Mountain magician

Kathleen Burk meets and eats extremely well with Chris Carpenter, who crafts finely chiselled Chardonnays and reds from above the fog line in Napa, and much more, also for Jackson Family Wines, such as making wine in Walla Walla Valley and McLaren Vale. 

The quality of the lunch at Kerridge’s Bar and Grill in London was a delicious bonus when I accepted an invitation to attend a lunchtime tasting of the wines of Chris Carpenter, referred to as a ‘mountain winemaker’. He’s an interesting man – he read (majored in) biology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where he also played Big Ten football and the trombone; followed by an MBA in international business and marketing, whilst supporting himself by tending bar. He made a number of friends in the restaurant trade at various levels, with whom he developed a barter economy: he traded beers at the Irish Pub for wine at their eating places (he doesn’t say how this worked). 

Undecided about a career, he visited Napa Valley in 1993, where he discovered a place, a culture and a lifestyle which fulfilled his interests in science and in wine and food (he and his wife Tina would later found the Napa chapter of the Slow Food movement). He went to U.C. Davis for an MA in viticulture and oenology and thence to Italy, where, at Antinori, he spent time as a research intern on the estate now known as Tenuta Tignanello. Here he worked in the vineyard, the cellar, and the lab, the last-named a throwback to his days as a budding scientist. In 1998, he returned to Napa, to the Cardinale Estate. This is owned by Jackson Family Wines, as are the other wineries for which he is the chief winemaker. In 2005, they bought the La Jota Vineyard Company and named him the winemaker, the first of several such appointments in subsequent years.

When I was invited to the lunch, I was offered a private interview with Carpenter – he’s very informal and insisted on being called Chris – which, to my delight, included a tasting of four wines that we would drink later at lunch. When he strode in, I had, as the daughter of a Californian grape farmer and a student visitor to Napa wineries, a slight shock of recognition – he is tall and rangy, was wearing a good-quality outdoor shirt with the sleeves rolled up, has a craggy tanned face with a moustache, and is clearly a man of the outdoors. It takes no imagination at all to visualise him striding through the vineyard, frequently picking grapes and tasting them for their level of ripeness.

Carpenter, who sees himself as a mountain winemaker, is responsible in California for the Jackson Family vineyards in the mountains around Napa Valley. All of the vineyards have independent histories, but most of their sources of grapes have one important thing in common: they are mountain, not hill, vineyards. They are primarily above the fog line, which runs at an elevation of 1,400 feet, and it is not unusual to stand in the vineyard and look down at a blanket of fog on the valley floor. These vineyards are less hot during the day than those further down and less cold at night. 

We tasted wines from vineyards on Howell Mountain and Mt Veeder, but their vineyards in four of the top Napa Valley mountain appellations are high up: Spring Mountain (the elevation of the vineyards is 1,000-1,500 feet or 305-457 meters), Howell Mountain (1,825 feet or 556 meters), Mt Veeder (1,800 feet or 549 meters) and Diamond Mountain (1,200-1,500 feet or 366-457 meters). All have different sun exposures, some sharply different, at different times of the day because of the steep positions of some of the vineyards. This also means that the breezes hit the different rows of vines differently. None of this is wholly different from the nature of many vineyards, but it’s probable that the abrupt variations are less usual. In short, when checking for ripeness, a row-by-row evaluation is required. Even though the mountain vineyards are cooler than those on the valley floor, they are still relatively hot, and picking takes place at night or in the early hours of the dawn.

The vineyards of the La Jota Vineyard Company, which were bought by Jackson Family Wines in 2005, are centred on Howell Mountain. It has been described as a weathered, volcanic ‘knob’ with two distinct soil types: a white, crumbly soil combining volcanic ash and rock and known around there as ‘tufa’; and a red soil which is iron-laden clay and volcanic rock. Seeing the separate soil types together, one in each hand, the difference is quite striking. The land drains well and facilitates good root development, whilst the rockiness of the shallow soil, which lacks nutrients, usefully stresses the vines. Their top vineyard on Howell Mountain is the W.S. Keyes Vineyard, first planted in 1888 (although not with the same vines!). The vineyard sits above the fog line, thus escaping the night fog and lying high enough that the daytime temperature is cooler than below. This ensures that the climate is relatively constant and moderate. Cooler temperatures overall ensure later budbreak in the spring and a later harvest in the autumn.

The Chardonnay that we drank with potted Cornish crab was the only one of the four wines that I tasted both before and during the lunch that was the same vintage. This was the La Jota W.S. Keyes Vineyard Chardonnay 2020. It had spent 21 months in French oak, 8% of it new, and had had extended lees contact. It had an intense nose, minerality interleaved with peach and other fruits, whilst on the palate it was rather rich with balancing acidity; the oak was handled very well. It was quite delicious. Their Chardonnay Block, which was planted in 1999, is one of the few such plantings left on Howell Mountain.

