Unlike with my pick for Wine of the Year, which is a wine that has moved me and changed my view of wine in some way, shape or form, I award my Winery of the Year selection to a winery that has had consumer interests at top of mind.
This can be seen as a vague statement in that most wineries have their consumers’ interests at heart in one way or another.
Wineries are out there making the best wines they can make for a certain price, or the best wines they can make at any price. They are also there trying to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate what consumers might want down the road. All good and true, but what’s the motivation? Bottom line is the bottom line.
I’d be a fool to say that this year’s Winery of the Year isn’t in it for the money, they don’t call it the wine business for nothing. Once you move past the bottom line, there are a few other aspects that distinguish those wineries that really value their clients over all else.
The first is value. It’s not easy to produce world-class wine at price points that are widely affordable. Consider this year’s choice, whose wines range from about $35 a bottle at retail to about $60 a bottle for the rarest single vineyard offerings. If you are lucky enough to be on the producer’s mailing list, these wines tend to be in the $30 to $40 range. The uptick in price reflects not only the increasing demand this producer is finding for his wine, but also the regard he holds for his customers. It keeps those who’ve managed to make his mailing list loyal, repeat and satisfied customers.
Winery image via ShutterstockThe second point worth making here is that this winery’s star is still ascending. His wines have always received significant critical acclaim, but there is no doubt that his current release of wines are the best he has ever made. While last year I awarded my Winery of the Year to a producer of Zinfandel, this year’s winner offers so much more.
Letting a little out of the bag, I have to at least discuss Zinfandel a bit before moving on. Zinfandel, along with Petit Sirah, is America’s vinous jewel, particularly the old vine vineyards that dot the Northern California landscape. We’re losing these treasures to housing tracts and Cabernet. Losing them to bottom line wines. That is more than a shame, it is a disaster.
Cabernet can make some pretty attractive wines in many places, California included, but the wines we have from the old vine vineyards in California cannot be replicated. That alone is not reason enough to defend them and mourn their passing, but the wines can be awesome, too! Amazing! Fantastic, even!
Seriously, I love Zinfandel and there is nothing better than old vines, field blends and the hands of a skilled winemaker for creating characterful, unique and distinctive wines. Make those wines $40 a bottle and you’ve done a service not only to your consumers, but to the growers maintaining the vineyards and to the next generation of wine drinkers that will be able to share in the bounty.
As an aside, if I were to give an award for Person of the Year, it would go to Mike Officer, who was part of the motivating force behind the formation of the Historic Vineyard Society (HVS). Not to drift too far off topic, but the HVS is committed to cataloguing all the great, historic vineyards of California. With Mike Dildine now in the lead, the project team is a gathering of giants: David Gates from Ridge Vineyards, Mike Officer from Carlisle Vineyards, Tegan Passalacqua from Turley Wine Cellars, Morgan Twain-Peterson from Bedrock Vineyards, and Jancis Robinson.
A lot of vineyards are featured on the HVS site, with listings of fascinating information including original planting date, location, distinctive features of the vineyards, composition of the vines planted, and in many cases, photographs. This is admittedly a tool for the Zin geek, but it is also a growing historical document, and I am thrilled to recommend it to other wine lovers. If you love Zin and other less appreciated varieties from California, you should pour yourself a glass and check out the site sometime. Remember to leave yourself some time because it does draw you in!
So, we have a winery that produces a varied set of wines from some of the most historic vineyards in California and they’re offering the wines for sale at great prices. Convincing enough of an argument for Winery of the Year yet? No, of course not, the wines have to be great, too. In the case of Carlisle, they most certainly are.
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.”
So why does he persist? He’s enamored with the history, the role it has played in California’s viticulture, and the special quality of fruit from the old vines. He is also a self-professed glutton for punishment, whose goal in life is to have a full understanding of Zinfandel at some point! It can be comfortably argued that he needs a new goal.
Maybe a marketing class is in order. Actually, scratch that, but consider this. Carlisle does no marketing in the traditional sense so that they can pass the savings onto the consumer, quite literally.
According to Mike, “We do lose money on some wines like the Sonoma County wines, the cost of goods for those wines is such that we’re losing money on them but with no marketing, our rationale is that the Sonoma County wines are our marketing.”
