Uncorked: Christopher Carpenter

Having worked for two decades in Californian vineyards, Christopher Carpenter has emerged as one of Napa Valley’s most respected winemakers, now overseeing winemaking at Jackson Family Wines’ Cardinale, Lokoya and Mt. Brave labels. Carpenter began his winemaking career in 1998 and has since earned several highly rated scores from various leading critics. In a chat with dbHK, the seasoned winemaker talks about the wine and music of his birth vintage, a 1990 Groth Reserve from Napa Valley that transformed his understanding about wine, as well as the problem with the industry’s excessive intellectualism.

What vintage are you? 

Funny thing is I don’t know too much about my birth year in terms of wine quality, how those wines were received and how they held up. I have had a 1964 Vega Sicilia that was one of the most memorable wines of my life. What I can tell you it was an incredible year for music with the Beatles owning the top 100, the Stones releasing their first album and one of the all-time great songs, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ making its debut. Wine and music go hand in hand, and if music is the indicator I hope wine was there as well.

What bottle sparked your love of wine? 

The wine that transformed my understanding of what wine could be and where it might take me was the 1990 Groth Reserve from Napa Valley. I was a bartender in Chicago out with a few bartending colleagues at a small Italian restaurant in Little Italy on the near west side. When there we typically drank a Chianti in the basket bottle. Our server was a friend who understood wine much better than any of us did at the time and he insisted on sharing this bottle with us that he had brought in knowing we were coming in that night. It changed my life. 

What would you be as a wine? 

I make the wine I would be, Cabernet Sauvignon.     

Where are you happiest? 

I find happiness in so many places, the vineyards that I work with, the ocean and the bay that I’ve sailed on, live music venues, my kitchen or deep in a book but nothing holds any water to the days I have spent watching my daughters perform music or playing soccer on a Saturday afternoon. Seeing them grow up and excel at their endeavours, through thick and thin, is the best thing ever.

What’s your greatest vice? 

What is my greatest vice? Wow it’s getting real personal now. I don’t have any one particular vice that consumes me. I like to spread myself equally across a wide range of bad behaviours.

Best advice you ever received? 

I worked for a woman many years ago who managed a large team of people and had a tremendous responsibility to perform at the highest level in the medical industry. She always did her work with a steady attitude, an astute understanding of the process and in a methodical way. Issues would arise, crisis would flare, people would go psycho, and a host of other challenges would come and go and throughout she remained steadfast. She was very successful with most of the blips in normalcy just rolling off her back. 

The key to her success was a piece of advice she gave me very early on in her management of me: “Control the controllables.” In other words try to understand those things that you can manoeuvre, change or direct. Have as much of that lined up as possible. There will be challenges you cannot control, i.e. weather, a change in guard, new competitive products, political upheaval, market forces beyond your control, the list goes on and on. The key is to realise you do not have control of those things and to not stress over them, and to have as much as you are able to control prepared to confront them. The not stressing them over part is really useful in the wine business where some people in our industry stress over the weather. There is no changing the weather so why stress over it. Just be ready to pivot if it goes awry.

Your cellar’s underwater, which bottle would you dive in and save? 

The 2001 Cardinale. It was the first Cardinale I blended and I think one of the best wines I have made. It has the highest percentage of Merlot I have ever used in the blend at 27% and to this day still drinks incredibly well.

What’s the best and worst thing about the wine business? 

The best thing about the wine business is that we make this incredibly alluring beverage in some of the most beautiful places on the planet, it creates memory, history, emotion, and it lives and it dies like us. 

The worst thing is that we sometimes make it hard to allow people to feel comfortable just drinking wine for the pure enjoyment of it rather than the celebration some have for the esoteric intellectualism that comes with the accumulation of wine knowledge. I fear and sometimes see how this makes many people shy away because of the awkwardness of feeling called out on your level of knowledge.

What’s on your wine bucket list? 

Not so much wine is on my bucket list as it is visiting vineyard areas. I haven’t yet visited Porto, Ribero del Duero, the Rheingau, Alsace or Sardinia.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? 

The Rolling Stones, Beethoven, Mozart, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, JRR Tolkien, The inaugural cast of Saturday Night Live, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Michelangelo and Einstein. Could make for an interesting evening. We would certainly need a lot of wine.

Personal satisfaction (Parker points – out of 100)?

I will say is that I am always striving to achieve that level of excellence in whatever I do. I may not reach it but in my heart I know that I have done everything humanly possible to allow for that level of recognition.

Which wine would you like served at your funeral?

I want my funeral to be a celebration. So bring on the 1990 Dom Perignon Oenotheque! 

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