A Visit with Napa Valley’s Vinous “Mountain Man,” Winemaker Chris Carpenter
February 25, 2017 / Stephanie Miskew / 16 Comments
Bartender. Pre-med student. MBA recipient. Medical device salesman. Chris Carpenter is a man who’s worn many hats over the years. His most noteworthy, however, is perhaps the one he’s been wearing for the past twenty: Winemaker for Jackson Family Wines’ esteemed Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave, La Jota and Hickinbotham labels.
So just how does a Biology major from the University of Illinois become one of Napa Valley’s most well-respected winemakers making some of its most highly acclaimed wines? While studying at Illinois, Carpenter worked at Butch McGuire’s, an iconic Irish pub in Chicago, where he developed an affinity for the restaurant industry. He eventually discovered a passion for food and wine and ultimately decided to pursue a career that would marry his science background with his love of hospitality. Making wine allowed him the perfect opportunity to combine both.
In 1998 Carpenter received his MS in Horticulture from the University of California, Davis and, in the same year, joined Jackson Family Wines. Since then, he has become an expert on the mountain appellations of the Napa Valley. From Mt. Veeder to Howell Mountain, he is intimately acquainted with the subtle nuances each has to offer.
Whether he’s making site specific wines which reflect unique mountain terroirs, or orchestrating vinous symphonies which marry a variety of sites, Carpenter has garnered much praise over the years from consumers and critics alike. During a recent visit to Napa Valley, we were fortunate to sit down with him and taste through a selection of his 2013 offerings.
On a crisp, sunny Fall morning, we met Carpenter at the Jackson family’s Cardinale winery, located in the heart of Napa’s Oakville district. The smell of fermenting grapes perfumed the air as we proceeded up the long, winding driveway to the winery. The building’s rustic, stone architecture beautifully complements its surroundings which features sweeping, panoramic views of the Napa Valley.
At about 6’5″ tall, Chris Carpenter is not easy to miss. A ruggedly handsome blend of Paul Bunyan and Tom Selleck, circa his Magnum PI days, he arrived straight from the vineyard, walkie talkie in hand and fingers stained a deep, inky purple. His team was just pressing the last of 2016’s harvest which he emphatically declared, “an outstanding vintage from a flavor and tannin standpoint.”
True to his love of hospitality, it was soon evident Carpenter is as passionate about sharing his wines as he is about making them. During our visit, we tasted the La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon and Cardinale, all from the 2013 vintage, “a near perfect year” by Carpenter’s standards. Prior to tasting, he passionately explained his personal approach to winemaking, which consists of three essential elements:
“First, you absolutely have to make wines about place. We’ve broken up this valley into 16 smaller appellations…and each has their unique flavor profile or character relative to one another,” Carpenter reflected. “As a winemaker, my job is to preserve that character so that when you’re tasting you can get a sense of the diversity.”
“Second, the wine absolutely has to be made in the vineyard first.” He continued, “By that, I mean the raw product ultimately drives the finished product. If you don’t make the grapes as great as possible, you’ll never make great wine.”
Which led to Carpenter’s third tenet, “If I’ve done everything in the vineyard that I can, then when it comes to the winery, I can keep it as simple as possible. I preserve the characteristic of the grape versus my winemaking which can mess with the character of the grape.”
We began with the 2013 La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) crafted from fruit grown in the historic La Jota and W.S. Keyes Vineyards on Howell Mountain. Established in 1898 by Fredric Hess, the winery was named for its location on the Mexican parcel, Rancho La Jota. Carpenter described this wine as, “our most Bordeaux-like appellation, due to the region’s wetter, cooler climate which is influenced by the nearby San Pablo Bay.”
This Bordeaux-style blend contains all five Bordeaux varieties, 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10.5% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4.5% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. Following fermentation using only native yeasts, the wine underwent malolactic fermentation to soften its acidity and was then aged for 19 month in French oak barrels (89% new). The end result is a wine with an inky purplish hue and enticing aromas of black fruit, licorice and spice. On the palate, mouth-filling flavors of blackberry, black currant, licorice, graphite and savory herb accompany a gravelly minerality and food friendly acidity. While this powerful, full-bodied wine will undoubtedly reward over the next 7-10 years, the generous dollop of Merlot also makes it imminently enjoyable now.
Next, was the 2013 Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) which sources grapes from the eponymous Mt. Brave vineyard located high atop Mt. Veeder in the western Napa Valley. The vines grow at an elevation of 1,400-1,800 feet where the thin, rocky soils and steep slopes present constant issues with water retention and soil erosion. This unique terroir, however, creates small, concentrated berries which produce wines of great concentration and complexity.
The 2013 Mt. Brave is a blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 6.5% Malbec and 4.5% Cabernet Franc aged for 19 months in French oak (80% new), then bottled unfined and unfiltered. The resulting wine is bold and powerful with a gorgeous deep, opaque purple color with fragrant aromas of ripe black fruit, violet and spice. On the palate, lush notes of ripe black currant, black raspberry, roasted plum, cassis and licorice accompany brooding tannins and a lengthy spice-tinged finish. A few years in the cellar, or some aeration either using a decanter or a Vinturi (which Carpenter dubbed, “the best gadget ever!”), will nicely soften this wine’s youthful intensity.
We finished our tasting with Carpenter’s sublime 2013 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon ($275), historically a blend of only two grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon (86%) and Merlot (14%). While the previous wines have reflected specific mountain sites, Cardinale is an expression of Napa Valley as a whole, layering both mountain and valley floor fruit to ultimately create a wine of great complexity.
Vintage also plays an important role in making Cardinale, “In different vintages, different areas in Napa will perform differently, so one year [Cardinale] might be defined by a greater percentage of Mt. Veeder, and the next year it might be defined by Stag’s Leap.” As a result, Carpenter describes Cardinale as, “The most right-brained wine I make because I have to think in very creative terms. I have to think of the wines as pieces of an orchestra…each section has a very specific role in that piece of music. Individually, they don’t always make sense but when the composer layers them…they do.”
The stunning 2013 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon, comprised of predominantly Mount Veeder fruit, features a gorgeous purplish-red color and enchanting aromas of red and black fruit, sweet oak and spice. Opulent layers of black cherry, cassis, leather and mocha unfurl on the palate as the wine’s rich, silky texture gives way to a long, lingering finish. This sumptuous, sensory symphony beautifully transmutes the Napa Valley’s signature aromas, flavors and textures and this exquisitely balanced wine will continue to evolve over the next 15-20 years.
February 25, 2017 / Stephanie Miskew / 16 Comments