Long Islanders living the dream.
Who hasn’t daydreamed of ditching the 9-to-5 life and starting over somewhere warmer, slower-paced, with one of those do-what-you-love jobs? Long Islanders Jamie Kutch and Kristen Green-Kutch made that fantasy their reality and we’re all reaping the benefits.
Yearly research trips to Burgundy, wine-pairing dinners, days spent perusing vineyards and stomping grapes. One look at Jamie Kutch and Kristen Green-Kutch’s calendar and you’d almost want to hate them. But it’s impossible, especially when you hear how the couple met: In 1997, both fresh out of college, sitting next to each other on the L.I.R.R. “I was putting on makeup, and he said, ‘you don’t need that,’” recalls Green-Kutch, who was commuting from Huntington (Kutch is from Northport). “It was such a line, but we wound up talking and exchanging business cards.” A few more in-transit meet-cutes later, the couple had their first date. They bonded over their shared love of food, travel and, of course, wine (Green-Kutch had waitressed at Tutto Pazzo in Huntington where she learned about pairing; Kutch held wine dinners in his dorm while attending Fordham University).
Eight years later, when Kutch said he wanted to leave his job in finance and move to California to learn how to make pinot noir, Green-Kutch didn’t flinch. “I knew people would think we were crazy, and we’d definitely miss our family and friends, but I believed in him and I was ready for a change,” she says. Though they both had successful careers in New York City (she was a book publicist), they decided to head west to the dusty vineyards of Sonoma—and the promise of a better life. But this wasn’t some whimsical bucket-list adventure or an early-onset midlife crisis. Kutch was all in, bringing with him an impressive knowledge of the grape, an almost compulsive passion for the winemaking process and an unrivaled East Coast work ethic. He scored an apprenticeship at Kosta Browne winery to learn the intricacies of the business then quickly branched out on his own. (The couple got engaged during the first harvest—Kutch sent a diamond ring down the sorting table where his beloved was elbow deep in grapes—and married at a vineyard the following summer.) In his first year, Kutch produced 150 cases of his eponymous wine. This year, his ninth vintage, 2,500 cases of Kutch will go to market. What sets Kutch’s wine apart from other California pinot noirs: the stems. Kutch utilizes the whole cluster, meaning grapes and stems go into the tanks to ferment. This is considered “old-world style” (similar to how they do it in Burgundy) and, says Kutch, gives the wine another flavor dimension. “There is a complexity, something extra there when you taste the wine that makes you think, ‘hmm, what is that?’” The critics love it (the newly released 2011 McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir received 95 points from Wine Advocate), and restaurants like Per Se and French Laundry feature it on their impressive wine lists. When Green-Kutch isn’t helping her husband with their business, she’s running her own lifestyle public relations firm representing chefs and winemakers from around the globe (yes, Kutch is a client). Their success is undeniable, but they have earned every moment of it.
Before leaving New York, Kutch had been a NASDAQ trader at Merrill Lynch, a job he said prepared him to run the business side of the label. His moneymaking model: “Other than two old Hondas and the winemaking equipment, we don’t own anything, so overhead stays low,” says Kutch. He sources the grapes from various Sonoma vineyards, rents space in a winemaking warehouse and contracts out the bottling. And, of course, Green-Kutch isn’t charging for her services. “We eat, sleep and breathe the wine,” she says. “I’m a bit of a control freak,” admits Kutch, but says he’s in good company: “The great winemakers of the world are type A perfectionists—there’s really not a lot of room for error.” For Kutch that means long days spent driving to the vineyards, sampling grapes and analyzing the juice (he does lab work to test the sugars and the pH levels). The idea is to get the right “pick date” so the fruit is ripe and ready but not overly so. Then there’s the clerical work and the industry dinners and traveling with his distributor to taste the latest vintages with sommeliers across the country (on his latest trip to New York City, every single restaurant he visited wanted to stock Kutch). Kutch credits his extreme attention to detail with his success. “I think you can actually taste the hard work and passion that went into each bottle,” says Kutch. And though he’d love to own his own vineyard someday—and he admits an employee or two wouldn’t be bad, Kutch doesn’t want to stray from his small-production model. “I don’t ever want to get away from an ability to manage and be involved in most of it,” he says. Despite the near-constant care Kutch gives his operation, the couple make it back to Long Island as often as they can. On a recent visit, they lunched at Prime in Huntington, where the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir has been sold for nearly three years. Paulo Villela, beverage director for the Bohlsen Restaurant Group, had the privilege of pouring the wine for his VIP guests. “It’s a fantastic wine, one we look forward to carrying for a long time,” says Villela. “And when you know the people who make it and they’re good people, the wine tastes even better.” As for Kutch, being back on the East Coast and having his wines poured to him doesn’t get old. “It’s euphoric,” he says, “I still get a total rush from it.” What keeps Kutch going vintage after vintage? Knowing how lucky he is to be doing what he loves for a living. “The reason I was successful when I moved out here is that I’d been in corporate America for years,” says Kutch, who was 30 when he started in the wine industry. “I’d been in a cubicle all day long and knew what it was like to work for someone else. I didn’t want to go back there.” That, and there is still so much to learn. “A winemaker is not a career you can peak at,” says Kutch. “All you can do is improve.” Lucky for us, he’s doing just that.