Pour & Present: Wells Guthrie of Copain Wine Cellars at Per Se


Tomorrow evening Per Se kicks off its An American Table at Per Se dinner series with special guest Wells Guthrie of Sonoma County's Copain Wine Cellars. The series will allow guests to experience limited production American wines alongside a seven-course tasting menu, "specially crafted to highlight the old world nuances and flavors reflected in the wines." In addition, each guest winemaker will lead a discussion around their techniques, influences and personal winemaking style.

We spoke with Guthrie recently to learn about Copain, his background and his past experience working with the team at The French Laundry and Per Se.

How long has Copain been around?

1999 was our first vintage. We did a whopping 300 cases.

How much are you producing now?

For our vineyard designated wines, we do about 4,000 cases. That's split over six different Pinots, a few Syrahs, so about 10 wines. We have an appellation wine called Tous Ensemble, which means "all together." The appellation wines that we make are more readily accessible.

How did you get into winemaking?

I started working at Wine Spectator. I worked there for two years as their tasting coordinator in San Francisco. I set up all of the tastings for the domestic wines. I got to taste all of the wine, which was cool. Getting to taste 3,000 to 4,000 wines a year gets your palette honed for what you do and don't like.

After that I met a guy named Eric Jordan who's a winemaker at Turley. He had done a stage for Jean-Luc Colombo in Cornas and through him I fell in love in love with Northern Rhone Syrah. I wrote a bunch of letters and got a job working for Chapoutier. I worked a couple of vintages there and came back to California and worked at Turley and then ended up working for Helen Turley with her brands Marcassin and Martinelli. That's where I met my business partner.

How would you describe your winemaking style?

Our winemaking is more ingrained in European sensibilities. People make comparisons between winemakers and chefs and I get some of that, but we only get one shot a year. We produce wines that are under 14% alcohol but aren't just light for the sake of being light and I think are more in line with what you would find palate weight-wise with what you'd find in Burgundy. I think that's why our wines have been doing well in New York and San Francisco and a lot of the sommeliers tend to like the wines because of that sensibility. That's what got us involved with The French Laundry.

Have you done anything with Per Se or The French Laundry before?

We've made some wines for The French Laundry, Per Se and for Bouchon under the Copain label. Paul Roberts, who recently just left was the head buyer for all of the restaurants. We became friends and he liked the wines so we did several different things. He was able to negotiate for me to come into the kitchen at The French Laundry and work there for a couple of weeks. It was good experience. It was good to meet Corey Lee and Thomas Keller. I did more commis stuff in the morning and got to observe on the line at night.

That's how the relationship started. Since 2002 we've always done a bottling for them. We did on '07 Syrah and a Pinot. One of those Syrahs will be at the dinner. It's great exposure for us. No one knows who Copain is unless you're a wine geek or read Robert Parker. So it's a good forum. It's hard to imagine a better one.

How long has the dinner at Per Se been in the works?

A month and a half now. I was approached by James Hayes, who took over for Paul Roberts and they came out and we put together a couple of bottlings for them. Then the American Table series came up and they asked me if I wanted to become involved. It's an amazing opportunity.

How much input did you have?

Their menu is obviously very seasonal so they're serving ramps and fiddlehead ferns and morels and fava beans. It's a no-brainer for some of the wines. We went back and forth and talked about ideas and things that I think work with the wines.

Where do you like to eat out when you're in New York?

You guys are spoiled in New York. I tend to do a lot of hopping around. I've been hooked on Degustation lately. I think it's brilliant that you can get a five-course meal for $50 in Manhattan. The chef, Wesley, I think he's brilliant. I think that place is great. I like Ssam Bar. I met David Chang a few years back at this Food&Wine thing we did at the Glass House. He's become a good friend. I like going there. Good food. Dell'Anima too.

Are your wines available at retail in New York City?

We don't do a lot of retail. Chelsea Wine Vault and Chambers Street Wines are two places that have some. New Jersey has big retailers that get it from time to time.

How are restaurant sales holding up?

With the restaurant market being what it is, it's put a lot of pressure on wineries. The price points of our wines is such that we're not overpriced. We're able to maintain our market share considering that there are restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Bar Boulud and Daniel that are still getting people in and are pouring our appellation wines by the glass. That's been turning people on to our wines.

Now that the weather is warming up in New York what would you recommend people try?

I like Muscadet a lot. Our distributor, Polaner, has the best producer I think, Domaine de la Pépière. It's addicting. Marc Ollivier is the winemaker. They've got ancient vines. The wines have a lot of acidity and with summer food, it's great. Steamers or little necks on the half shell with Muscadet with all its acidity and minerality is just awesome. The classic thing people do is Champagne and oysters, but I think Muscadet is the best shellfish white there is.

The An American Table wine dinner featuring Copain Wine Cellars on Thursday, May 28th at Per Se is $325 per person plus tax. For more information or to make a reservation, please call the Per Se Private Dining Office at 212-823-9349.