A Visit with Napa Valley’s Vinous “Mountain Man,” Winemaker Chris Carpenter

Bartender. Pre-med student. MBA recipient. Medical device salesman. Chris Carpenter is a man who’s worn many hats over the years. His most noteworthy, however, is perhaps the one he’s been wearing for the past twenty: Winemaker for Jackson Family Wines’ esteemed Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave, La Jota and Hickinbotham labels.

So just how does a Biology major from the University of Illinois become one of Napa Valley’s most well-respected winemakers making some of its most highly acclaimed wines? While studying at Illinois, Carpenter worked at Butch McGuire’s, an iconic Irish pub in Chicago, where he developed an affinity for the restaurant industry. He eventually discovered a passion for food and wine and ultimately decided to pursue a career that would marry his science background with his love of hospitality. Making wine allowed him the perfect opportunity to combine both.


Winemaker Chris Carpenter

In 1998 Carpenter received his MS in Horticulture from the University of California, Davis and, in the same year, joined Jackson Family Wines. Since then, he has become an expert on the mountain appellations of the Napa Valley. From Mt. Veeder to Howell Mountain, he is intimately acquainted with the subtle nuances each has to offer.

Whether he’s making site specific wines which reflect unique mountain terroirs, or orchestrating vinous symphonies which marry a variety of sites, Carpenter has garnered much praise over the years from consumers and critics alike. During a recent visit to Napa Valley, we were fortunate to sit down with him and taste through a selection of his 2013 offerings.


On a crisp, sunny Fall morning, we met Carpenter at the Jackson family’s Cardinale winery, located in the heart of Napa’s Oakville district. The smell of fermenting grapes perfumed the air as we proceeded up the long, winding driveway to the winery. The building’s rustic, stone architecture beautifully complements its surroundings which features sweeping, panoramic views of the Napa Valley.

At about 6’5″ tall, Chris Carpenter is not easy to miss. A ruggedly handsome blend of Paul Bunyan and Tom Selleck, circa his Magnum PI days, he arrived straight from the vineyard, walkie talkie in hand and fingers stained a deep, inky purple. His team was just pressing the last of 2016’s harvest which he emphatically declared, “an outstanding vintage from a flavor and tannin standpoint.”

True to his love of hospitality, it was soon evident Carpenter is as passionate about sharing his wines as he is about making them. During our visit, we tasted the La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon and Cardinale, all from the 2013 vintage, “a near perfect year” by Carpenter’s standards. Prior to tasting, he passionately explained his personal approach to winemaking, which consists of three essential elements:


“First, you absolutely have to make wines about place. We’ve broken up this valley into 16 smaller appellations…and each has their unique flavor profile or character relative to one another,” Carpenter reflected. “As a winemaker, my job is to preserve that character so that when you’re tasting you can get a sense of the diversity.”

“Second, the wine absolutely has to be made in the vineyard first.” He continued, “By that, I mean the raw product ultimately drives the finished product. If you don’t make the grapes as great as possible, you’ll never make great wine.”

Which led to Carpenter’s third tenet, “If I’ve done everything in the vineyard that I can, then when it comes to the winery, I can keep it as simple as possible. I preserve the characteristic of the grape versus my winemaking which can mess with the character of the grape.”


We began with the 2013 La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) crafted from fruit grown in the historic La Jota and W.S. Keyes Vineyards on Howell Mountain. Established in 1898 by Fredric Hess, the winery was named for its location on the Mexican parcel, Rancho La Jota. Carpenter described this wine as, “our most Bordeaux-like appellation, due to the region’s wetter, cooler climate which is influenced by the nearby San Pablo Bay.”

This Bordeaux-style blend contains all five Bordeaux varieties, 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10.5% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4.5% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. Following fermentation using only native yeasts, the wine underwent malolactic fermentation to soften its acidity and was then aged for 19 month in French oak barrels (89% new). The end result is a wine with an inky purplish hue and enticing aromas of black fruit, licorice and spice. On the palate, mouth-filling flavors of blackberry, black currant, licorice, graphite and savory herb accompany a gravelly minerality and food friendly acidity. While this powerful, full-bodied wine will undoubtedly reward over the next 7-10 years, the generous dollop of Merlot also makes it imminently enjoyable now.