With a wild mushroom risotto we had a Cabernet Sauvignon from their Mt. Brave Vineyard, which sits on the top of Mt. Veeder at an elevation of 1,400 to 1,800 feet, and which was planted in 2007. Its thin, rocky soils and steep slopes make water retention difficult and soil erosion a threat, but as with the other mountain vineyards, the outcome is tiny berries with highly concentrated flavours. The difficulty of water retention has another effect, and this is in replanting. Newly-planted young vines take a lot of water, and with its scarcity, Carpenter can only plant 10 to 14 rows at a time. As with the W.S. Keyes Vineyard, the high elevation, which keeps relatively cool midday temperatures, and the longer exposure to sunlight, can extend the growing season into November. 

We had first the 2019 vintage, a blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4.5% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec (Malbec does very well in this vineyard, and they also bottle Malbec as a single varietal), and 1.5% Petit Verdot. This Cabernet Sauvignon was very different from the Lokoya Cabernet that would follow: made primarily for restaurants, the Mt. Brave Cabernet was quite fruity and accessible. We then drank the 2013, which had a similar blend of grapes: 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 6.5% Malbec and 4.5% Cabernet Franc; Petit Verdot was not yet part of the blend. The two wines had roughly the same structure, with a balance of fruit and acidity. It was just about possible to feel the age of the 2013, but it still has some way to go. 

The limited production Lokoya Cabs

Veeder Peak estate vineyard, Mt Veeder

Lokoya is the name for a collection of four distinct Cabernet Sauvignons from four different mountain appellations: Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Mt Veeder. Their Veeder Peak estate of nearly 62 planted acres sits on the western ridges of the Mayacamus Mountains, which run along the western side of the Napa Valley. Unsurprisingly, the soil is a challenge for the vines, as they struggle with volcanic rock and gravelly loam to find water; the outcome is small berries with some minerals, very concentrated fruit and fairly powerful tannins. These are limited production wines, fermented from native yeasts, and neither fined nor filtered. They are the group’s top-level wines and appeal to their collector base, as well as to those buying them actually to drink themselves at some point.

I tasted the Mt Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, 14.4% abv, which came from four separate blocks in the vineyard, and was aged for 22 months in 100% new French oak. When first tasted, it seemed a bit tight and certainly tannic, but after an hour in the glass it had really opened up. The oak was not at all intrusive. Given the balance of acidity and tannins, it will probably last at least 20, if not 30, years. It’s a big wine. The group drank both the 2009 and the 2019 at lunch with Beef Wellington. At that point, Carpenter pointed out that there was sedentary soil on the top of Mt Veeder, because it was pushed up from the seabed. He also emphasised that the 2019 had had a long growing season with few heat spikes. It had lots of acidity, but the tannins were not quite so intrusive as with the 2009; it had spent 21 months in French oak, 84% of which was new. It was quite wonderful with the beef, each encouraging the other.

Our wines with the cheese were the 2018 and 2008 vintages of their W.S. Keyes Vineyard Merlot, 14% abv, for which we returned to Howell Mountain. Carpenter sees this as a high-end Merlot, with only 350-500 cases of the 2018 made. The 2008 mix was 82% Merlot and 18% Cabernet Sauvignon; the thick-skinned grapes came from old vines planted on heavy clay and loam soil. The wine spent 22 months in French oak, 90% of which was new. It was a relatively big wine, with a nose of savoury fruit and with lots of tannins and, fortunately, almost as much acidity. It was really delicious. Much the same can be said about the 2018. The mix was slightly different: 84.5% Merlot and 15.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, a hauling-back of the Cabernet Sauvignon; it was aged for 22 months in French oak, as was the 2008, but this time only 79% was new. Altogether, the 2018 is slightly lighter than the 2008, but the structure and fruit are not dissimilar. It was just as agreeable to drink.

Venturing far beyond California

There are other vineyards and wines in California for which Carpenter has responsibility, but the Jackson family have also given Carpenter responsibilities beyond California. He is the chief winemaker at Hickinbotham Wines, located in Clarendon on the edge of the McLaren Vale in South Australia. Another man, a longtime friend and colleague of Carpenter, has the responsibility for the vineyards. Carpenter flies out to Australia two or three times a year: he’s there in January to blend, in March/April to harvest, and sometimes in July for more blending and market work. He is also helping to establish a winery called Jett in the Upper Mill Creek area near the Blue Mountains in Walla Walla Valley, Washington. Gianna Ghilarducci is the winemaker – he calls her his partner – and Carpenter is the consulting winemaker. The Jackson Family had bought 61 acres of an already-established property there in 2022, in an area known for its high-elevation vineyards. 

I did ask how he manages to keep some control over both the vineyards and the winemaking everywhere. Apparently, whenever he’s in Napa, he visits all of the vineyards every day, spending about 25 minutes at each one. He flies up to Walla Walla about every eight weeks, although it can sometimes be more frequent, depending on the time of year. It is said that near harvest time, he walks down the rows every day, tasting grapes until they pass his ripeness test. This is entirely doable in Napa Valley, but one can only assume that he will fully trust his partner in Walla Walla to make the penultimate decision to pick, possibly leaving him with the option to dash up to finally decide. As far as Australia is concerned, he’ll already be there.

Chris Carpenter is an impressive man who makes impressive wines. He makes a number of other wines from the same and from different vineyards, none of which I tasted, but I have no reason to doubt that they match whatever level of quality and cost that is expected of each of them. The whole experience was unusually enjoyable.