Chris Carpenter | Sitting Down With The Composer Himself
Chris Carpenter has become one of Napa Valley’s most respected winemakers, and for good reason. If you’ve read my recent articles about his Cardinale and Lokoya wines, you might get the impression that I’m a fan. Combining his access to some of Napa Valley’s most prized vineyards with his skillful interpretation of what each unique site brings to the table results in a truly compelling portfolio of wines.
Like music to my ears, I can’t get enough of the Lokoya wines for how well they express true sense of place, and Cardinale for its alluring combination of depth and silken texture. The way Chris Carpenter sees it, the top vineyards he has access to are his instruments. The blend for each vintage of Cardinale results in a symphony, Napa Valley style, while the AVA specific Lokoya wines represent the soloists in the orchestra.
His portfolio of wines has been known to make a wine collectors the world over salivate, so when the opportunity presented itself to sit down with the man responsible for making the music, I couldn’t resist!
How did you get into wine?
I studied biology and I was a pre-med. I went into pre-med because I had doctors and nurses in my family, you know that kind of traditional thing.
Then I got into animal behavior. [University of] Illinois has a burgeoning animal behavior program and I loved it. I immediately made the connection that what got me into biology wasn’t the medicine side, but watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom when I was a kid.
But by that point I was 3/4 of the way through my degree and I just wanted to get done so I finished with this degree in biology at a time when unless you were going on into further education there wasn’t a lot to do, so I went up to Chicago and started working in a bar.
And I worked in a bar, like a saloon. But all of my very good friends post-college were restaurant people. I worked at a place that was open until 4 and 5 in the morning so when people were getting off of work they would come into our place. My friends and colleagues were young and single and checking out the wine and food world.
I didn’t think about wine in college but getting out and hanging out with people who were working at some of the best restaurants in Chicago I started exploring wine and the idea of that part of the lifestyle didn’t occur to me as something that I could pursue until I took a trip out here. [Eventually it was an advertisement for a class at UC Davis that caught his attention and sealed the deal]
Were you working when you first moved here? I’ve heard that you still bartend at Rutherford Grill?
I do. But during that period I was working at Travigne, which just closed down. I was tending bar 2 days a week, and one night a week during that time because it felt like I needed to contribute to the family effort.
That part of the guilt that I carried about not working actually benefited me because at the time Travigne was really the only show in town. This was before Yountville had become what Yountville is now. Before Thomas Keller had really built his empire. Michael Chiarello was still cooking there. We had a brilliant wine list, not only of Napa Valley wines but of Italian wines – and we had some of the best chefs in the valley.
So I’m learning a tremendous amount about flavor from the wines that we got to taste as well as the food. We would meet with our chefs every shift and they would go through every shift that was on the menu to give us a sense of how they were thinking about the combination of flavor. To this day I still think that gave me a leg up with my colleagues because a lot of those guys, and still a lot of them are dear friends, but many of them didn’t ever work in the restaurant business.
They were science geeks or pure wine guys that went into it, and that’s one of the reasons that I still work in the business is that connection and understanding how the guest, and ultimately the drinker, thinks about wine in combination with their food, and in combination with their experience. That’s really important. And the other part is I just like bartending.
How often do you bartend there now?
One night a week. Friday night is my gig. I’ve been doing it at Rutherford Grill now for 18 or 19 years this month.
Are you pouring Lokoya at the bar?
We do serve Lokoya, and thankfully the staff loves to sell it because they know that I’m back there and they love to reference me. The one that we sell a lot of is the Merlot. The Mt. Brave Merlot has done exceedingly well and I will not tell people that I am the winemaker but I will recommend it.
I hear that you’re fond of Merlot, and Merlot is a varietal that people like to beat up on. What is it that you like about Merlot?
Its a variety that has the same kind of depth, of complexity, of stature and power that Cabernet has – it’s just different. And, it’s an underdog and I love the underdog. I think it is Rocky-esque in that its going to win, eventually. If you look at some of the most sought after wines in the world, the three that come to mind: Petrus, Massetto, Cheval Blanc, (the Cheval Blanc you could argue because it has Cabernet Franc in it) but these are Merlot based wines and they are great, great wines. Why does Napa Valley not have that?
