• The San Juan Daily Star

In deepest Mendocino, rebuilding a life in wine

Wells Guthrie and his wife, Kate, tend the vines at DuPuis Wines in Boonville, Calif., in August 2021. Guthrie made fine wine, but financial challenges diverted his attention — now he’s got a new label and a second chance, without distractions.

By Eric Asimov

This little town in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County seems isolated enough. It’s a 40-minute drive west of the nearest major highway, mostly on the winding, two-lane Route 128, and it’s barely on the grid. But Wells Guthrie was looking for something even more secluded.

Not that Guthrie, who had won acclaim at Copain Wines for his delicate, nuanced pinot noirs and savory, saline syrahs, is a hermit or misanthropic. He’s friendly and genial. But his recent experiences in the wine business, he said, had been unpleasant and had left him somewhat shellshocked.

So, when it came time for him in 2018 to start his new label, DuPuis Wines, he not only came to Boonville — he has been exploring the terroirs of the Anderson Valley for years — but found a place on a hillside, 4 miles up from the town on a narrow, twisting road, with a turn onto an even more serpentine dirt road leading to an unmarked driveway.

This is where Guthrie, 51, is putting down new roots, starting fresh in a business that, even for the most prepared and determined small producer, can offer numerous pitfalls and obstacles.

He and his wife, Kate, and their blended family of five children now live in an old red barn here, right over the winery and within view of their estate vineyard, 7 acres on a 40-acre hillside parcel with an olive grove and a redwood forest.

“To be here day to day is like a dream,” he said when I visited him in July. “To be intimately engaged at every moment, it’s rewarding and gratifying. I realize how little engaged I was before, even though I thought I was.”

The vineyard, which he is farming organically, is small enough that he, his wife and a single employee, Cesar Maldonado, whom Guthrie called his right arm, can handle all the work.

“My wife drives the tractor, and I did all the pruning,” he said. “At least it’s all mine. I get to touch every vine, and I’m not beholden to anybody else, even if I have to fix the toilets or an irrigation pump.”

These small chores and pleasures are important to Guthrie, given the upheaval that has governed his years in the wine business, turmoil unnoticeable to consumers who have simply been enjoying his wines.

By the time he founded Copain in 1999 with a partner, he had already been around. His first jobs were in France, working for Michel Chapoutier in the Northern Rhône Valley. That was followed by formative years in Burgundy at Domaine Dujac and Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier, two Côte de Nuits superstars that were to prove profoundly influential to Guthrie, both stylistically and in how they approached their craft.

Both are family domains, run by people dedicated to farming and making wine, humble even as their wines became among the most coveted in the world.

There, Guthrie also earned the nickname Puis, meaning, he said, “well” or “wells” in French slang, hence the new venture, DuPuis Wines, or “of Wells.”

Back in California, he was reintroduced to the American wine business, working stints at Turley Wine Cellars and Martinelli before founding Copain. His first pinot noirs at Copain were squarely in the California stylistic mainstream of the period, rich, plush and alcoholic, and they did well critically.

The problem was, Guthrie himself did not enjoy his wines. They lacked the transparency he had come to prize in Burgundy, and the grapes were so ripe at fermentation that he had to add tartaric acid to balance them and water to reduce the alcohol content, both compromises that went against his ethos of minimalist winemaking.

In 2006, Guthrie took the rare step in the wine business of changing his methods and style, even though his wines were popular with consumers. He reoriented his approach, aiming for freshness and delicacy rather than power and impact. In so doing, he joined a vanguard of California producers who were making the case for balanced, expressive wines that belonged at the table.

“It got to the point where I didn’t want the wine to be fatter than the food,” he told me in 2009. “Wine should make you think of what you want to eat.”

Even with the unexpected turn, Copain’s business seemed successful. Copain had been building a handsome winery outside Healdsburg, California, and had planted a vineyard there, though after Guthrie changed course he decided the vineyard was in too warm a spot for the restrained wines he wanted to make. He sold the fruit rather than use it himself.

He and his partner, Kevin McQuown, a software developer, also opened a custom-crush facility not far away in Santa Rosa, where clients could use the equipment and space to make their own wines.

The future appeared bright, but for Copain the 2008 financial meltdown and subsequent recession was a catastrophe. The winery was already 40% over budget, and, after the meltdown, the market for his wines suddenly dried up.

“When the bubble burst, it was like the perfect storm,” said Guthrie, adding that in “markets like New York City, where we sold the wine, nobody was buying, restaurants were closing. We got overextended and it became untenable.”

Copain hung on — the wines were excellent, but it was a struggle for Guthrie. Finally, in 2016, he sold Copain to Jackson Family Wines, a multinational wine powerhouse. Under the terms of the sale, he would work for Jackson for two years running Copain.

Corporate life was a frustrating, unhappy experience for Guthrie. For a man who values independence, he was now answering to bosses who were both trying to increase production and limit spending. At the conclusion of his contract in 2018, Guthrie left.

“I had some dark days after I sold the brand,” he said. “Where’s the happy ending?”

It wouldn’t take long to find one. As he tells it, the Boonville estate, with its vineyard planted in 2002 and barn that could be converted into a winery, practically fell into his lap. For Guthrie, who over time had become drawn more and more to the Anderson Valley, it was perfect. He and his family moved in and, on the fly, made the first vintage in 2018.

Instead of the 15,000 to 18,000 cases he was making annually at Copain, Guthrie will make 1,500 to 1,600 of the 2020 vintage, most of which is still in barrels, and up to 3,000 in the future.

It hasn’t been simple. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived just as he was going to build his winery. Unable to hire workers, he largely did it himself, filling the 800-square-foot space with used equipment, including tanks and an old forklift he bought on eBay.

Nonetheless, he says, it’s been entirely satisfying.

“Living above the winery, I’m intimately engaged at every moment,” he said. “A redwood barn among the redwoods — it’s very California, nothing fancy, but it’s pretty idyllic.”