The Sun’s Anna Pier visited Lance Cutler at his home and small winery in the Springs to talk about his newest Jake Lorenzo book, and his career in winemaking and wine writing.
How did you get into wine?
I was a schoolteacher. That got me into drinking. Drinking got me into wine.
Tell me more about your teaching.
I taught most grades, kindergarten through 12th, in minority neighborhoods in L.A. – Watts, East L.A.
You had a vocation to do this?
I grew up in L.A. and was living there. Those areas were the easiest places to get work. I started in the late ’60s. I would work, save money and then travel. In ’72 my wife and I tried to go all the way around the world with our three-year-old and $2,800. We traveled for almost a year and got as far as Kabul. She turned four there.
How did you end up in Sonoma?
In ’77 I got a job running a small private school here, on Spain Street. It was based on experiential learning. I needed to work in the summer too, so I got a job in the tasting room at Gundlach Bundschu. They asked me to stay on to work in the harvest. I had been making wine at home in L.A. I was earning $3.50/hour, but remember at the time a bottle of Cab was only $5.50. There were the two owners and I was the only full time employee. We were producing about 6000 cases a year. By ’81, I became the winemaker. I think it was because I was the only one who could make the old winemaking equipment work. In ’83, I was named Sonoma County Winemaker of the Year, for the ’81 Batto Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tell us more.
A few years later the wine business was slow, so I suggested to Jim Bundschu to use humor to sell wine. We did. We put fortunes on the corks, like, “You were cut out to be a gentleman, but the devil ran away with the pattern.” We did creative posters, 22 different ones, selling people on drinking wine. They were very popular.
Tell me about your hijinks with the Wine Train.
Herb Cain wrote us up in his column. A lot of Napa Valley vineyard owners were upset because an old law required them to maintain the RR tracks that ran through their vineyards, even though this train was now a private venture. We had velvet capes made, wore masks, and held-up the train.
And what about kidnapping Richard Branson?
To advertise his new nonstop flight from London to SF on Virgin Air, Branson invited lots of European food writers to fly, then go on a wine tasting tour in the Napa Valley. Near the end of the day, we descended in a helicopter and highjacked the tour, telling them “Your palates have been ruined in Napa.” We brought them to Gundlach Bundschu, gave them some cases of wine, and sent them back on their way home. Everything we were doing was so much fun, so unique, that it attracted people from all over the U.S.
You were part of the big mural project at Gundlach Bundschu.
I always wanted to honor the contribution of the Mexican workers, so I got some San Francisco muralists to create a huge mural on the wall at GB.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I never had a goal of writing books, I just always wanted to write. I had got an M.A. in Curriculum Development from Goddard College in Vermont, but my thesis was about writing. I told Practical Winery “your magazine is so boring; I’m a winemaker, I’ll write something fun for you.” Then Wine Business Monthly stole me away, and I have written for their magazine, under my pseudonym Jake Lorenzo, for almost 20 years. The columns have evolved. As things changed in the local wine scene, Jake Lorenzo was in the middle of it. Final Surveillance focuses on the fires. Back from the Dead is the post-pandemic book.
What’s the story behind the name?
The Mexican workers at Gundlach Bundschu always called me “Lorenzo.” “Lance” doesn’t work in Spanish. And “Jake” just seemed like the right name for the private eye character whose experiences in the local wine business are chronicled in the column. The editor of Wines and Vines wrote, “Jake Lorenzo is both the Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck of American wine writers.”
Talk more about your column.
My fictional character interlaces seamlessly with real people in the local wine industry. He’s funny, insightful, and writes with power, passion and a wild sense of humor. Any subject is fair game, and Jake pulls no punches. No other voice speaks more passionately or eloquently for the people who live and work in Wine Country. The columns have evolved. I believe that this series of books – the five “Surveillance” titles and Back from the Dead, taken as a whole – is the best recorded history of what’s happened to the California wine business these past 30 years.
The technical industry magazines didn’t understand that it is people making the wine. I have a unique vision of what happened in the wine business in Sonoma County. When I started at Gundlach Bundschu, there were seven wineries in the Valley; now there are about 83.
Still making wine?
I’m retired. But I can’t afford to buy the wine I want to drink, so I make it. I used to make about 120 cases, with partners; now I just make a couple of 30-gallon barrels. My home is legendary for hospitality. I love to cook, we have guests over two or three times a week.
A last thought – from you or Jake?
All too often these days winemaking has become corporate and technical. I want to remind everyone that it’s about the people doing the work. First, it’s the grapes, second, it’s the people.