Monday, March 7, 2016

Pick. Bottle. Enjoy: Meet Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars

Sharon and Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars at the winery in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, CA. 
It's the laugh that most people hear first.  That slightly maniacal, yet full of glee hoot that makes you wonder exactly what is going on in the warehouse space at the corner of 22nd and Illinois.  But don't let the trademark laugh of Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars fool you into thinking that he doesn't take winemaking seriously. Underneath that laid back demeanor is a great intensity which comes out in full force when asked about his wine.

Sutton Cellar's offerings include cider, a house red, rose and a digestif wine.  But their most popular offering might just be their Dry Vermouth which is the basis for the very refreshing Sutton & Soda -- vermouth with a splash of seltzer and a grapefruit twist.

His tasting room, which is located in the American Industrial Center (AIC) looks like a winery but it also feels like it might be your living room or at least one furnished in slightly shabby yet chic couches, chairs and tables.  And that is the vibe Sutton and his wife and business partner Sharon Sutton have worked hard to create.  There is a definite sense that you are welcome to hang out and drink wine as long as you want but if you want to learn about the wine you are drinking then just ask and an education will be had.

Sharon, who joined us at the end of our interview with Carl, is in charge of quality control at Sutton Cellars -- she makes certain anything with their name on it is a quality product.  The couple met in 2001 and married in 2004.  Her position as a senior design manager for Old Navy's international franchise operations has her traveling 2-3 weeks each month so her time at the winery is limited. Her business travel and her travels with Carl inspired many of the products they produce -- their trip to Italy inspired their vermouth product; the rose and their digestif were inspired by travels to France and their house red by a trip to Milan.

Carl Sutton puts the finishing touches on the Sutton & Soda made with Sutton Cellars' dry vermouth. 

Here is our interview with Carl:

Why do you do what you do?
Well, I generally answer that question by saying that I'm unemployable elsewhere.  But the truth is that I find winemaking very fulfilling -- I'm still discovering how you can take grapes and have something delicious come out of the winemaking process.  That's still a big accomplishment to me.

I grew up in a town in Monterey County -- outside of Salinas -- where the only culture is agriculture. San Francisco of course was the Big City and once I had a car, I spent all my time in SF.  I knew I wanted to live here someday.  My high school teachers inspired me to pursue my love of creating art and I spent more than three years at Sonoma State studying fine art and photography.  But it was when I interned at a winery during one summer that I knew I had to switch gears.  I loved the work.  I did everything at the winery -- vineyard work, winery work, tasting room.

I went back to school at Santa Rosa Junior College and earned a certificate after four years there in vineyard management and wine marketing.  I learned so much there -- their Schone Farm has more than 100 acres of experimental and commercial vineyards.  While I was in school I also received even more hands-on experience by working at various wineries including DeLoach Vineyards and Cline Cellars.

I became a pretty serious home winemaker and I like to say that it got a bit out-of-hand as it started to take all my time and resources.  So in 1996 I started Sutton Cellars.  By 1996 I felt that I knew the nuts and bolts of winemaking and I knew that if I kept working for other wineries I would never be able to make a wine that was totally my vision of what I thought it should be.

My vision, which was really unusual in 1996, was to make wines with very little intervention -- no yeast, unfiltered, no preservatives.  Basically:  Pick. Bottle. Enjoy.  Oh, and don't mess it up!  I wanted to make wine that tasted like the grapes.

And I felt it was important to sell direct to the customer so I could explain to them that they should treat wine like they treat milk.  They should enjoy it right away because it is alive and won't keep. But of course my intentions don't mean shit if customers don't like the wine. So my end goal is to have people enjoy the wine while I educate them.

Why Dogpatch?
I feel like Dogpatch chose me, I didn't choose it and I'm so glad it did!  I had been living in San Francisco since 2002 but commuting to Sonoma to make the wine.  About seven years ago I started talking to Dave McLean (Smokestack) and Scott Youkilis (Hogs and Rocks) about coming together to do a project in San Francisco that was a winery/BBQ/brewery all under one roof.  We wanted a destination place.  We looked in a lot of places including SOMA and Bayview.

Michael Recchiuti (Recchiuti Confections) and Erin Rooney (Serpentine Restaurant) --  who both have their businesses in the American Industrial Center in Dogpatch -- encouraged me to talk to Greg Markoulis, one of the owners of the AIC.   Greg suggested a smaller place for just my winery and as soon as I saw this space I knew this was it.  It was a beautiful space -- the light was streaming in from the windows and it had a huge roll up door.  I decided then and there that I would take this space for my winery until the plan with McLean and Youkilis came together.  That venture didn't end up happening although I do a lot of joint events now with Smokestack.

I finally opened in December 2010.  We really feel like we opened in Dogpatch before the neighborhood started to change.  I felt like if I got in to the neighborhood and hung on through all the changes good things would happen and they have.  It feels like everything is happening on the 22nd Street corridor.  Mark Dwight (Rickshaw Bagworks on 22nd Street) and I decided that we are the bookends of 22nd Street.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
I would most certainly be driving a forklift at Costco.  No, this is it for me! Sharon and I would like to see more of the world - not as an observer but as a participant -- to merge wine and travel together. One idea we have is to lease space from wineries in different countries and produce a local vermouth from their local wine and brandy.  I want to continue to take an agricultural product and turn it into an amazing beverage.  Really, it's no different than making ketchup.
The Menu Board at Sutton Cellars is headlined by their famous Dry Vermouth.