A DAY IN THE LIFE OF PHIL COTURRI
Sonoma Valley’s Organic Wine Wizard looks forward and back. with pride.
Despite the darkness and the cold, the harvest is a festive occasion — there’s laughter, music playing on an outdoor speaker and, overall, a sense of joy. It’s also an historic event worth celebrating. At Dos Limones, Coturri planted his first organic vineyard.
That vineyard, which was once owned by Myron and Deborah Freiberg, devotees of grapes grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers — like all Coturri-managed vineyards – is known for two lemon trees and an orchard of citrus.
Over the past four decades, Phil Coturri has planted and managed dozens of organic vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties, and, while he is a legendary figure in the world of viticulture, he’s largely underappreciated by local wine lovers and unknown to tourists, though he has friends around the world and close to home with whom he shares a taste for good wine, good food, and the poetry of Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
His farming friends, including Bob Cannard at Green String Farm, and Bill Hawley at Random Ridge Winery, have played big roles in county agricultural life, but they, too, are mostly invisible figures in the Valley, a sign that rural Sonoma has diminished as tourism has grown.
“People don’t really know who I am and what I do,” Coturri says as he stands at the edge of the vineyard, wearing a full beard, jeans, boots, and a sweatshirt. If he has invited Valley of the Moon magazine into his world, it’s because he feels it’s time to let the public see who he is and what he does before he’s engulfed in myth and legend. A day without Phil Coturri during grape harvest and crush is unimaginable. You might as well have a day without a crew of Mexicans.
Now 67, with two sons (Sam and Max) who have their feet in the family business, and with a granddaughter, Althea, who is named after one of his grandmothers, Phil gazes back at the past with a sense of pride and looks ahead with confidence. Climate change has arrived in Sonoma Valley, as elsewhere, along with gentrification and worries in viticultural circles that California faces an oversupply of fruit and a drop in price per ton.
Still, Phil is confidant that grapes and wine aren’t going away in Sonoma and Napa, and that his own winery, Sixteen 600, along with the family business, Enterprise Vineyards, are well situated for the road ahead. Knowing how to grow great grapes and at the same time make great wine, puts him in an enviable position.
Meanwhile, this morning, there’s a field of zinfandel to pick and transport to the “wine ghetto,” as Phil calls Sonoma’s Eighth Street East string of production facilities, where winemaker, Alejandro Zimman will work his magic. “Mucho atención,” Phil tells the crew, that includes his older son, Sam, along with his right-hand man, Juan Oliveros, plus decades-long veterans such as Jesse Apgar, Miguel Santoyo, and Arcadio Santoyo Barajas, who divides his time between Sonoma and Michoacán, where he grows guavas that he exports for sale to the U.S.
During this morning’s harvest, speed counts, but it’s not the most important thing. Sam Coturri explains, “This is highly skilled labor. Precision and skill count greatly.” The men and one woman, 26-year-old Lauren Dunn, are paid by the hour not by the weight of the grapes they pick, so the pressure isn’t to bring in an exceptionally large crop.
The oldest crew member is 69, the youngest is 22. Jesse Apgar, who grew up in Sonoma, began working for Phil when he was 23. He’s now 41, knows what he’s doing and, in many ways he and the whole crew are family. Phil is father, brother, and uncle, as well as banker and therapist, who dispenses advice and money. But make no mistake about it, he’s also the boss. “I’m the benevolent dictator,” he tells me. “I make the decisions.” No one protests and no one resists, though one of Phil’s sweatshirts bears that very word, “Resist.”
All the fruit harvested on Sobre Vista will be turned into wine for Sixteen 600, so he’s especially concerned about quality, not quantity. Shortly before harvest, he walked the vineyard and conferred with Sam and Miguel Santoyo, though the decision on what precise day and time to pick was entirely his.
Forty to 50 percent of the crop hits the ground before the harvest. The hot sun has turned some grapes to raisins, and some of them were hit by botrytis. They fell by the wayside.
