Any California wine enthusiast, be they a self-proclaimed expert on Sonoma AVAs or a casual weeknight sipper, has likely tasted one of Sonoma-Cutrer’s award-winning Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs. Based in the heart of Sonoma, the Brown-Forman-owned winery was modeled after a Burgundian winery. They began with Chardonnay and after several years of success decided to add Pinot Noir to their catalogue. With that a plan to build a separate vineyard producing only red grapes was underway.
With a winemaking style rooted in Burgundian tradition, the winery has been producing exceptional wines focusing on these two varietals, since 1973. And fans of the region’s star grapes probably know their tastes: the lightly-oaked yet crisp Chardonnay, and the earthy and fruitfully-spiced Pinot Noir.
What many likely don’t know is the “who” behind these wines. Cara Morrison and Zidanelia Arcidiacono are the two winemakers specializing in these grapes and leading a team of female winemakers including director of viticulture Shannon Donnell, cellar master and production manager Mayra Hernandez; and lab manager Rula Theodory. (Mick Schroeter, winemaking director, is not involved in daily winemaking operations, according to a spokesperson.)
When it comes to winemaking, Morrison, a California native, and Arcidiacono, who was raised in Argentina’s famous wine-producing Mendoza, have a wealth of knowledge, a plethora of experience, and resumes full of scientific studies to draw from. With all this in common, it’s easy to see how these two women became the vineyard’s resident experts.
After earning her degree in fermentation science from the University of California at Davis, Morrison went on to work and study techniques across Europe. But it was her time in France — Burgundy, the Rhone, Bordeaux, Champagne, and the Loire Valley — and a love-at-first-sip feeling that sparked her interest in Sonoma-Cutrer, and in Chardonnay specifically.
Zidanelia (who goes by “Z”) grew up with an artistic inclination and deep reverence for Argentina’s winemaking industry. She began her professional career working in the lab at Bodega Cruz de Piedra while studying at the University of Mendoza. After earning her degree in winemaking there, she spent time traveling and working harvests in the south of France. But her desire to learn more diverse techniques led her to California, where she interviewed with Morrison at Sonoma-Cutrer to become the enologist for the year’s harvest.
Over the years, the dynamic between the two women grew from mentorship to friendship. Today they lead the winery’s team — Morrison the Chardonnay winemaker and Arcidiacono the Pinot Noir winemaker — with as much balance and finesse as the wines they make.
Here, the two women sit down for a chat with VinePair, sharing insights on women in the wine industry, and how together they’re paving the way crafting exceptional wines.
1. Sonoma-Cutrer is praised for crafting wines that implement both Burgundian traditions and Californian innovation. Can you talk a little about how that process goes when it comes to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?
ZA: To me, what I had to learn from Sonoma-Cutrer and their Burgundian roots was that you have to be respectful of the fruit. We’re not trying to change the terroir or style of the fruit. We’re working with what we have, and really making the grapes express themselves at their best. What we do is very traditional. With the process of winemaking, in respect to the Pinot Noir, we don’t try to over-extract or manipulate the fruit.
CM: That [process is] something that we’ve been developing since the beginning. The Sonoma-Cutrer winery was actually built and based on a Burgundian winery, and the grapes were planted in a Burgundian style. But we add all the California innovation. The weather here is perfect — just like it is in Burgundy — and we try new things like different barrels and processes. With Chardonnay you can choose the right barrels, pick it at the right time, and really mold it to what you want it to be.
2. What was it like growing up in a major wine region? Did you always want to work in winemaking and how did your surroundings influence your decisions?
ZA: I was born in Texas but raised in Argentina, where wine is the main industry and the harvest season is heavily celebrated. Wine was prominent at every table, but I didn’t realize it could be a career until later in life. Being a lover of art and science, specifically biology and chemistry, I knew I wanted to feel passionate about what I did. During school I worked at my father’s restaurant and was surrounded by vineyards. So, I decided to just go with it. I fell in love with winemaking because it gave me the ability to express aromas, and [an] art that was supported by science.
CM: I grew up in California, about two hours from Napa and Sonoma. I got pretty lucky because I went to the University of California at Davis for college which was one of the few schools that had a winemaking program. I knew I wanted to be a science major but I didn’t know what kind. I was intrigued after attending the intro to winemaking course and I never looked back! [Laughs.] Talking about the art, and the science — I fell in love with the whole industry, and I don’t think that would have happened had I been in another state.
