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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Wine of the Week: 2012 Brandlin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California

This time of year I love to revel in reds. Big, bold, complex, luxurious reds. And what better place to find them than California’s Napa Valley? Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling one such red wine – our Wine of the Week, the 2012 Brandlin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder.

Who it’s from: The Brandlin family were early pioneers of Mount Veeder and began farming grapes there in the early 1870’s. The Brandlin Vineyard was founded in 1926 by Chester Brandlin’s grandfather, and Chester himself continued to farm the vineyard for over 50 years. In an interview featured on the winery’s website, Brandlin fondly recalls growing grapes during the tough Prohibition years which ultimately devastated California’s budding wine industry. How did the family avoid getting caught? “We were good friends with the Sheriff,” Brandlin remarked coyly.


Chester Brandlin in the family’s Brandlin Vineyard on Mount Veeder

As winemaker for Napa Valley’s Cuvaison and Brandlin since 2002, both of Cuvaison Estate Wines, Steven Rogstad honed his sense of terroir as a graduate student of Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis. During his studies, Rogstad experimented with non-commercial yeast strains on lots of wine from fifty different wineries across the appellation. This project also developed his ability to work with and blend small lots which is crucial to his winemaking style today. Over the years, Rogstad has worked with and advised such well-regarded names as Viader, Dominus, Duckhorn and Spottswoode. He was ultimately draw to Cuvaison’s estate vineyard in Carneros as well as the opportunity to build their new winery from the ground up.


Where it’s from: Named for Dutch Pastor Peter Veeder in the mid-1800’s, Mount Veeder is located among the southern Mayacamas mountains adjoining Carneros. Existing within the Napa AVA, the Mount Veeder AVA (American Viticultural Area) was established in 1993 and features vineyards which are highly exposed to elements including the winds off of San Pablo Bay. This exposure is responsible for Mount Veeder’s unusually cool temperatures, resulting in the longest growing season of any AVA in Napa Valley.

“Steep rocky soils and a moderate climate render intense, black fruited concentration and a powerful backbone of tannin that make this wine unique.”
– Steven Rogstad, Winemaker

The Brandlin Vineyard is located on a Mount Veeder ridgeline on the valley’s west side. Perched at 900 to 1,150 feet in elevation, the vineyard is divided into 15 different blocks facing a multitude of different aspects. The varied differences in sun exposure, slope and soil composition provide distinct fruit characteristics in each block. These unique conditions have led to Mount Veeder’s well-deserved reputation as an ideal place to grow world class Cabernet Sauvignon characterized by briary aromas and flavors with herbal and floral notes which are often powerful and high in tannin.


Beautiful Old Vines in the Brandlin Vineyard

Wine by the (Geeky) Numbers:
Harvest Date: Oct 11- 30
Age of Vines: 12 years average
Fermentation: 15 – 28 days
Barrel Aging: 22 months in small French oak barrels (50% new)
ML: 100%
Blend: 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Malbec, 9% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot
Alcohol: 14.5%
Acid: 6.2
pH: 3.70

The Glamorous Gourmet’s Tasting Note: The Brandlin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder possesses an opaque, deep purple color and aromas of spiced red and black fruit. On the palate, this opulent wine demonstrates remarkable balance while exhibiting notes of ripe blackberry, cassis, earth and luxuriously firm tannins. The wine’s harmonious flavors and textures hold together beautifully on the long, lingering finish.

Pair it with: Enjoy this immensely pleasurable wine with a juicy, well-marbled New York Strip Steak, our own delicious Steak au Poivre or even an aged cheese. Roast duck or pork with a blackberry sauce would also be fabulous!

MSRP: $68 (for purchasing information, please e-mail or call 561.317.6663)

Bon appétit,


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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

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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



Winemaker of the Week: Chris Phelps of Swanson Vineyards!

In the world of wine, it is not uncommon for winemakers to spend the duration their careers in their country of origin. In the Old World especially, centuries of tradition and familial ties often hold sway over the need for worldly exploration. Occasionally, however, the opportunity to explore both worlds presents itself as was the case for winemaker Chris Phelps of Swanson Vineyards (pictured above) in California’s Napa Valley.

Born in Livermore, California, Phelps took an interest in two things early in life: wine and all things French. In pursuit of his passions, this bona fide Francophile studied both enology and French at UC Davis and upon graduating, made the move to France to continue his vinous studies at the University of Bordeaux. As part of his practical experience he landed a position as winemaker during the 1982 harvest, one of the most storied vintages in Bordeaux history. During this time, Phelps was mentored by two of the most well-known names in this world-renowned wine region, Christian Moueix and Jean-Claude Berrouet and his relationship with these men resulted in a winter spent living and working at Château Pétrus. After six months at the legendary estate, Moueix hired Phelps as winemaker at his new project in the Napa Valley, Dominus Estate. This position signaled Phelps’ return to California where he would incorporate his skills acquired in France with his existing knowledge to create Bordeaux-style, Meritage wines. Phelps remained at Dominus for over ten years, followed by a stint at Caymus where he crafted their renowned Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. It wasn’t until 2003 that he joined Swanson Vineyards which, “felt like coming home,” due to the winery’s historic focus on Merlot which he became intimately acquainted with during his time on Bordeaux’s Right Bank.

