Full confession: I am a longtime fan of Emeritus and have written about them before. But I’ve never gotten to meet the owner, Brice Cutrer Jones, and my recent visit gave me the chance to do that as well as see their beautiful new tasting room.
Designed by his daughter, Mari (who holds the title President of Fun/Partner), it has huge glass walls on two sides overlooking vineyards, a wall sculpture crafted from barrel staves, and hangar-like feel due to the high ceiling and fans with blades resembling propellers, a nod to Brice’s fighter pilot past.
Outside are two large patios and the whole place is set up like a lounge, with comfy sofas and chairs arranged in conversational groups.
It’s an intimacy that suits the tastings, and Brice and I pick one for our chat. We start off tasting their Ruby Ruby rose, the name taken from a Dion and the Belmonts song. The lyrics are on the back of the bottle; Brice points them out to me before – quite credibly – belting them out.
The wine is crafted in the saignée method, which “bleeds” the juice from the grapes with minimal skin contact. Then, they beef it back up by adding a small percentage of pinot from their Hallberg Ranch vineyard. (Yep, they own it!)
The result is a much deeper color than your typical rose, with a rich and savory feeling and delightful strawberry flavors. Brice recommends drinking it with an ice cube or two in it. “It’s great (when you’re) coming off the tractor,” he says of its refreshing quality after time spent outdoors on a hot summer day.
Growing up, wine wasn’t in Brice’s career plan. He went into the Air Force, figuring he was in it for life. He spent a year as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, then was asked to be the aide de camp to a one-star General who was quite the wine buff. Here’s how Brice describes a conversation:
General: “Son, Burgundy is a place.”
Brice: “No, sir, it’s a Paul Masson wine.”
But he was a quick learner. By the time he returned stateside, Brice had amassed 40 cases of first growth Bordeaux – by taking military transport to London to attend Christie’s wine auctions. “A 1961 Lafite was $31 at the time,” Brice recalls, the time being 1968. (For perspective, that bottle is worth $1,741 today; getting your mitts on a bottle from 2015 is a mere $544.)
Coming home, though, also meant leaving the military for Boston and Harvard Business School. In his second year, he came up with the idea to put together a vineyard deal as a tax shelter, but couldn’t get anyone interested in this investment.
So he headed to San Francisco for a job he quit before he even started. “I was thirty years old and didn’t know what to do,” he says. Then he was introduced to a lawyer who was – wait for it – looking for a vineyard deal. (“You can’t make this up!” Brice laughs.)
There was a lot of back and forth, followed by a handshake “on the corner of 52nd and Lex” in New York City to seal the deal.
Brice headed back to California in search of bottom land – low-lying terrain that produces vines with higher yields, or more grapes per plant. This was key to making money, as grapes are sold by the ton. The plan was to plant red grapes, since Americans were drinking three times more red wine than white in those days.
Sadly, the only land available for purchase was rolling hills perfect for planting…chardonnay.
There was little choice but to buy the land and plant the white grape vines. But luck was on Brice’s side. By the time the vines had taken hold and production was geared up, the white wine trend was heating up and there was a very hot market for their fruit.
Before too long, it was evident that they needed to build a winery. And what was Brice’s contribution to making this happen? “You’ve got that wine collection…” someone noted and just like that, those 40 cases (less what Brice drank over the years) were sold to help establish Sonoma-Cutrer.
The company chugged along quite well. So naturally, ten years in, Brice’s partner suggested that it was time to sell and get everyone’s money back. What followed was a typical corporate story: Brice was hired to stay on, but only lasted for two of the five years of his contract.
At loose ends, another lucky break happened. Don Hallberg called, said they were selling their apple orchard and was Brice interested?
Okay, so it wasn’t pure coincidence. Brice had been pursuing the property for years. It’s located in what he calls “America’s Cote de Nuits,” an eight mile swath of land between Sebastopol and Forrestville that is home to many of Sonoma’s greatest pinot noir vineyards.
The site boasts the warm days and cool nights required for the grapes to develop their acidity. Cool breezes and fog help moderate the temperature, giving the fruit plenty of hang time to ripen fully. In addition, the land is dry farmed, which causes the roots to dig very deep for water. The result is wines with more complex flavors and character.
The vineyards and winery are managed by many of the same people who worked with Brice at Sonoma-Cutrer, thus the name Emeritus. But don’t think this team is resting on their laurels. The company just purchased a new vineyard – a former llama farm that was planted in 2008 and 2009 – called Pinot Hill.
We tasted the 2013 vintage and there were so many flavors and feelings, there is just a stream of adjectives in my notes: wild, earthy, savory, warm, tea, cola and violet.
The 2013 Hallberg Ranch pinot was also in the lineup. It was really fresh and young with bright fruit flavors. But it also had an earthy note, highlighted by dark fruit, a woodsy/bramble tone and savory cola quality.
Finally, we tasted the 2013 William Wesley, a vineyard site that Bryce purchased in the mid 1990s and sold in 2014. This wine is notable for its savory, round character with more red fruit flavors than the others. But be warned: because of the sale, there are only two more vintages of this wine that can be made.
Sadly, I had a plane to catch and it was time to wrap up our conversation. But before I left, Brice called me over to his new car, showing of the “Ruby Ruby” logo he had put onto the fender. The car’s color? Ruby, of course!
Emeritus can be found at select wine stores and restaurants throughout the country or through the winery’s web site.