Winery of the Year

A 2012 winner representing every wine geek's dream

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.”

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  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 2,875

    Well, I am surprised that a primarily Zin maker gets the nod two years running, but you have been a champion of Zin, something that more folks on the East Coast could stand to drink. You may recall that I asked Mike Talty, of last year's winery of the year, what he drank when he didn't drink his own and he said, "Carlisle." Mike Officer's approach is also the approach that Clay Mauritson and Mike Talty take, and all three of them contend, for the same very good reasons, that Zin is among the hardest wines to make at that excellent, balanced level. Big jammy stuff, spoofy stuff, that's easy. But balanced, long lasting Zin that reflects Zin and the places it grows is something indeed. In addition to those guys, Paul Draper at Ridge deserves a nod for taking Zin seriously and Turley, like them or not, has put it in collector's cellars.
    Now I have to get my hands on some Carlisle and figure out where I'm going to put it. One other person deserves some attention for saving old vines, and that's Matt Cline, who is putting out wines from Live Oak and Evangelho, two very old vineyards that do not get attention because they are in Contra Costa County, but both are on sandy soil and pre-phylloxera--own-rootstock Zins and Mourvedre field blends, if you can imagine.

    Nov 06, 2012 at 4:31 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 202,506

    I think Zinfandel often gets overlooked int he world of wine, yet when well made, which is a real challenge, the wines are some of my favorite in California, and therefore to my palate the best of California.

    Factor in the history of the wines and the old vineyards, and the values to be had here and it's a no brainer. People need to be paying attention tot hese wines, though not too much since i want to still be able to buy them!

    If your interested we can pop some Bedrock and Carlisle in November?

    Nov 06, 2012 at 6:03 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 2,875

    Travel 3000 miles to have wine that was grown in my backyard by a guy who travels in the same circles as other winemakers I have on speed dial?
    You are so on!

    Nov 06, 2012 at 6:29 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 5,477

    I CANNOT BELIEVE MY EYES. The WInery of the Year produces wine that the unwashed masses can actually buy in their local retail store--and without taking a second on their houses. What is this world coming to?


    Excellent selection. And a very interesting article. Thank you very much.

    Nov 06, 2012 at 8:13 PM

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