Why does Maclaren Vale in Australia not have that? It’s not that we don’t have it, it’s that we suffered here by way of the movie. Sideways was really the straw that broke the camels back as far as the quality level that had been produced; because the industry looked at Merlot as the next White Zinfandel at the time. White Zinfandel had been the entry wine for a whole generation, my generation, and it introduced people to the idea of wine with a meal.
People just gobbled that up, and Sutter Home and Beringer in particular did exceedingly well with it. Merlot, they thought, was going to be that next wine. It’s easy to pronounce, the tannins are more approachable, and it’s fairly easy to grow. So they planted it all over the place, and they planted it in the wrong places unfortunately. So a lot of the stuff that they put out, when they were trying to get Merlot on the wave that White Zinfandel had created, what they were putting out there was thin, green, the tannins were awkward.
It wasn’t good wine, and it turned a lot of people off. Then Miles made that statement in the movie. That statement was completely not really about Merlot. It was more about his girlfriend and how he didn’t want to drink the same wine that his girlfriend always drank. But, it crushed Merlot and Pinot Noir jumped because of the movie. All that Merlot that was growing in the wrong places was taken out and replaced with Pinot Noir. And what was left were these little spots around Napa Valley where some of the best Merlot is being grown, and we’ve got a couple of them.
That’s what I’ve learned over the years. Cabernet is a survivor. You can grow it in a lot of different environments, and it does pretty well. It’s just a brutal survivor. Merlot is a little more sensitive. Merlot has certain requirements on the soil type and on the climate – and the climate is incredibly important with Merlot. It needs a tremendous amount of light and it needs heat. Where they were growing it, where they grow a lot of it in Napa Valley is down in Carneros where its cold and where you don’t get a lot of light.
Was any one person particularly influential in your early career?
Probably the most influential was my predecessor at Lokoya, Marco DiGiulio, because one of the first things he told me was “Whatever they tell you. Whatever tools they want to sell you in the winery. Whatever sense of the greatness of the winemaker or the winery that you’re working at… None of that matters if you don’t have the right fruit. Always know that vineyard from top to bottom. That bit of wisdom has carried me through every decision I make. It starts there, and it makes my life in here a lot easier.
When I came to work here, he [Marco] hired me, but I didn’t know that I was going to be working with two other winemakers in addition to Marco. I worked with Charles Thomas, my predecessor at Cardinale, and I worked with another guy more as a colleague than as an assistant. His name was Tom Peffer and he started the Atalon project. They were all three very different winemakers.
Marco was more of the hippy, everything is going to be okay kind of winemaker. Charles was really focused on the vineyard and developing the vineyard and understanding the precision in viticulture that could be employed to improve the vineyard. Tom was completely on the ecological science side of it, and those combined really helped to form the kind of winemaker that I am today because the things I learned from Tom were completely different than what I learned from Charles.
If I asked a question of Tom and I asked the same question of Marco he would have been clueless. But if I asked something more spiritual of Tom, he would have looked at me like I had lost my mind. So having all of those three here was a great help in my early days as a winemaker. Being able to utilize all of their knowledge was great.
How would you describe your winemaking philosophy and has it evolved since you began your career?
There are three things that form the foundation of my philosophy and it really hasn’t evolved. Some of the tactics that I use have evolved but the basic philosophy hasn’t.
- Do it in the vineyard. You can take gold and make it shiny and pretty, but you can’t take lead and turn it into gold.
- Keep it simple. You don’t need a lot of technology to make wine, you just need a lot of attention.
- Preserve the sense of place. All of my wines are about place. We want you to know that you’re tasting Mt. Veeder versus Howell Mountain versus Spring Mountain. A lot of people that come to Napa want to explore the 16 appellations that we have defined, and they want to know not only how that appellation speaks, but how that vineyard speaks, and my job is to maintain that.
Several of your wines have achieved perfect scores. Is there pressure to repeat that success?
You’re only as good as your last vintage. In fact, that’s what’s going through my mind right now – putting those 2014’s together. The last two morning I’ve been working on 2014’s and I’ve got another two weeks of doing that. You can’t rest on your laurels in this business, because there’s another 200 wineries out there trying to do what you’re doing.
