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I met Wells Guthrie for the first time not in New York or California, but in Burgundy, a place for which we share a great affinity. I had been invited along to taste at a domaine in Marsannay and afterward as my friend drove back she asked if I would mind making a stop in Nuits Saint Georges to see a visiting American winemaker and drop him off a couple of bottles. It was not my car, so really I had no choice, but I didn't say that.
A few minutes later we turned through the gate of the Clos de la Maréchale, Mugnier's 1er Cru Monopole, and drove up the pathway to a rather stately looking building with a columned classical façade that I had always assumed was a fancy shed. It turned out to be a gîte (a holiday cottage) and Wells was actually living there for two months while he did a pruning apprenticeship with Frederic Mugnier. We all talked for a few minutes. He was warm but quiet and struck me as quite serious and studious, focused on the task he had come for.
I knew Wells only by reputation at the time, having tasted the wines he made at Copain on occasion at trade events in New York, and some older bottles obtained at auction. The recent vintages of Pinot and Chardonnay that he made from a variety of North Coast vineyard sites were often delicious. They walked a fine line between the ripe lush fruit that California wine drinkers prize, and the mineral-driven edginess that excites Burgundy lovers. The Syrahs he made were focused and spicy. They were simultaneously tasty and exciting. When I returned from France I made a point of seeking them out and Copain remained a regular presence on my wine lists until he left the winery a few years ago.
Wells's departure from Copain was well-documented at the time and was recently recounted in Eric Asimov's excellent recent New York Times article, which you may find here. I won't re-tread it again but rather focus on Well's new project, DuPuis. Purchased in 2018, the winery and Guthrie family home are for the first time in the same place, in Boonville, Mendocino County. It's just inland from the coast, maybe 20 miles, due west of Point Arena. DuPuis sits on seven acres of vineyard, small enough that Wells and his single employee can do all the farming themselves.
I had the chance to speak with him a couple of weeks ago and we talked about the shift that had occurred since his departure from Copain. He emphasized again and again the sense of relief that has come with being literally immersed where he works and the level of detail that it allows him throughout the growing season. When I asked him for an example, he pointed out that he and his employee have been able to break the vineyard down into several smaller blocks that reach maturity several weeks apart. As a result, they have been able to harvest in smaller stints while achieving much more uniform ripeness. By contrast, at Copain pick dates were settled on through fruit samples, analyses and a couple of visits late in the season but without the precision that is developed by being able to walk the rows every day.
On his own property he is farming organically and sourcing additional fruit from growers around the Anderson Valley whom he has known for years through Copain. During our conversation, he emphasized how much he loves the area and the fruit it produces. When I asked him about climate change and the temperature spikes that they endured this summer, he pointed out that even with these extremes the potential alcohol levels were still at least a point or a point and half lower than in the southern reaches of Sonoma where he was previously based. He has dispensed with new oak almost entirely and the resulting wines feel beautifully transparent, with a beam of acidity that runs through the whole range.
The lineup today is a great opportunity to explore Anderson Valley, from the round and salty Ferrington Chardonnay, to the supple charms of Le Benedict (the "villages" wine) and the more focused and mineral Pinots from Abel and Wendling vineyards, all through the prism of a winemaker just catching his second wind.
**THIS IS A PRE-ARRIVAL OFFER. WINES ARRIVE WEEK OF 11/8/2021**
The piece of the Ferrington Vineyard that supplies DuPuis was planted in 1998, over clay and sandy loam with rich alluvial deposits of rocks and granite. This is archetypal Anderson Valley Chardonnay, with bright Meyer lemon, green apple and apricot notes wrapped around a firm spine of acidity. The mineral core here is quite exposed and saline and there is a touch of fennel in the finish. Wells has always been very open about his love for classic Chablis and this feels more than a bit Chablisien in its respect for the material, unencumbered by new oak. Very nice and should age well for several years. Sam Ehrlich
Le Benedict is Wells's tribute to his late friend and former NYC distributor, Ned Benedict. Ned was a great lover of Burgundy and of great wine in general. I think he would approve of this wine, which is classic Anderson Valley and quite lovely. The aromatic profile is dark red cherry fruit, with little touches of sassafras and menthol. This follows through on the palate with more dark cherry, ripe strawberry and a touch of star anise and allspice. The mouthfeel is round and giving, with very good concentration and acidity giving length on the finish. Very good. Sam Ehrlich
The Abel vineyard is just a hop/skip from the DuPuis home vineyard, with sandy soils over fractured shale. This feels much more buttoned up than Le Benedict, with ripe red strawberry and cherry fruit over damp soil and cedar rather. The acidity is much more pronounced, even a bit pointy upon opening, but as it sits open it really opens up into something quite silky and texturally compelling. The apparent absence of wood influence here really allows this to sing and reveal details that might otherwise be obscured. Sam Ehrlich
Wendling is a terrific site, one that Wells used to work with at Copain, and this is an excellent example of its potential. The vines here are comparatively young, planted in 2009, in sandstone and shale. The wine itself was the quietest and most reticent of the three upon opening, showing dark cherry and raspberry, along with some herbaceous notes, perhaps from the percentage of whole bunch used during fermentation (roughly a third). What is most striking is the sense of energy here—there is a freshness in this wine that gives you a little jolt and makes you sit up and pay attention. Like the Abel, this improved mightily with air, bring out fruit and tension at once along with a spiciness in the finish. Sam Ehrlich