Guardian of Napa Valley Mountains
By W Peter Hoyne
Chris Carpenter is one of those creative, down to earth individuals who established well-founded Midwestern roots and values before he rose to fame. He has since claimed his position among Napa’s premier winemakers at some of Napa Valley’s elite wineries.
After spending his very early years in New England, Chris settled in Carey, Illinois, about 45 miles northwest of Chicago, and played high school football. He attended the University of Illinois in Champagne, Urbana receiving his undergraduate degree in Biology while playing Big 10 football. Afterwards, he completed his MBA at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Utilizing his background in science, Chris sold medical products for a company based out of Indianapolis. He was fascinated with the cosmopolitan life in Chicago and secured a job tending bar at Butch McGuire’s on Rush. By working at McGuires, Chris had an opportunity to hang out with a lot of restaurant people. Later, he would work behind the bar at Schubas, a well-known Lakeview restaurant and live music venue. Up and coming artists played there including Dave Matthews, Tori Amos and others. According to Chris, “it was one of those places that attracted artists and actors. It was pretty inspirational. I was already hanging out with restaurant people from Chicago. That helped to form a lot of my winemaking and understanding of food and wine, the importance of hospitality. It moved me to what I am doing today.”
His first real exposure to serious wine occurred at Tofanos, an Italian restaurant on the edge of Little Italy in Chicago. His friend introduced him to a bottle of 1990 Groth Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Chris realized “it was one of those transformative moments. I had a eureka moment, this is what wine could be.”
Along with his creative pursuits, Chis needed to decide if he would follow a more permanent career in medical products. As Chris saw it “the next path that I had to think about was moving to Indianapolis and working in the corporate office. That possibility forced me to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Did I want to settle down and move into medical products? I could have and it would have been very lucrative, but I wanted to do something that I woke up in the morning and was excited to do.”
He decided to take a trip to Napa Valley in 1993 to figure it all out. As Chris remembers it “in Napa Valley, I saw a path to putting it all together. Being in the valley and talking to the people who hosted us in the various tasting rooms and restaurant people, it all suddenly came together. Wow. There is a deep connection to the restaurant industry. There is a usable connection to the sciences that I was dying to get back to in a more pragmatic sense than what I was doing. And there was a creativity to it."
Chris added “I went back to Chicago and I subscribed to a few magazines. Back then, we didn’t have the internet that you could type in how to become a winemaker. I read about the program at UC Davis and I knew that it was the path that I was on and I took it. I was accepted and moved out.” During his last year at UC Davis Chris did a internship at Antinori Winery in Tuscany. In 1998 he received his masters degree in viticulture and enology.
Now all Chris needed was a job opportunity. He attended a job fair and approached the Jackson Family Estate table with his resume thinking he might be interested in grower relations, “which is basically a go-between the larger wine companies and outside growers.” It turns out he struck up a conversation with winemaker Marco Digiulio who shared the same passion as Chris for Italian varietals. Marco commented “we’re building a new winery in Oakville. I need someone to oversee the lab.” As fate had it, Chris accepted the job with the upcoming, renowned Cardinale Estate in Oakville, becoming its winemaker in 2001.
Today, with 20 years of winemaking behind him, Chris is crafting some of the most acclaimed wines from mountain sites in Napa Valley, including Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota and Mount Brave. He has mastered the mountainside vineyards of Howell Mountain, Mount Veeer, Diamond Mountain and Spring Mountain, each having their own unique style. I have so many levels of fascination with mountain fruit. There is a concentration, there is an acidity, there is a structural component to mountains that you don’t find on the valley floor as often as you do on these mountains. That each one of them has their own signature character, that there is a concentration effect and it is just a beautiful place to be. Being a winemaker is great.”
As if that wasn’t enough to keep Chris busy, he began working with Hickinbotham vineyards in McLaren Vale, Australia in addition to a recent project in Walla Walla, Washington. “That challenge of working in another region, in another terroir, with different soils with different ways of thinking about wine culturally. Being part of that is awesome.”
I was curious if Chris had learned anything from the Aussies that might influence his winemaking in California.’ He replied “I have got a lighter touch on my ripening curve now, I have got a lighter touch on my oak impact … I have embraced more floral notes in wine, where I used to be all about black fruit. I have gained an appreciation for more flower and spice of red wines.”
I asked him directly, if there was a Chris Carpenter style. “I think so. I don’t think it differs that drastically from others. I really believe in the way that I separate all the wines that I make. The vineyard is first and foremost, the source of the flavor and the attention to the ultimate product has to be spent on the raw product, which is the grape. Farming for winegrowing versus grape growing is the first key component of how I think about my style."
As Chris sees it, “you can define the wine by way of the unique character that each of those vineyards has. Making wines about place is super important to me. What makes each one of these places special and unique.
My hand from a winemaking standpoint is really driven by my blending. That’s what may separate me from others. My blending really tries to reflect that place and balance. Like any good wine, I’m about balance between flavors, acidity, weight of the wine and the structural component of the wine.” In comparing two of the mountain Cabernet Sauvignon’s that Chris makes “Diamond Mountain has a great middle body, it's got a wonderful lush character a chocolate covered cherry thing and it's got a tannin that is softer at the end. They all need to be balanced. Mt Veeder has got a blue fruit, a violet and wet shell minerality and a structural side. Any one of those things can be off kilter, but I am trying to find the balance between all of them through my blending of them. Ultimately, if I have done my job in the vineyard to make the very best grapes and it speaks to that place, then those balance points are easy to find.
I have a great job. I couldn’t do it without my team of guys on the production side and then my team in the sales and marketing world. That support structure that I have allows me to spread my wings in so many ways.”
I asked to what he would attribute the continuing success of Cardinale and Lokoya. Chris replied “I have really good vineyards, that is the first and foremost. You can’t be a good winemaker unless you have really good vineyards that ultimately give you good grapes. Acknowledging that and being a caretaker to that is how I see my role. Seeking out other vineyards that are good. I want to partner with really good outside growers. I am always looking for a really great vineyard.
There is the truism that you are only as good as your last vintage and not resting on your laurels. There are a lot of wines that we are in competition with. There are a lot of great winemakers that are colleagues and friends and other great vineyards. I never let up, you can’t. As soon as you start getting comfortable that’s when things start slipping.”
As far as Chris’s fascination with the culinary scene, he remarked, “I still enjoy going to the bar and doing the restaurant scene. There is a conviviality about eating at a restaurant, there is an energy. It makes people happy. I like being around places that make people happy. I like doing things that make people happy. I made a lot of friends in restaurants. Years of doing it from 1984 until the beginning of Covid, I have a lot of fond memories of being in that environment. There is an energy there as well that is really compelling. I still enjoy that.
To this day, I still get a thrill walking into a restaurant kitchen. The energy that’s in that kitchen. That being in the sanctum of that place, that’s producing all that happiness in the form of food. There’s nothing like it.”
When asked do you ever think about what’s next, Chris responded “all the time. I am always looking, that’s why I have so many things going on because I want to try it all. There is so much to explore. There are so many things that we can do in our lives and there is such a little bit of time. I want to do them all successfully. I don’t ever want to put something out that’s half baked. I want it to be the very best. That keeps me honest.”