This is Carlisle’s advertising strategy, put the wine in people’s mouths and let them decide if they want more. Pretty ballsy move if you ask me and one that seems to suit Mike just fine. After all, he would prefer not to have to “go out and push our wine.” Instead preferring to “sell wines to anyone. Keeping prices down means they sell themselves and don’t have to be marketed. Leaving me more time to be in the cellar, where I’d rather be.”
This strategy work in many ways because Mike’s approach to wine is fairly simple. He has three goals, in his words they are:
1) Make a wine that is true to the vintage
2) Make a wine that is true to its source, its terroir
3) Make a wine I want to drink
I don’t know if he has succeeded, every consumer needs to judge that for himself, but I have to agree with him regarding point number three. He has certainly made plenty of wines that I want to drink!
In honor of this article, I’ve dug through some of my older vintages of Carlisle wines to provide a bit of a retrospective tasting perspective on the wines. You might ask why I didn’t taste more recent wines, and the answer is simple. Mike’s wines need a few years to show their best. How many years depends on the vintage and vineyards, but as a rule of thumb, I think the wines show their best some four to eight years after the vintage.
Before we jump into the tasting notes, a few more words are in order about Carlisle. The winery is named after Mike’s wife Kendall, whose maiden name was Carlisle. It’s a relatively modest operation that was born from a dream. You see, Mike had been in software development for years when he was bitten by the winemaking bug.
Mike claims to have had his mid-life crisis at an early age. At 25 and only three years out of college, Mike realized that if he wasn’t careful, he “would be 65 and in front of a keyboard.”
He said, “I realized that was not what I wanted to do for the rest of life.” He knew that he loved wine, but also knew that he was no salesman, so the retail and wholesale possibilities for him in the wine business were, shall we say, limited.
That left winemaking, so Mike began with a 5 gallon batch in the mid 1980s. That first try ended up going down the drain because Mike didn't like it, he told us. Instead of so many home winemakers, Mike’s reaction wasn’t to look for another easy grape (of course, even that first wine was Zinfandel, produced from 100 lbs of fruit from the Sausal Vineyard). Mike came to the conclusion that wasn’t making enough wine. What? This is not how reasonable people generally respond to failures. Doing it on a larger scale is an odd choice to make after producing some undrinkable wine, but Mike realized he needed to make a barrel, that you just couldn’t make great wine in 5 gallon batches.
A barrel it was the following year, then three, then five, then seven, then nine, all produced in his garage. Before he took his leap to the pros, Mike rounded out his amateur career in 1997 by producing 300 barrels of wine, still in his garage, though by 1990 he had moved to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. It was then that Mike’s wife Kendall finally said it was time to fish or cut bait.
Mike and Kendall kept their day jobs for six years while getting Carlisle up and running, so it wasn’t an easy decision to make. One thinks that getting 300 barrels out of the garage might have played a role in it, though! In her honor, Mike named the newly founded winery after her.
The early years were challenging and Mike still remembers his five hour commute to San Francisco, but after six years he had a real, honest-to-goodness, profitable wine business. Carlisle is a family’s dream come true, but in so many ways it is so many of our dreams, as well. Wine geeks who think about how great it would to make wine, wine geeks who don’t know or understand marketing, wine geeks who want to make wine from important and distinctive vineyards, wine geeks who want to make wines they want to drink. Mike has done it, folks. I’m not sure one could replicate what Mike has done today, but if anyone out there is wavering, he has done it!
Sometimes, you have second doubts when it comes to doing something like naming a small winery, making geek wines, or selling them from a mailing list as a winery of the year. I, in fact, do not have such doubts. I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Mike and Carlisle. Frankly, I can’t think of any model more deserving either. Carlisle is what a small winery can be, what it should be.
I wish Mike continued success and will leave you with one final tidbit. I asked, as is so often the case, what Mike’s epiphany wines were. He could not pin down one but did mention the ‘76 Joseph Swan and the ‘77 Clos du Val. He added that with the 1985 Ravenswood Dickerson and Old Hill, in particular, he was “blown away.”