My job isn’t predicated on how good of a manager I am, how well I do my financial reports, how I treat my employees, or if I’m here at 7 in the morning and leave at 6 at night. My job is predicated on putting the best quality product out there on a yearly basis that our collectors, our partners in restaurant and retail, that there’s a consistency there. For me, that consistency has to be at the highest level. If I don’t achieve that, I’m done and it terrifies me every year. It keeps me on my toes.
How are the 2014’s shaping up after the success of the 2012 and 2013’s.
That’s why it’s going through my mind right now. The 2012 and 2013 blending was pretty easy; because it was such an outstanding vintage. I just kept adding things and it kept getting better, and that’s unheard of. That paradigm shifted a little bit [with the 2014 vintage].
Today I had to go back. In fact, one of the blends that I was working on at the end of the day, my palate gets fatigued after about 4 hours of tasting young wines, so my palate was shot and I was working on one of the Lokoyas and I couldn’t make a decision. It wasn’t the wine I wanted it to be and I didn’t know whether it was because of where I was mentally at that moment, or where my palate was or if it was the vintage. So I just stopped, and I’ll start fresh tomorrow.
They’re great wines, but making sure they’re great is not going to be as easy as it was in 2012 and 2013. It’s going to require a little more brainpower.
You produce a compelling portfolio of wines from distinctly different terroirs, yet there seems to be a unifying emphasis on mountain fruit. Why is that?
There’s a couple of reasons for that.
- Our former owner who has passed, Jess Jackson, was brilliant and he was not only brilliant as a businessman but he had a knack for vineyards and understanding what made vineyards great. He was one of my great influences as well. I don’t even know how he came upon this [idea] but he started buying vineyards in the mountains. He believed that the mountain vineyards were the place to make his mark and differentiate himself from the rest of the wine world. He was buying vineyards in the mountains long before others were, before mountain fruit was seen as something people wanted because the tannins are more aggressive and the acids are pretty high and you’re decreasing your output of total volume by sometimes 50% if not 60% to 70% as compared to the valley floor and why would you want to do that financially? Jess was okay with that because he thought the quality was going to outweigh that part of the equation.
- As a result of my experience now in the mountains there’s no place I’d rather be. I get it, I get what he saw, I get the terroir. I can work on the valley floor but now my base of knowledge is based in these hillside vineyards where you get a different sense of Cabernet and how it has a life and a vibrancy, structure, depth and concentration that you don’t get in the valley floor. You get it in a few places like Morisoli and To Kalon and some of these renowned vineyards but in the mountains it’s a lot easier to capture that. It’s a lot more work, too.
It’s Friday night. You’re opening one of your own wines and one you didn’t have a hand in producing. Which are they?
If I’m opening one of my own wines, that really depends. It depends on what I’m up to any particular night. The 2002 Lokoya Mt. Veeder is one of my favorite wines I’ve made. I thought it deserved a better score than it got out of the gate than it got because I thought it was one of the most spectacular Veeder wines I’ve ever tasted. I just adore that wine. Then when Parker did his retrospective he recognized that as well.
The 2001 Cardinale, which was my first Cardinale blend, continues to amaze me. It was the one that I put the most Merlot in. The 2001 was such a brilliant vintage. Those are two of my top wines.
If I wasn’t opening mine, I like Sean Capiaux’s wines. When I look at colleagues of mine who I think are doing brilliant work, Capiaux Pinot Noir’s I think are beautiful Pinot Noir’s and his O’Shaughnessy wines have a lot of the same kind of understanding of Cabernet in the mountains that my wines do. I really appreciate his wines.
Many people have that one bottle that they’re saving for a really special occasion, but never seem to get to. What is that bottle for you?
1982 Mouton Rothschild, it just keeps winking at me.
If you could be anywhere else in the world right now, where would you be?
That’s a good question. I’d be on a beach in Hawaii with my kids. It’s one of our favorite places in the world.
To What Do You Owe Your Success?
I’ve had a lot of luck. With anything, luck is a big part of it. I’ve been very fortunate in that a lot of the vineyards I oversee are some of the best in Napa Valley. I had a wife who was willing to deal with me being a student for a few years and she was the breadwinner. So I’ve been very fortunate and Ive had a lot of help along the way.