By 8:30 a.m., the harvest isn’t over at Dos Limones, but Phil has appointments to keep on the Mt. Veeder-side of Napa where he manages two vineyards – Mayacamas and Newton/Mt. Veeder – that share a parent company with Louis Vuitton, famous for leather goods, shoes, watches, and wine.
It’s about a 45-minute drive from Sobre Vista, via Napa Road and 121, into the mountain range that divides Sonoma from Napa on paved and unpaved roads. At the higher elevation, it’s a whole other world rarely seen by Valley folk.
Phil’s truck serves as his mobile office. For much of the ride, which runs through vineyards on the Valley floor and then through vineyards in the Mayacamas, he’s on the phone to his New Jersey-born and raised wife of 37 years, Arden, who he met, not surprisingly, at a winery. Later, he got to know her during a grape harvest when he was running the crew and she was a hippie field worker. From his truck, Phil also talks to Sam, whom he has left in charge at Dos Limones, and son Max, who is putting in a new vineyard on Nun’s Canyon Road and that, given county rules, is taking forever to complete.
Phil also talks to the indispensible Ditty Vella, who runs the office on First Street West, and to his older brother, Tony, who grows grapes on Enterprise Road along Sonoma Mountain above Glen Ellen. Tony makes “natural” wine, meaning head-trained grapes without the use of sulphur, which Phil adds only at bottling, not in the field.
Tony, Phil, and their father, Harry, who was called “Red” because of his bright red hair, planted a vineyard together on Sonoma Mountain in 1963 with help from a legendary viticulturalist named Joe Miami. After Red passed, Tony and Phil worked side by side, until they learned they had philosophical differences about grapes and wine and parted ways. Still, Phil sings the praises of Tony as a viticultural pathfinder. “My brother has a real following,” he says. “He’s doing important work.”
The drive from Sobre Vista into the Mayacamas awakens Phil’s memories . “I grew up in a wine culture,” he says. “On weekends there was always wine on the table, and from the time I was a small boy, I was given a glass of water that had a little wine mixed in.”
In addition to “Red” Coturri and Red’s wife and Phil’s mother, Fermene — who taught school and encouraged her sons to read — Phil remembers “Red’s” Italian-born father, Enrico, who made wine in his basement, and Enrico’s Swiss-born wife, Agatha, known as “Mimi,” who came to California as an indentured servant and worked for a family in Asti until she paid off the debt she owed for her journey.
Phil explains, “After Mimi died, we went through her things and found a newspaper clipping in a purse that told the story of her paternity suit — the first of its kind in California — against the man who got her pregnant and then didn’t want to support her and their child. For years afterward, we received tons of grapes from Asti. Mimi is my angel.”
Phil also remembers his mother’s father, Richard Kopke, who was born in San Francisco and was the first president of the Cooper’s Urnion, plus Richard’s Italian-born wife, Valle. Richard hired and then fired Enrico Coturri following a dustup. Years later, two of their children married and raised a family of their own.
“Sonoma in the 1960s, when I was growing up, was a perfect storm,” Phil says. “There were Italians, Germans, and Jews who grew grapes. There were organic farmers, such as Keith McDaniel, and there was the health food store run by Rose and Henry, who was a concentration camp survivor. There were also winemakers and bootleggers who survived Prohibition and then were ruined by the Depression of the 1930s.”
Many of Phil’s roots show. Famed rock artist, Stanley Mouse, created the wine label for Sixteen 600.
Thirty or so minutes after leaving Sobre Vista, Phil leaves the Valley, climbs into the hills and continues his tale of Sonoma in the 1960s: “There were Zen Buddhists, along with the spiritual followers of George Gurdgieff, and there was Otto Teller’s place where hippies hung out. We all helped to pave the way for the gentrification of the Valley.” He puts his foot on the brakes and looks down at the Valley below. “Is it good or is it bad, what has happened here?” he asks and answers his own question, “It just is.”
