There’s No Mistaking It: Cara Morrison is in Charge

Nov. 19, 2018

Cara Morrison


Cara Morrison is often mistaken for somebody else. Not any one person; more like, people don’t always believe she is who she says she is.

 “Just yesterday in Chicago I was introduced to a group of people and immediately I read their puzzled looks,” recalled Morrison. “’This is the winemaker? Oh, okay.’”

“I’m not sure if it is because I am little, or if it is because I am female, but it has happened enough times that I am used to it by now,” said Morrison.

Make no mistake about it: Cara Morrison is the winemaker. In fact, she is the winemaker at Sonoma-Cutrer, and has been crafting the winery’s acclaimed chardonnay for well over a decade.

If there is any doubt that Morrison is who she says she is, simply ask her a question about chardonnay, terroir, Burgundy — or really anything wine related — and then get your pen and paper ready.

Morrison on Burgundy: “Wine making in Burgundy goes back hundreds of years. I met a winemaker the last time I was there whose winery was close to 600 years old. So, they really figured out where to plant the grapes, and which grapes do better in which soils.”

I saw firsthand just how winemakers must think out of the box and be adaptive in their craft.
- Cara Morrison

On soil composition: “A lot of people find it odd that us winemakers are really excited about rocky soils. With vines, you actually want them to struggle because it forces more flavor into the grapes. Super rocky soil that is difficult to grow in can give grapes this really lemon-lime, flinty tight acidity. The wine almost tastes like the soil.”

On her state-of-the-art cooling tunnels: “The important thing is to avoid oxidation. The cooling tunnels, well they chill the grapes. They drop temperature about 10 or 15 degrees. Having the grapes as cold as possible reduces oxidation when we press the juice.”

She could go on, but there’s no need to do so. By just spending a few moments with Morrison it becomes evidently clear that she is not only the winemaker, but she is also perhaps the happiest person in all of Sonoma county – or at least at Sonoma-Cutrer.

“I always say, they’ll have to drag me out the door to leave. I love it there,” said Morrison. “I am totally entertained playing with all of my experiments, so I don’t see a reason I’ll ever leave.”

From Pre-Med to Winemaking

Morrison’s inquisitive nature started well before college, but it was while she was a student at University of California at Davis when she discovered the possibility of a career in winemaking.

According to Morrison, she was inspired to leave her pre-med program after sitting in an Introduction to Winemaking class.

“Ann Noble was teaching the class that day, and she was talking about malolactic fermentation, the chemistry behind it, how it changes the style of wine, and how wineries use it to add style to wine,” said Morrison. “I thought, ‘How cool is this?!’

I followed her to her office that day, changed my major and never looked back.”

After graduating, Morrison spent a year traveling and working at wineries in Australia, Chile and New York while also honing her skills and palate in New Zealand, Italy, Germany and Burgundy, France.

“Traveling the word and working at all of these different wineries opened my eyes,” said Morrison. “We all make wine, but we're all different. We all have different set ups with equipment, different vineyards, and I saw firsthand just how winemakers must think out of the box and be adaptive in their craft.”

After returning to the states recharged and inspired, Morrison joined Jekel Vineyard as a member of its winemaking team. In 2000, Morrison was selected as the White Wines Winemaker at Fetzer Vineyards, where she was mentored for five years by the late Dennis Martin.


Experimenting with Chardonnay

In 2005, Morrison joined Sonoma-Cutrer in a role that zeroed in her energy on one single grape: chardonnay.

“I'm a focused person and very detail oriented, so I love working with chardonnay,” said Morrison. “You can really do a lot with the grape. You can kind of mold it into your style with different fermentation techniques, different yeasts and thing like that.”

“I have close to 20 different chardonnay experiments going every harvest and I have to hire an intern just to help me keep track of them all,” she said.

While the experiments keep her entertained, Morrison knows very well that in the end she isn’t making wine for herself, but instead for consumers. And as such, she needs to be sure that Sonoma-Cutrer’s signature Burgundian-style stays consistent vintage to vintage.  

“Our picking decision for harvest is what really has the biggest impact,” said Morrison. “Those six weeks are a rush. It is crunch time. Whatever you do during that time frame, you can’t change later. How you pick it, when you pick it, how you ferment it, all of those decisions are going to impact the flavor of the wine and you can't really change it after that.”

“It's like, once you get a stain on your shirt, you can't get it out. You put it in the dryer and it's over. Once you're through fermentation, it's over. You can't change anything,” she said.

Just this past fall, Morrison oversaw the harvest of what will become her 14th vintage of Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, and the 25th wine vintage of her career.

To this day she still recalls the support she received while working on her very first vintage in 1995.

“I was working in the cellars – which is where you initially start off – with Susan Lueker. She said to me, ‘We can do anything they can do. It just might take a few more trips up the stairs,’” said Morrison.

Morrison can still be found working away in the cellars every now and then. Even as the winemaker, she still manages to find the time to check in on any one of her 20 ongoing experiments.

“To me this doesn’t feel like work,” said Morrison. “I’m going to be sticking around for a while.”

This story is part of our award-winning “Women in Wine” series, our long-running effort to highlight winemakers, sustainable specialists, executives, and others making a positive impact in the world of wine.

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