3. What winemakers did you look up to?
ZA: I never had any barriers in my mind about following this career. In the beginning, I was so optimistic and didn’t think it was going to be a challenge to be included in the industry. But I learned very fast. [Laughs.] At most of the wineries, the winemakers were all men. I found mentors in them, but for me, Cara was the first woman winemaker I had the opportunity to work with and that was great.
CM: It was great! Z was the first person we hired for that enologist position, so we have a nice history! My journey was very similar; I also didn’t realize it was a male-dominated industry. Fortunately, at my first job, there was a woman enologist there who became my mentor. During our first harvest, she said, “we might have to carry smaller buckets and take more trips up the stairs, but we can do it!” I also had many male mentors along the way who were very supportive.
4. The world of women winemakers is growing! What advice do you have for women wanting to enter this world?
ZM: One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to not believe that you’re not capable of doing it. With all of the technology and resources that we have, being a woman is not a disadvantage. I’ve noticed more women in the industry and I think that has helped the younger generations believe that they can do it too.
CM: You just have to do it! There’s a lot more women in the winemaking world now and it’s not as uncommon as before. The best advice I can give is to find [winemaking] programs, and to go into the vineyards. Get your feet wet and just go for it!
5. What outlets do you recommend for women aspiring to become winemakers?
ZA: First thing to do is to learn about the wine industry, so you can see where in this world you want to fit in. Then, look for internships — there are many opportunities to travel to wine regions to learn about the process and further their experience. Know that you’re going to start from the bottom but that you’ll also love it.
CM: Having a science background is pretty key to the path of winemaking, and working the harvest, like Z says. Many of us worked in the northern and southern hemispheres as interns and were able to gain a lot of harvesting experience really quickly. It also helps to build up your resume.
6. What is your favorite part of your work?
ZA: Harvest is a crazy time. There’s a lot of adrenaline and buildup of emotions: Never knowing what to expect, but always hoping for the best. Often, we come to the beginning of harvest always feeling like we’re not prepared, regardless of how many vintages we have worked. Every harvest is different; that’s why it’s important to have the science knowledge to know how to react [to challenges?].
CM: During the fall when the grapes are ripe and we’re making picking decisions and bringing them in. It’s when you’re actually making the wine and is your one chance to make a great one. There’s so much energy at the winery and the work environment is intense but fun. There are no days off because the grapes are always fermenting, but harvest time is such a rush and the most fun time of year!
7. What is the importance or benefit of focusing on one type of grape?
ZA: I think the decision to add Pinot Noir was very thoughtful, because the idea was not to go for the most popular grape but to go with what will grow best in this area. We become experts in the varietals that we work with. So, yes, it’s what we focus on, but it’s also what we love. Our challenge is how we look at different expressions of the same varietal but always try to see what that one can do at its best. Even down to our team, they are experts on these two grapes.
CM: What’s great about Sonoma-Cutrer is that they wanted that focus. At the beginning it was only Chardonnay and I think that focus is a big benefit because you can really think just about that grape. We built this winery just for Chardonnay so we can make the highest quality for that varietal here. I think its a huge benefit to the quality and how we at Sonoma-Cutrer have been able to maintain that consistent style.
8. What led you to working with your respective grapes?
ZA: When I came to Sonoma-Cutrer I worked with Cara on Chardonnay, but was always very intrigued by Pinot Noir. Then I got the opportunity to work with Dennis Martin and I fell in love with Pinot because it’s very complicated. I enjoy that it’s different from other varietals. It’s very sensitive, and I love that sometimes it can taste wonderful and other times it can be a disaster. It’s an interesting ride working with Pinot Noir and you really have to be in touch with the site and the grapes that you work with.
CM: I tried some Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay back in 1999. I remember tasting it and thinking, “wow, that is the wine I want to make.” At that time there were a lot of Chardonnays on the market, but when I tried the Sonoma-Cutrer style it was fruit-friendly, [it had] nice, crisp acidity, and had just the right amount of oak to give it nice mouthfeel and texture, so that it has the right aromas without being over the top. And that was really important to me.
9. What do you love about California wine?
ZA: I love the quality of the wine, but what I truly love is the sense of community you can find here. I find it to be very honest. I love seeing people come to Sonoma County, and to our beautiful backyard where people enjoy our wines. So, I love California wine, but more than that I love the people in this area where we grow vines and make wine.
CM: California is just so international in the wine industry and our team is very diverse, with makers from different parts of the world. It’s open to innovation and very experimental, so we have the ability to try many different things here. And the weather here is perfect for wine. It’s a great area to work and the wines are a lot of fun.