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During harvest, Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines often works past midnight, processing a relentless avalanche of grapes flowing through his Eastside Road winery.

But the tall, lanky winemaker, who played water polo in college at Pepperdine University, doesn't mind the physical labor because it's balanced by the visceral excitement of the season.

"It's the culmination of all the work of the year," he said. "It's when you make or break what you're doing for the vintage."

Having trained in France, Guthrie learned how to balance his work day, and he always sits down with the workers to enjoy a relaxing lunch.

"We have someone who cooks for harvest, and we feed the entire staff," said Guthrie, 43. "We talk about what's going on."

Food is never far from the mind of this cult-status winemaker, who started making wine in a Santa Rosa warehouse in 1999, then built his own winery in 2007 on a rustic ridge overlooking the Russian River Valley.

This year, Guthrie invited top chefs from across the country to the winery to cook, including French Laundry alumnus Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco.

Guthrie met Lee at Yountville's French Laundry in 2006, when its wine director, Paul Roberts, arranged for Guthrie to do a 10-day internship there.

"I've cooked a couple of dinners at the James Beard House," Guthrie said. "But I'm not crazy enough to open my own restaurant."

He did start his own winery, however, and that story offers its own crazy twists and turns.

The winemaker was born in the town of Del Ray Beach, Fla. His dad, Lee Guthrie, worked in the the fitness business, and his mother was a housewife. Guthrie learned to slice and dice from his grandmothers, who both had catering businesses.

"I think that was a huge motivation," he said. "The smells and the bonds with the people that you're cooking with. ... Now I cook with my daughters (Emerson, 7 and Brinley, 4)."

When he was 10, the family moved to Newport Beach. After studying marketing in college, Guthrie worked for an advertising firm, then moved to Texas to work for a fitness start-up.

He met his wife, Stacy, at a friend's wedding. Just 10 days later, he asked her to marry him.

"I tend to be fairly impetuous," he said. "I like to just jump into the deep end and try it."

Guthrie's life took a dramatic turn in the mid-'90s, when he worked as tasting coordinator for the Wine Spectator in San Francisco. That's when he fell in love with syrah from the Northern Rhone region of France.

"The aromatics of the wine are a happy medium for me," he explained. "The Northern Rhone wines tend to be lighter-bodied. They have structure but not the weight."

That's also where he met Tom Garrett, winemaker for Detert Family Vineyards in Oakville, whose harvest party inspired Guthrie to go into the wine business.

"There were four generations of the family, and they were all talking about the wine, and I was getting chills," he said. "I wanted to have that connection that brought the whole family together."

Guthrie wrote to producers all over the Northern Rhone and was offered a job with the well-known winemaker, Michel Chapoutier.

After working in the vineyards for 18 months, Guthrie returned to the states and landed at Turley Wine Cellars in St. Helena, then worked at Martinelli Winery in Windsor under the legendary winemaker, Helen Turley.

In 1999, he made 400 cases of his first vintage. Following the example of Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines, Guthrie sourced his pinot noir and syrah fruit from the cooler Anderson Valley.

While he started out making big, "fruit-bomb" wines, Guthrie has since joined the ranks of California winemakers who produce lighter-bodied, food-friendly red wines.

"Instead of power, they strive for finesse," New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote of Copain's pinots. "Instead of a rich, mouth-coating impression of sweetness, they seek a dry vitality meant to whet the appetite rather than squelch it."

In 2006, Guthrie also started picking his grapes earlier — at 24 and 24.5 brix — in order to lower the alcohol.

"I never liked those huge, 16 percent pinots," he said. "They impress for that moment in a blind tasting, but they become cumbersome to drink. I want to eat my meal, not drink it."

(You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.)