Yes, I have chosen Mike Officer’s Carlisle Winery & Vineyards as Snooth’s Winery of the Year. I may catch some heat for this choice. Mike’s wines are affordable but they are sold primarily through an over-subscribed mailing list program that has a very long waiting list. This will no doubt cause many people considerable grief, but the reason the list is so long is simply because the wines are great and are great values. That pretty much sealed the deal for me.
I do have to say that just a few years ago, I was a fan of Carlisle’s wines but did not think they were where they needed to be to deserve such a nod as this one. All that changed since 2007, when the quality of Mike’s wines took a jump up into the top echelon of California Zinfandels, Syrahs and Petit Sirahs. Not that the previous vintages were anything to sneeze at, just that with his 2007 offerings, Mike’s wines gained a consistency and an elegance that previous vintages were sometimes lacking.
When I spoke with Mike recently, I mentioned this to him and asked if he had changed his winemaking or viticulture in 2007. The fact is, 2007 changed Mike’s approach to wine. While Mike freely admits that his palate has changed over the years, and one of his goals is to produce wines that he wants to drink, he also had a revelation of sorts. As he related, 2006 was a much warmer vintage than 2006, while 2007 was much more “even-keeled.” It was those 2007 wines, with their balance and grace, that made Mike take notice.
“The wines we produced in 2007 opened my eyes to how we could make the wine even better,” Mike said. How can you make great wine unless you’ve tasted great wines?
These wines opened a new door for Carlisle as Mike tries to work towards having more wines like 2007 by farming in a way where sugars don’t “get out of control,” with production using “more canopy management to control ripening, and shooting for wines with lower alcohol.”
I also asked Mike about the 2011 vintage.
“It almost as hellacious as 2012,” Mike said, adding “they are the finest set of wines to date, we pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The wines are fully ripe yet achieve that sense of balance that is elusive in Zin.”
If you talk with Mike for any length of time, you get the sense that he is a no-nonsense kind of guy. Since he freely admits he’s not into marketing, when he says something so positive about upcoming wines, not only do I take it at face value, but I think he might also be a little cautious. And yet there is more.
According to Mike, 2012 was a “Goldilocks vintage, it wasn't too hot or too cold, it was just right.” He continued, “every time I joined in at the sorting table, I said, ‘Wow, this is the best this fruit has ever been.’ It is too early to really tell, but the wines so far have been amazing.”
Keep in mind that I mentioned earlier that I think Carlisle’s wines are still getting better and better, so hearing Mike talk about his upcoming vintages got me really excited. It’s not too late to sign up for the mailing list or begin to pay attention to the retailers that stock the Carlisle wines that make it out through retail channels. While this is admittedly a small amount, the increase in Carlisle’s production to 9,300 cases in 2012 from 6,000 in 2009 does mean that there is hope for more wines filtering out to your favorite retailers.
Unfortunately, Mike doesn’t want his production to exceed around 9,000 cases, but as he says, he continues to get offered these great, old vine vineyards that he just can’t turn down the chance to work with. In fact, he has cut out other vineyards of primarily Rhone varietals to focus more on Zinfandel and field blends.
If you speak with Mike, you might find this to be a bit counterintuitive as he says that “Zinfandel is the most difficult variety to truly make great wine from.” He explained, “It’s challenging to determine when to pick, especially with old vine vineyards with interplanted mixed blacks differential ripening; sugars always moving in the tank, they’re prone to sticking in fermentation and notoriously high in acid; as well as alcohol making it difficult to get through malolactic fermentation.”