Next, was the 2013 Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) which sources grapes from the eponymous Mt. Brave vineyard located high atop Mt. Veeder in the western Napa Valley. The vines grow at an elevation of 1,400-1,800 feet where the thin, rocky soils and steep slopes present constant issues with water retention and soil erosion. This unique terroir, however, creates small, concentrated berries which produce wines of great concentration and complexity.

The 2013 Mt. Brave is a blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 6.5% Malbec and 4.5% Cabernet Franc aged for 19 months in French oak (80% new), then bottled unfined and unfiltered. The resulting wine is bold and powerful with a gorgeous deep, opaque purple color with fragrant aromas of ripe black fruit, violet and spice. On the palate, lush notes of ripe black currant, black raspberry, roasted plum, cassis and licorice accompany brooding tannins and a lengthy spice-tinged finish. A few years in the cellar, or some aeration either using a decanter or a Vinturi (which Carpenter dubbed, “the best gadget ever!”), will nicely soften this wine’s youthful intensity.


We finished our tasting with Carpenter’s sublime 2013 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon ($275), historically a blend of only two grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon (86%) and Merlot (14%). While the previous wines have reflected specific mountain sites, Cardinale is an expression of Napa Valley as a whole, layering both mountain and valley floor fruit to ultimately create a wine of great complexity.

Vintage also plays an important role in making Cardinale, “In different vintages, different areas in Napa will perform differently, so one year [Cardinale] might be defined by a greater percentage of Mt. Veeder, and the next year it might be defined by Stag’s Leap.” As a result, Carpenter describes Cardinale as, “The most right-brained wine I make because I have to think in very creative terms. I have to think of the wines as pieces of an orchestra…each section has a very specific role in that piece of music. Individually, they don’t always make sense but when the composer layers them…they do.”

The stunning 2013 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon, comprised of predominantly Mount Veeder fruit, features a gorgeous purplish-red color and enchanting aromas of red and black fruit, sweet oak and spice. Opulent layers of black cherry, cassis, leather and mocha unfurl on the palate as the wine’s rich, silky texture gives way to a long, lingering finish. This sumptuous, sensory symphony beautifully transmutes the Napa Valley’s signature aromas, flavors and textures and this exquisitely balanced wine will continue to evolve over the next 15-20 years.


For more information on Chris Carpenter’s exceptional wines, please check out the following links: La Jota Vineyards, Mt. Brave Wines, and Cardinale Winery.


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Producer Profile: PlumpJack & CADE Welcome Sister Winery Odette

“Odette is a fabled princess… a mistress…a judge…a heroine. Odette is both of antiquity and modernity. You will find her in works of fiction and tales from history. Odette encapsulates our inspiration for this property – femininity, strength and power.” How’s that for an introduction? In this case we’re introducing a new vinous endeavor from Napa Valley’s famed Stags Leap... Read More

The post Producer Profile: PlumpJack & CADE Welcome Sister Winery Odette appeared first on The Glamorous Gourmet.

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Producer Profile: PlumpJack & CADE Welcome Sister Winery Odette

Odette Estate Winery, PlumpJack, wine, Stags Leap, California

“Odette is a fabled princess… a mistress…a judge…a heroine. Odette is both of antiquity and modernity. You will find her in works of fiction and tales from history. Odette encapsulates our inspiration for this property – femininity, strength and power.”

How’s that for an introduction? In this case we’re introducing a new vinous endeavor from Napa Valley’s famed Stags Leap District. Odette is the sister winery of PlumpJack and CADE, founded in Oakville and Howell Mountain respectively by the dynamic trio of Gavin Newsom, Gordon Getty and John Conover. Like its sisters, the name for the project was inspired by Shakespeare, however, Odette was also the name of a French judge from the 1976 Judgment of Paris, an event which rocked the wine world. This legendary blind tasting pitted French against American wine and was judged by some of the most respected palates on the planet; however, in a stunning defeat for the French, a red wine from California’s Stags Leap District took first place, officially putting California wine on the map (Bottle Shock is a great film about this historic event). Comprised of 45 acres, Odette is a new addition to this historic appellation and is dedicated to producing full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon which represent the region’s unique terroir.

