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September 27-October 3, 2006

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Cutler Cellars

Ain't no crime: Cutler Cellars specialized in humorous advertising, like this send-up of the Watergate hearings.

The Regulator

Lance Cutler certifies restaurant wines priced for mere mortals

By Brett Ascarelli


On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in Sonoma, Lance Cutler sips from a small glass of Pilsner Urquell at the Sonoma Wine Exchange. He is wearing a yellow T-shirt with a drawing of a gorilla on it, advertising Guerrilla Vino, his homemade wine. Cutler's ape is apt. After all, the 60-year-old former Gundlach Bundschu winemaker is a big believer in guerrilla tactics.

During the 1990s, he and some of his pals wanted to familiarize the public with Sonoma wines. Donning capes and masks, they hijacked the Napa Valley Wine Train, poured free wine for everyone and handed out pamphlets that enticed, "Come to Sonoma, where the wines are fine, the sampling is still free and the prices do not rob your children of a college education." A few years later, he and his posse set their sights a bit higher, kidnapping Virgin Group's CEO Richard Branson, along with Branson's parents and two bus-loads of reporters, and redirecting them to Gun Bun.

For a man with the chutzpah to successfully pull off such feats, Cutler is surprisingly reserved on this day at the bar. Now that Sonoma wines have achieved renown, he almost timidly explains his newest guerrilla project.

Cutler wants to convince restaurants to carry affordable wines. He hopes to persuade eateries to offer at least one wine in every category on the wine list--red, white, sparkling and rosé--at under $30. Furthermore, he urges that at least 10 percent of the entire wine list be devoted to wines below $30. He also advocates setting corkage fees at $10 or less. He believes restaurants should state the name of their wine buyer on the menu, holding him or her accountable for the selections.

With his customary creative flair, Cutler has devised the Wine Patrol Approved List (WinePAL), a program designed to promote these goals. People can sign up on his website (www.winepatrol.com) to become WinePAL deputies. For a $5 fee, Cutler sends deputies a packet with an ID card and about 20 Wine Patrol cards. Deputies then leave the cards at restaurants that don't conform to WinePAL standards. The cards politely state, "We have enjoyed your delicious food, attentive service and delightful ambiance--" before suggesting that the restaurant expand its wine list, with directions to the website for more details.

WinePAL is an outgrowth of Wine Patrol, which started in the late 1980s as a group of people in the wine industry who sought attention for Sonoma wines by performing amusing capers. Gundlach Bundschu, where Cutler worked as winemaker and general manager for 15 years until the mid-1990s, was one of the leaders of these efforts.

Depending on how you look at it, Cutler is either a Renaissance man or an eccentric. For the past dozen years or so, he has worked as writer (often under the pseudonym Jake Lorenzo), made a video on home winemaking and has also come out with a book, The Tequila Lover's Guide to Mexico and Mezcal. He writes a monthly column for Wine Business magazine and is the winemaker for Relentless Vineyards, a small label that he owns with former baseball player Randy Staub. Ironically, Relentless wines, which have a cult following in New York restaurants, retail for roughly $50. Cutler admits, "I couldn't afford to buy them."

Cutler says he thought of the WinePAL idea after many years of feeling frustrated when going out to eat. Often, he says, the price of the wine exceeded the price of the meal at restaurants. "I live on a small income, and it costs $100 for me and my wife to eat out. Now two dinners out is a ticket to New Orleans." (Cutler has helped build houses for people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and has been officially recognized as an honorary citizen of the town.)

So far, about 150 people from all over the country have registered as WinePAL deputies, and Cutler says that he has personally left at least a dozen cards at restaurants since he started the program.

He hasn't seen many results yet, though he has met some backlash from the restaurant industry, who see the WinePAL program as antagonistic. Restaurateurs have written to Cutler, complaining that he lacks understanding of how the industry works economically.

For many restaurants, it's hard to make a profit on only the price of meals, because they expend so much money on food, labor and upkeep. Often, the only real chance to make a profit is through alcohol sales, so it's customary to mark up wine prices. In the most extreme cases, this means charging up to five times the wholesale cost.

But Cutler, who writes back individually to those who contest him, is clear that he doesn't want restaurants to lower their wine prices; he just wants them to offer a more diverse range of wines, including some excellent wines priced for customers with smaller pockets. "My real gripe is not on the markup, but that restaurants don't make the effort to look for delicious wines priced for me," he says.

Trying another approach, Cutler recently decided to expand the WinePAL program in a way that restaurants might be more likely to welcome. Instead of slapping the WinePAL deputy card on restaurants that don't conform to the democratic demands of WinePAL, the new branch of the program awards restaurants that take a more populist approach to vino. "I'm trying to get restaurants to understand that this is not combative. The certificates are something that look nice and that restaurants can hang up on the wall."

Today, Cutler is awarding the first WinePAL certificate. It won't be a surprise, since he has prearranged an appointment with the soon-to-be recipient. Finishing his beer, Cutler urges his slower quaffing guest, "Let's try to go in the next five minutes. I hate to keep restaurant people waiting."

When Cutler arrives at Deuce, an inviting art nouveau affair a few blocks from the town center of Sonoma, the owner is sitting at the bar about to begin his lunch. Peter and Kirsten Stewart have owned Deuce for eight years and serve a menu of tantalizing New American cuisine, including artichoke mint ricotta ravioli with truffled brown butter, a lobster club sandwich on toasted brioche and roasted prosciutto-wrapped scallops.

Cutler hands Peter Stewart the handsome certificate, which recognizes Deuce for meeting WinePAL's requirements. Stewart exclaims how nice it looks; Cutler decided to have it framed, which he warns will not be the case in the future because of the cost.

Deuce carries roughly 170 wines, running the gamut from $16 for Kenwood Red, to $160 for the 2001 Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon. The Stewarts, who select most of the wines personally, generally restrict the wine markup to roughly 2.2 times the wholesale price of the bottle. (According to Wine Spectator, markups between 2 and 2.5 times cost are considered below normal.)

In the cool wine cellar, Peter Stewart explains why he feels strongly about the way he prices his wines. "I think it's just good customer service, having a good range of product. That's what I want when I go out," he says. "Wine and food prices need to jibe," he continues, citing that some restaurants have wine lists that are too grandiose for the food they serve. That's a real turn off for the Stewarts, who normally try to order off the wine list when they dine out. Kirsten Stewart says, "We strive really hard to strike a balance and have a handpicked list."

The effort seems to work. Cutler says appreciatively, "So few people are doing this."


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