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Carter Cellars, Napa: Current Releases

Every good wine has a story behind it. I’ve never found one that doesn’t. Sometimes it takes some work to find the story, but it’s always there. In addition to loving to drink wine, these stories are what keep me coming back to favorite bottles and seeking out new ones.

Once upon a time, there was a guy named Mark Carter. He liked to build stuff and to drink wine. We’ll come back to the wine in a minute, but as far as building things goes, Mark, in particular, liked old Victorian homes. He grew up in one, and spent time as a kid around a lot of them, and he eventually started a business to restore them in Eureka, California. He did pretty well — certainly he was as busy as he wanted to be — but he kept dreaming of one day having his own. Or more specifically, of building his own. From scratch.

That dream remained, until one day, he and his wife stumbled across the most remarkable thing in an antique store in San Francisco: the architectural plans for a large three story Victorian home. Several years later, and all of their savings spent, the Carters had their dream home, built to exactitude according to the original plans, and fully furnished. They moved in, but they also needed to put food on the table, and with their savings gone, they thought they might just do a little bed and breakfast business. After all, Mark’s wife Christi liked to dabble in the kitchen, and they both felt like they understood what it took to offer good hospitality.

Of course, like most things that Mark Carter seems to do, it quickly went from a small operation to something wildly successful. A several years later, The couple is now running not only what has become known simply as The Carter House (one of the most highly acclaimed small inns in the world) but also a series of cottages attached to the house (they ran out of room, you see) and the Carter Hotel across the street (they really ran out of room) and Restaurant 301 in said hotel (well, the people had to eat didn’t they?).

If it’s beginning to sound like Carter has a sort of Midas touch when it comes to his hobbies, you wouldn’t be far off from the truth. Mark’s love of wine, as we said, started early, and as he was an adventurous chap, he signed up to be on the mailing lists of some wineries that were just starting out. Wineries with names like Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, Heitz Cellars, Colgin Cellars. You get the picture. By the time the Carters decided to open up their restaurant, they had a wine cellar that would make jaws drop, and they had allocations (opportunities to purchase wine each year off a mailing list) from some of the top wineries in California (and the world). Mark began to hold winemaker dinners at the restaurant and got to know a few folks from Napa, whose names most California wine fans would recognize.

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before his enthusiasm for the subject and their knowledge and friendship led to the idea that he try his hand at making his own. Like all his other ventures, of course, Mark was interested in doing it right. If there is such a thing as the winery equivalent of an immaculately small Victorian home, Carter Cellars might just be it. Mark originally conceived of it as an estateless winery, buying small amounts of extremely high quality grapes from top growers, which would produce only a small number of cases. If he had a model for the wine he wanted to make, it might have been Petrus, but he knew that he would be making something definitively Californian.

With the help of friend and winemaker Fred Schrader, Mark gradually got his rookie winery owner questions answered. Where does a guy buy barrels? Who grows the best fruit? What should my label look like? With the help of Schrader, Dan Duckhorn, and Nils Venge, Mark tracked down a few parcels of fruit that he liked, and in 1998 he and Venge made the first two hundred or so cases of Carter Cellars Cabernet.

Nils Venge is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of Napa’s modern wine industry, in addition to being one of its most acclaimed winemakers. Venge holds the distinction of being the first American winemaker ever to receive 100 points from Robert Parker (for his 1985 Groth Reserve Cabernet). Whether one regards that as a triumph or a trifle, it is certainly indicative of both the tenure and the skill with which Venge plies his craft. Venge earned a BS in Viticulture from the venerable UC Davis in 1967, and arrived in Napa valley after a tour in Vietnam. In the subsequent years he made wine for Charles Krug, Sterling, Villa Mount Eden, as well as Groth. He is now owns and operates his own eponymous winery and Saddleback Cellars with his son Kirk, as well as being the winemaker for several other vineyards including Robert Keenan, Fantesca, Plumpjack, Igneous Wines, and Del Dotto.

Mark met Nils during the days of his winemaker dinners, and they became pals, so when it was time to look for a winemaker, there wasn’t much negotiation needed.

Carter Cellars currently produces two vineyard designate Cabernet Sauvignons, one from a piece of property known as the Coliseum Block — a small, steep vineyard in Soda Canyon on the east side of Napa Valley — and one from Andy Beckstoffer’s famous To-Kalon vineyard.

Both wines are made from extremely low yield vines and are treated with the care that one would expect from a sub-1000 case winery production. Mark has no plans to expand the winery beyond current production levels of around 900 cases, though he has been looking for the right piece of property to buy so that one day the wine can be made with estate fruit. The right thing hasn’t come along just yet, so for the time being, Carter Cellars will continue to be a small operation.

Apparently some of Mark’s guests at the bed and breakfast think it’s quaint at first when they see that he also has a wine with his name on it. “How cute!” they say, imagining that this wine is some corporate private label. But then they taste it, and at least some of them realize that, just like everything he does, Mark Carter isn’t messing around.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples. Tasting notes are from 375ml bottlings.


2003 Carter Cellars “Coliseum Block” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
A dense, opaque ruby in color, this wine has a brooding nose of black cherry, tobacco, and cola aromas. On the tongue it has a lovely, silky mouthfeel with primary flavors of black cherry and sweet pipe tobacco. The tannic structure is beautifully smooth, though solid, and the wine is nicely balanced. Tobacco and vanilla notes continue through a nice finish. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $125. Where to buy?

2003 Carter Cellars “Beckstoffer – To-Kalon Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Dark purple in the glass with a thick, nearly black center, this wine has a complex nose of black cherry, nutty, and floral aromas that shift and change over the course of several hours, eventually settling towards an earthy, dark ripe fruit combination that is very enjoyable. In the mouth it is thick and rich with velvet-feeling tannins enclosing a core of dark ripe plum and black cherry flavors that linger in a very long and satisfying finish. Score: 9.5. Cost: $95. Where to buy?

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