Odette, PlumpJack, Stags Leap, Jeff Owens, Winemaker, California, Wine

Odette Winemaker, Jeff Owens, & Moi

2012 marks the inaugural vintage of Odette and winemaker Jeff Owens is off to a smashing start with the new label. His 2012 Odette Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was extremely well received, garnering a perfect score of 100 points from esteemed wine critic Robert Parker, the first winemaker to do so in his inaugural vintage. Owens was originally poised for a career in landscape architecture but became smitten with wine, graduating as a member of Cal Poly’s first class in Wine & Viticulture. After completing an internship at Cakebread, he made the move to the smaller, boutique PlumpJack winery where he began as a cellar worker. Owens rose quickly through the ranks and became assistant winemaker at PlumpJack in 2008, and then made the move to CADE in 2010 where he remained until being tapped for the Head Winemaking position at Odette in 2012.

The land for Odette was purchased from the Steltzner family who established their eponymous winery in the Stags Leap District in 1965. The family sold 49 acres to the PlumpJack group while retaining 30 acres on which they will continue to make their own wine. The Stags Leap American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the first in the United States to be approved based on the uniqueness of its soils, which include both loam and clay sediments from the Napa River, as well as volcanic soils from eruptions which took place millions of years ago. These soils are coarse and retain little water, which produce fruit of great intensity and flavor. The Odette team takes their role as “stewards of the land” very seriously and is currently building a LEED Certified winery on the property while also pursuing a rigorous, organic certification for its estate vineyards.

Odette, Adaptation, PlumpJack, Stags Leap, California, Wine

I recently had the pleasure of meeting the affable (and young!) Owens and tasting through the Odette wines at Ft. Lauderdale’s Capital Grille. We began with Odette’s second tier of wines, Adaptation, which consists of a Chardonnay, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon made from fruit sourced from the Napa Valley:

The 2013 Adaptation Chardonnay ($32) was pleasantly crisp and refreshing, the result of being fermented and aged primarily in stainless steel – no oak monster here! This wine had delightful notes of white flowers, green apple, and pear complemented by a food friendly acidity and dry finish making it an excellent pairing for the Crab & Lobster Burger.

The 2012 Adaptation Petite Sirah ($36) exhibited this grape’s hallmark, inky purple hue which had my wine glass looking like a stained glass window. Heady aromas of black fruit and spice followed through on the palate with mouth-filling flavors of juicy blackberry, ripe plum, and baking spices. Appreciable tannins and a lengthy finish made this wine a perfect match for the Grille’s juicy Signature Cheeseburger.

The 2012 Adaptation Cabernet Sauvignon ($46) is a “celebration” of classic Napa Cabernet which was aged in 50% new French oak and 50% used for 20 months. The result is a full-bodied red with aromas of bright red fruit, vanilla and spice while on the palate, red currant, cranberry, mocha and smoky oak predominate. Chewy tannins and a lively acidity make this wine an excellent partner for grilled meats such as the Filet Mignon with Cipollini Onions and Wild Mushrooms.

Our final wine of the flight was the 2012 Odette Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($98), a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc from one of Napa’s most acclaimed vintages. This wine had an opaque, purple hue and fragrant aromas of black fruit, cassis and spice. On the palate, this full-bodied beauty revealed layers of black cherry, raspberry, violet, and licorice while tannin and acid struck an elegant balance which persisted through the lengthy finish.

The Adaptation and Odette wines provide wonderful representations of their respective grape varieties as seen through the unique prism of California terroir. I hope you enjoy experiencing them and next time you’re in wine country, be sure to stop in for a visit!

5998 Silverado Trail, Napa
Telephone: (707) 224-7533