Now, he’s out of cellphone range on Mt. Veeder’s grape- growing frontier, where he meets Mayacamas Olds, the head of viticulture for Newton/Mt. Veeder, along with a romantic Frenchman named Jean Baptiste and a Chilean named Rodrigo Layette. They speak different languages, but they agree that, “great wines are made in the vineyard.” Baptiste reminds them that grapes are dry-farmed in France, while the Chilean points out that all grapes in Chile have to be irrigated because the country sits on the Atacana Desert, one of the driest places on the planet.
With Olds, Baptiste and Layette at his side, Phil strolls through the vineyards, some of them terraced, and tastes the fruit every few feet. Parts of the conversation are technical. Parts are poetic, as when Phil says, “I like grapes with a view, wines with a vision.”
Here, for the first time all day, he seems intoxicated, though he hasn’t had a drop of wine to drink or any marijuana to smoke. Coturri famously grows his own organic marijuana, and smokes it, too, but he doesn’t sell it, and he’s not interested in hitching his wagon to weed. He already has too much going on.
Perhaps the high he feels is the altitude itself, the sense of standing on the edge of the world and sharing ideas with a global fraternity of kindred souls. In any case, Phil says, “I create uniformity out of chaos, an impossible task.”
The tasks that he faces at Newton/ Mt. Veeder, where he is the vineyard manager, are immense, though there are piles of money, along with great expectations, from Louis Vuitton, as well as exacting demands from customers who think they know what they want.
Mayacamas Olds is familiar with the challenges. “At the end of the day, we have to make wine that people will buy,” she says. “They want cabernet with richness and body, and that means letting the cab sit on the skins.”
Phil estimates that 150 tons of cabernet sauvignon will be harvested from this stunning vineyard, that each ton will sell for $15,000, and that every bottle will fetch around $200. Phil also thinks it will take millions of dollars to whip the vineyard into shape. “Everything that could have been done wrong here was done wrong,” one of the quartet says.
The soil is depleted, the pruning has been atrocious and the whole irrigation system needs to be overhauled. But these are the kinds of challenges that Phil enjoys. “I love developing vineyards and repairing damaged landscapes,” he says.
He also finds his working relationship with Mayacamas Olds invigorating. “She challenges me in good ways,” he says. “Without being confrontational.” And Olds says she looks up to him. “He’s one of my mentors. I’ve learned a lot from him,” she says.
They’re both graduates of what they call “the Joe Miami School of Viticulture” which insisted on respect for the land itself. Olds is a welcome addition to Phil’s extended family, and he thinks that women like her, who have joined the industry, have added the essential elements of “softness and intuitiveness.”
On foot and by ATV, the team moves on to Mayacamas Vineyard, which was founded in 1886, and where chardonnay grapes have just been planted. Fire roared through here in 1996 and again in 2017. Blackened redwoods are a reminder of the most recent conflagration, and mites are now a problem. “I can’t nuke them,” Phil says. That wouldn’t be ecologically sound. There are also issues with raccoons and coyotes who eat through the irrigation lines and deprive the fruit of essential irrigation.
Driving back to Sonoma seems to take less time than it took to get from Sonoma to the top of Mt. Veeder. At the wine ghetto on Eighth Street East, the grapes that were picked six hours earlier on Sobre Vista are already being crushed. Winemaker Alejandro Zimman, who was born in Argentina, raised in Spain, and who is now a Californian, explains that the wine for Phil’s Sixteen 600 label will be aged for four years, first in barrels and then in bottles. It will be blended and go through two stages of fermentation.
“What’s special about Phil is that he has grape-growing expertise and winemaking savvy,” Zimman says. “He has a very good nose and a very good palate.” Zimman is too modest to praise his own very good nose and palate.
At 2 p.m., Phil sits in the winery office on First Street West where he and the crew figure out where and when to harvest over the next five days, one of which will be his birthday.
What will he do the day he turns 67? “I’ll be picking grapes,” he says. “This time of year there’s no way to take a day off.” Then he asks, “A day in the vineyards without Phil Coturri? That’s just not possible.”
Jonah Raskin has been writing about Phil Coturri for a decade.