007 Rattlesnake Rosé, 85% Syrah, 10% Carignane, 5% Tempranillo from Cask and BYO to your favorite spicy food joint.
Ask for the Sutton Cellars Vermouth with a splash of soda water at Nopa, or pick up a bottle at K&L and make this cocktail for your next party:
2.5 oz. Gin No. 209
.5 oz. Sutton Cellars Vermouth
2 dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters
Stir and garnish with a lemon twist or olives