In my opinion, The Old Hill Vineyard is one of the greatest vineyards in this country. Along with Belloni, it is one of the two vineyards Mike would most like to work with. This is a rather meaningless exercise, I do not think there is a shortage of demand for Bucklin’s excellent Old Hill Zinfandel, so seeing the fruit come up for sale any time soon is quite the pipe dream. But you know what, it does tell me that Mike is still dreaming. He is still possessed of a passion for Zinfandel that comes through in his wines, that motivated him from the start, and that represents some of the joy that each of us derives from wine. Open a bottle of Carlisle and pour yourself some of that passion!
2007 Carlisle Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 15.1%
This has some chocolate, vanilla-laced oak on the nose along with a slightly beefy, licorice-tinged raspberry core of fruit and a slight candied cherry top note. Smooth and surprisingly bright on entry, this has lovely ripe tannins and a bit of heat on the palate supporting lightly brambly raspberry and blackberry fruit. The finish is bright, clear and long. Nice accents of toasted spices, vanilla and a touch cinnamon spice extend on the moderately long finish in balance with the raspberry and cherry fruit. 89pts
2006 Carlisle Carlisle Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel 15%
This is red and bricky on the nose with a lovely, dusty earth quality over brambly, tobacco-toned, musky wild berry fruit and a hint of salted plum. This is so well balanced, bright and juicy with lovely, ripe tannins supporting the earthy, carob-inflected core of dried strawberry and plum fruit that shows mushroomy edges. Silky and frankly elegant on the finish with a lovely balance of earthy fruit and sweet red raspberry notes. This is poised and complex with spicy cinnamon and cocoa notes on the long finish. Yes, it shows a touch of heat, but this is lovely. 94pts
2007 Carlisle Carlisle Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel 14.9%
Tight on the nose with subtle violet, pepper and red earth notes over a light base of barbecue sauced red berries with a hint of pomegranate seeds. Bright and a little edgy on entry, this is still youthful and tight. The fruit is deep and old-viney with earthy, mushroomy blackberry notes taking center stage. There’s a lovely interplay between the structural elements here, and the fruit plays out right through the taut, balanced and elegant finish. Cinnamon spice and red cherry fruit emerge with air and the texture gets a little more tender, but this really needs 2-3 years in the cellar. 92pts
2006 Carlisle Montafi Ranch Russian River Valley Zinfandel 15.4%
A bit earthy on the nose with savory barbecue sauce notes enlivened by a hint of floral herb, all coming together over spicy, briary, brambly blackberry fruit that has some vanilla streaks lingering in the background. Classic Zinfandel nose. This is exciting on the palate, transparent yet large-scaled with fine-grained tannins and juicy acidity supporting vanilla laced red cherry and raspberry fruit. There’s a hint of something blacker on the back end, along with lovely briary spice notes and a creamy raspberry jam edge that flows onto the spicy, bright finish. Long and filled with hints of carob, orange peel, cranberry and black raspberry fruit. Zinfandel rarely gets much better than this. 96pts
2007 Carlisle Montafi Ranch Russian River Valley Zinfandel 14.9%
This is smoky and a bit nutty on the nose with a touch of oyster shell accenting the orange oil and bittersweet chocolate, lightly smoky plum and blackberry fruit. Cool and taut on entry, this is tight, revealing only a glimpse of lovely pure blackberry fruit. Another Montafi bottling that shows great balance and freshness of fruit though here there is more ripeness than with the 2006 and a little edge of dried fruit that appears on the back end. The finish is lightly oaky and a touch dry, but time will help in that regard, and the burst of pure, fresh blackberry fruit along with a lovely citrus note of cranberry on the finale bodes well for the future. Put these away for another 2-3 years. 93pts
2006 Carlisle Bacchi Ranch Russian River Valley Zinfandel 16%
Big, spicy and prune nose shows some truffle along with earthy, funky top notes. Air brings out a bit of a black raspberry, candied element with a mere hint of pepper. Soft and broad on entry, this is almost at peak with a touch of dry tannin peeking out on the darkly-fruited palate. There’s a liquory quality to the fruit here, a little plum brandy with chocolate and cedar notes coming out on the moderately long yet dry finish. This has a slight roasted quality to the fruit, with a nice pop of freshness on the finish, but the tannins remain dry. 87pts