Recently I had the pleasure of having lunch with Phelps at Joseph’s Wine Bar & Cafe in downtown Delray Beach, Florida while he was in town promoting the latest releases of the Swanson wines. The bespectacled Phelps was very engaging and when asked how he would describe his winemaking style, he responded, “it’s more about what I don’t do…like use too much oak, add tannin, add acid or color, or sweetness enhancers.” He also added, “I’m not an interventionist winemaker, I channel the vineyard into the bottle and express what the vineyard is trying to do. I try to make honest wines.”

We began the tasting with the 2011 Swanson Napa Valley Pinot Grigio ($18) which was under screwcap, “perfect for a wine meant to be consumed young and fresh,” added Phelps. And it was exactly that, young, bright and fresh with aromas of Meyer lemon and peach which continued on the palate along with hints of tropical fruit and a refreshing acidity. In addition to Pinot Grigio, this wine is 9% Chardonnay giving it nice weight and roundness which thankfully sets it apart from your standard issue, vapid Pinot Grigio. Completely stainless steel fermented, this wine is a delightful Summer selection, perfect for pairing with warm weather fare such as peel-and-eat Gulf pink shrimp or raw oysters on the half shell.

Our second white wine was the 2012 Swanson Napa Valley Chardonnay ($36), which displayed aromas of green apple, citrus and an enticing minerality very reminiscent of Chablis. On the palate, flavors of lemon, apple and peach accompanied a food-friendly acidity and delightful, mouth-coating viscosity. In addition to stainless steel, this wine also spent some time in French oak (95% neutral, 5% new) which, in Phelps capable hands translates to an excellent balance between oak and fruit in the finished wine. While delightful on its own, this Chardonnay is a fabulous food wine and I found myself instantly envying a woman at the next table who had ordered the baked Brie.

Artwork in the Swanson Vineyards Salon

Our first red wine of the tasting was making its vinous debut, the 2011 Swanson Cygnet Napa Valley Merlot ($22), a blend of 78% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon which had spent 16 months in oak barrel (70% American, 30% French). The resulting wine had fragrant aromas of juicy black fruit and spice as well as mouth-filling flavors of blackberry jam, ripe black cherry, cassis and spice cake. The Cabernet Sauvignon adds just the right amount of structure and tannin to pull this wine back from the brink of hedonism and it will definitely appeal to fans of juicy, fruit-forward Napa Valley Merlot. Phelps certainly accomplished his goal of making, “a wine that is easily enjoyed on its own or as an accompaniment to a variety of foods.”

Next up was the 2010 Oakville Merlot ($32), a Swanson classic which is stylistically different from the Cygnet Merlot. In addition to the Merlot, this wine is also 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot, which was aged for 18 months in 50% French and American oak barrels (33% new). The result is a wine with a core of black fruit including blackberry and plum accompanied by notes of espresso, baking spices and firm tannins. The Oakville Merlot was well-balanced with great structure and as Phelps explained, “it was balanced when it came off the vine!” This wine will definitely benefit from a few more years of bottle age, although it was pretty delicious the day we tasted it.

We finished with the 2010 Alexis Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($69), a wine which debuted with the 1994 vintage and is named for the Swanson’s eldest daughter. While this wine was initially a Cabernet/Syrah blend, it has been reimagined as a Cabernet Sauvignon since 2005. The Bordeaux purist in Phelps thought the Syrah took away from the varietal purity of the Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2010 Alexis is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot aged for 21 months in 100% French oak barrels (60% new). This well-made wine serves up a complex array of black fruit, spice, cassis and espresso which envelops your palate, coating it with a lovely balance of fruit and tannin which delightfully lingers after each sip. While delicious now, this wine will also age with grace for the next 10-15 year and is perfect for pairing with roasted or grilled meats such as lamb chops with rosemary or filet mignon.

The Swanson Vineyards Salon

All the Swanson wines in this post are available at The Wine Atelier (click here for more information) and in addition to tasting their delightful wines, I’ve also had the pleasure of visiting Swanson Vineyards in the Napa Valley. The beautiful Swanson tasting salon, decorated in the style of an 18th century French parlor, definitely warrants a visit next time you’re in town. Who knows, you might even see the elegant Elizabeth Swanson in the courtyard tending to her garden while the ever-dapper Clarke is looking after the winery. If you feel like indulging in a real treat, book a private, curated tasting which pairs the Swanson wines with caviar, cheese and chocolates from around the world!