A $5 million thank you: Alice Warnecke Sutro
Published by The Naked Narrators - 23rd Jul 2020
“I keep telling people they saved my business – and that’s thanks to nakedwines.com. There’s this wild opportunity right now to bypass the three-tier system,” Alice said.Alice Warnecke Sutro, winemaker, SUTRO Wine Co.
The hardships of being a winemaker are never the “winemaking”
– but all of the in-betweens
Up until today, Alice Warnecke Sutro admits every customer has been hard-won. There are so many tricky in-betweens of selling wine that surpass winemaking.
The quality of Alice’s family vineyards and their property shows off the beautiful love story that is the Sutro wine company – and it’s the reason Alice dedicated herself to winemaking in the first place.
It should be enough, you’d imagine – but the three-tier system has never made the wine business simple. It’s made it impossible and exacerbated in the time of COVID-19, when restaurants, bars and tasting room closures make even the most veteran wineries fearful for the future.
With the help of the $5 million COVID Relief Fund, the Angels of nakedwines.com removed the obstacles – to give these Alexander Valley wines the credit they’re due.
Meet SUTRO Wine Co
“We make Sutro wines absolutely for love of the land,” said Alice, who chose to brand the wine company with her married name. Her husband’s lineage is the Sutros of San Francisco, who are beacons of entrepreneurship in the Bay Area. Her maiden name, Warnecke, is her tie back to the land, art, Alexander Valley, and the industry she now calls her true calling and home.
The Warneckes own 240 acres of agricultural land along the Russian River in Alexander Valley – most famously, vineyards stretching up to the base of Chalk Hill. The property line reaches up to the Mayacamas foothills. It’s the range that separates Napa and Sonoma, and it’s been in the Warnecke family since 1911.
While the property was not always a vineyard, it’s been nurtured and handled by her family for over a century.
“My family business is growing grapes,” said Alice. “My grandpa planted the vineyards here in the 1970s. And this land has always been with me all the way down in my heart.”
Honoring a family heirloom
After the Warnecke family patriarch (Alice’s grandpa) passed away in 2010, Alice felt a pang which led her to switch careers and rediscover her roots in Healdsburg and the family agricultural business.
“My Aunt Margo Warnecke Merck took over managing the vineyard with our team,” said Alice. “And I knew that if the family business was to continue as family-operated, I had to learn the ropes for my generation.”
And so Alice made a personal commitment at that time to move back to Healdsburg, to “keep it family-owned and operated” and participate in the family business.
“I gained enough knowledge to learn that it is a very special place“
After a couple of years working the vineyard, Alice realized she needed to lean into winemaking. No one in Alice’s family had ever made their own wines from the land before – instead, opting to sell grapes – and she decided she’d be the first to do it, conducting what she lovingly refers to as a “grand experiment” to discover what the terroir tasted like.
Alice’s exploration into that terroir soon became her driving passion. “I gained enough knowledge to learn that it is a very special place,” she said.
Giving Chalk Hill the credit it’s due
With rolling topography, climatic intersections of fog, the dramatic dichotomy of coastal air, intense heat and a thick layer of volcanic ash soils, Alice saw — with fresh eyes — how incredible her family’s Alexander Valley land was as a growing site.
The best homage she could pay to her family was to commit to showcasing wines from those soils, made by the same hands they were farmed.
“I wanted creative independence, and I found it in my own small wine label. I knew I could help promote the reputation of the vineyard, and at the same time, showcase these wines to encourage other wineries to buy our fruit,” she said.
Alice released her first SUTRO vintage in 2012 as a self-taught winemaker, launching a Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. She soon received the attention of everyone from Jancis Robinson to Goop (Gwenyth Paltrow herself).
“I want to be small enough to showcase the land and great wines.”
As a self-taught winemaker, Alice enjoys and fully credits the success of her wines to the collaborative relationship she maintains with consulting winemakers to be her soundboard and consistent check for evolving the wine.
As of this last harvest, Warnecke Ranch & Vineyard produces 300 tons of grapes – 8 to 10 of those tons are contracted to Alice for SUTRO. “I’m definitely not the biggest client to my family,” she says, laughing. “But I don’t want to be big enough to have a winery. I want to be small enough to showcase the land and great wines.”
An opportunity for change – and independence – in a post-COVID world
But that small-lot production leaves her vulnerable to continued sales losses even after restaurants and wholesalers re-open their doors.
In 2020, Alice had 300 cases destined for the wholesale market – the restaurants or retailers that were and are still currently closed. “If they reopen, they’ll be buying less wine, and I’m going to be muscled out. There will be wineries able to swing better deals and margins than I’d be able to once things open again,” she admits with concern.
“I had just gotten to the place where all my wines were allocated, and now those markets are totally disrupted. I just have to keep working with that game, and brokerage and distribution, but it’s hard,” she adds.
And it’d be a shame for the world to miss SUTRO wine – especially for someone as dedicated to their unique identity as Alice – Alexander Valley’s ultimate chaperone – a true appellation ambassador working to harness the magic of every morsel of soil into the bottle.