2006 Carlisle Gold Mine Ranch Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 15.7%
This is slightly exotic on the nose with subtle Middle Eastern spice notes, a touch of violet florals and candied cherry and pomegranate fruit all over a touch of cinnamon. Smooth and silky on entry, this then firms up a bit in the mouth. The tannins are here but ripe and well balanced by juicy acidity, all wrapped in candy apple and blackberry fruit. The exotic quality on the nose pops on the back end and lends a lovely perfumed quality to the long if hot finish. Really well behaved for a wine this big, with a slightly peppery spice note that echoes right through the palate. 92pts
2006 Carlisle Carlo’s Ranch Russian River Valley Zinfandel 15.3%
Dark black fruit and black pepper spice greet the nose with a meaty, leathery cast to the cola and macerated, floral scented dark cherry fruit. Big and plump on entry, this rolls over the palate with intense, fresh iron accented wild berry fruit. There are hints of juniper and earthy spices here as well as a slightly cola edge that leads to a cool, crisp, snappy finish. Very savory on the finish with some wood tannins that try to break through, but the bitter and medicinal-toned black cherry fruit powers through the long finish. This is just great, complex, balanced and fruity enough yet full of savory notes. Love this. 94pts
2006 Carlisle Pietro’s Ranch Russian River Valley Zinfandel 16.1%
Quite ripe on the nose with fruit that has moved into the dried end of the spectrum with notes of fig and date accented with black pepper and thick, medical herb-laced grape notes. There’s some smoke here as well, and a little roasted hickory with an attractive carob element. Soft and broad in the mouth, this is packed with fruit and some dry tannin, all wrapped up in slightly pruny dried berry fruit. There’s a nice layered feel here and some good earthy complexity, with lovely red fruits making an appearance on the back end. Then, the finish kicks in the deep boysenberry and blackberry fruit that’s zesty and fresh. The dried fruit element turns into a sort of caramel and chocolate coating. This grows on you pretty quickly, though there is a noticeable heat on the finish. 93pts
2003 Carlisle Rossi Ranch Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 15.9%
Sweet berried fruits on the nose with a touch of Christmas spice, toasty oak and a lovely suggestion of sweetness that recalls red rope licorice. The tannin here is essentially resolved, leaving a fairly rich yet quite transparent core of macerated red cherry fruit framed with cedary and slightly spicy oak. This is pleasant but the tannins that are still here do grow with air and the wine hasn’t developed much in the way of complexity. 87pts
2004 Carlisle Rossi Ranch Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 15.9%
This has red rope licorice on the nose over a lightly spiced core of red fruit, redolent of cherries, plums and lingonberry jam. There’s a gentle top note of wood spice still contributing some additional complexity along with a slightly floral honey note. This is very well balanced, a big wine with no sharp edges. The tannins and acid are firm but well covered by the fruit, which remains fresh and plump. There’s a nice cinnamon spice tone and even a light herbal top note that helps frame the core of fresh plum and lingonberry fruit. The finish firms up nicely and this really shows that old vine depth and balance. Just gorgeous fruit. At peak but still young and firm, and capable of another five years or more of positive evolution in the bottle. Gorgeous finish as well, lightly earthy and spicy but balanced and fairly elegant even if there is a hint of heat. 94pts
2007 Carlisle Rossi Ranch Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 15.1%
This is still fairly tight on the nose with a lightly candied core of grape and red cherry fruit on the nose. There’s a touch of wood spice adding complexity but this is not that giving. A little tight in the mouth but soft and smooth with lovely tannins and balance. The fruit is fairly ripe, showing hints of carob and date over the core of tight blackberry and black plum fruit. The finish is not terribly giving either. This needs time to open but the balance already makes this attractive in a textural way. Air brings out some brandied cherries on the finish. 89pts
2006 Carlisle Dry Creek Valley Syrah 15.1%
