South Tahoe grad and winemaker is ‘paying it forward’
The first time that Rick Hutchinson saw the cellar of a winery, he felt like he was walking into his mother’s kitchen.
“I took to it like a duck to water,” said Hutchinson, owner and winemaker for Healdsburg-based Amphora Winery. “I was number eight out of nine kids and my mom would can everything. That’s how we survived with all of those kids.”
Hutchinson, 55, returned to his childhood stomping grounds of South Lake Tahoe in March to host a winetasting at Apres Wine Company. The 1973 South Tahoe High School grad said it was like “old home week.”
“The parking lot where Apres was, I used to sweep that parking lot when I was a kid,” he said. “It was so cool to go and do a tasting there. It was a great group of people.”
During the visit, Hutchinson stayed at the Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge, near a landmark he remembered fondly.
“Where Blue Water (Bistro) is, I learned how to swim off the pier,” he said. “I caught my first 14-inch trout off the pier. As I got older, I did different things off the pier.”
He was also a paperboy for the Tahoe Daily Tribune from age 11 to 13, riding his bike through the snow to deliver the paper and winning several trips to the state fair for his efforts. He was so excited to board the bus for one such trip that he walked through a plate glass window at the newspaper office, scarring his knee.
“I was just so excited to get on that bus,” he said.
The search for a vocation led Hutchinson to his birthplace of Sonoma County, where his family had lived until moving to South Lake Tahoe in 1962.
He got his first job in the wine business at age 20, working the bottling line of Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma for $3.50 an hour.
It was 1975 and California wines were a year away from getting their due at the famous “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting that helped put the state’s wines on the map. In the decades that followed, American palates broadened from white zinfandel to appreciate a wider variety of wines.
“The quality has expanded tremendously,” Hutchinson said. “The ‘vin ordinaire’ is just really, really good now.”
By the end of his first season at Sebastiani, Hutchinson had proved himself as a hard worker and was invited to work in the cellar.
After Sebastiani, he went to work for Robert Mondavi, who was just breaking away from his family’s Charles Krug label in St. Helena. Hutchinson left Mondavi’s winery after few months.
“I had the wine bug by then for sure,” Hutchinson said.
He worked at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma for a few years, and later a now-shuttered winery in Windsor called Balverne, where he was mentored by winemakers Doug Nalle and John Kongsgaard. At their urging, Hutchinson began taking enology classes at night at the University of California, Davis.
When Nalle became the winemaker at Quivira Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, he brought Hutchinson along. Hutchinson became Nalle’s full-time assistant for more than 12 years, with Nalle encouraging him to bottle his own wine someday.
Then Hutchinson turned 40.
“I started thinking, ‘What am I going to do? Work for another person for the rest of my life?'” Hutchinson said. “I’m a left-handed, right-brained winemaker, artist and musician, take it or leave it.”
Right out of the gates, Hutchinson wanted to start Amphora with a few thousand cases of wine. But with humble beginnings, he started smaller.
“There’s a saying, ‘if you want to have a million dollars in the wine businesses, start with $20 million,'” Hutchinson said. “It’s somewhat of a rich man’s game, to tell you the truth.”
He broke out on his own with $50,000, producing 218 cases for his first vintage in 1997. The first bottling included petite sirah, syrah and a bit of zinfandel.
“I started Amphora with about the price of a luxury car,” he said. “Not even that – maybe a used Lexus.”
Just before Hutchinson started his winery, he joined a former girlfriend at a pottery class and discovered a love for throwing clay on the wheel. When he came across the word “amphora,” a ceramic vase used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to carry wine, he had it trademarked.
“Hutchinson is not sexy,” he said. “What are you going to do there, right?”
In 2005, Amphora moved from its first home – the basement of a rented prune barn – to a 6,000 square-foot facility. He produces 5,000 cases annually, including 14 current releases with five grape varietals from family-run vineyards.
“One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is, don’t buy grapes from vineyard management companies that market rich people’s grapes,” Hutchinson said. “The best contract I have is a handshake. It’s the person who drives the tractor.”
And just as Hutchinson was encouraged to go it alone, he strives to mentor his own employees.
“I have a few apprentices underneath me, so I’ve kind-of paid it forward in a sense,” he said. “There’s a few who have their own winery that I’ve trained; one has his own label and works for me. I don’t look at it as competition or anything else. There’s room for everybody.”
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