Dark, oily and quite oaky in a hickory nut sort of way on the nose, though there are lovely peppery nuances that rise to compete with the oak, which turns more chocolatey with air. There are nice floral and meaty accents here as well along with a nice core of plummy fruit. This is rather tight and focused on entry with lots of blue and black fruits emerging on the palate, supported by an underlay of toasty oak. The back end sees some floral notes and a bit of pepper emerging along with some shaved chocolate notes that lead to more chocolate and oak on the moderately long finish. The tannins here are quite ripe and the acidity bright enough to keep this lively, but this seems to be quite matte overall. Time should help here but this is a little foursquare. 87pts
2007 Carlisle Dry Creek Valley Syrah 14.5%
Fairly fresh on the nose with plenty of oak and vanilla notes, but they are well matched by the wild blackberry and boysenberry fruit aromas. There's a hint of green citrus peel here along with hints of violets, cranberries and white pepper. This is bright and sleek in the mouth, delivering plenty of detailed, spicy black fruits along with well integrated oak that adds nuanced coffee and cocoa notes. The tannins are super fresh with lively acidity that brightens the fruit on the back end before yielding to a lightly peppery, long finish that shows off lovely purity of fruit and offers up a better look at the soft but ample tannins that underpin this all. This is pretty and should age well over the medium term, say three to six years. 91pts
2006 Pelkan Ranch Knights Valley Syrah 15.9%
Rich with dark fruit and nutty oak aromas that add layers of espresso foam, lingonberries, black pepper and green citron peel. Smooth on entry, this shows real muscle in the mouth, though with a sinewy texture this is darkly fruited and decisive. Full of slightly roasted, cocoa-dusted dried berry and dried date fruit, but the mid-palate hits with remarkably balancing austerity. The balance here is the best among Carlisle's 2006 Syrahs and the texture of this wine is fabulous. There's a hint of heat here, not what one might expect from 15.9 percent. The fruit retains excellent detail, even if it is dark and roasted. The finish shows a bit of a brighter fruit character, with wild cherry and candied cranberry elements extending over the spicy base of oak that pops on the finale. Halfway to maturity, I'd wait another two or three years to see where this goes but it is drinking quite well already for those who like taut, austere wines. 91pts
2007 Pelkan Ranch Syrah Knights Valley 14.9%
Very pretty on the nose with light, wispy floral, spice and red fruit aromas that seem a bit unformed. This is focused and decisive in the mouth with a core of tightly wound dark berry fruit that shows a bit of juniper spice and maintains a certain impression of sweetness even though the wine is dry. The balance here is excellent and while this is tannic, it doesn't feel aggressive. Inner mouth perfumes of wild plums and mulberry grow with air, adding notes of pink peppercorn and gentle red floral notes that extend over the finish. The finish does shut down fairly quickly, though the tannins are lovely, fine-grained and headed towards silky. This is going to be excellent in three years or so, everything is here and in perfect balance. Love this wine. It's powerful and precise with great fruit and mouth-cleansing austerity. 93pts
2006 Rosella's Vineyard Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands 15.3%
Funky and meaty on the nose, real roasted game note here along with truffles, blackberries and freshly turned earth. This enters the mouth broad yet a little soft, with slightly evolved flavors that show off the meaty side of Syrah. The tannins are a little dry and aggressive in the mouth and they really clamp down on the finish, which does show a nice, austere edge to the fruit. This remains tough and a bit chewy, with plenty of earthy fruit but enough structure to prevent one from seeing all its detail. On the back end, there is a burst of detailed raspberry fruit, then bitter cherries on the start of the finish, but this is tough to get a read on and not very much fun today. Will it improve? Very possibly, but I'm not sure I'd bet on it. 87pts
2007 Rosella's Vineyard Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands 14.7%
This is very subtly layered on the nose with detailed aromas of flowers, green peppercorn, blueberry and boysenberry fruit, a dash of vanilla and raw beef. Smooth and silky on entry, there's a lot of dry extract here adding power but this remains lively on the palate with a base of firm tannins imparting an earthy aspect to fruit flavors. Still very tight, this will need plenty of time, but the detailed hints of cocoa-dusted blackberries and black cherries that rise through the back end and turn aromatic on the long finish bode well for the future. The finale still shows some chocolatey oak but the lightly jammy fruit stays within to the very end. Keep for another two years then drink over the following six. 92pts