Brian Carter’s journey in the wine industry has included some decisions that to many may have seemed unusual but have always been made with the objective of setting himself apart from the norm. Over the past 35 years, he’s done exactly that earning a reputation as not only a pioneer of the Washington wine industry, but also as one of its most respected winemakers.
It’s always interesting to us finding out how the passion for wine is initially ignited in winemakers. Many are born into the business, some find it through the culinary or hospitality industry, and then there are some that discover it despite having no obvious influences while growing up. Brian falls into the latter category. The first inkling that he might be destined to pursue winemaking as a career was as a 12-year-old when got his first microscope. His passion was science, specifically experimenting with yeast. Ok, so maybe not so obvious at the time but looking back, it was this interest in science that would be the key to his trajectory in working with wine.
Despite his parents not being wine drinkers, Brian was interested enough on his own to take a wine appreciation class during his junior year in college at Oregon State University. At the class he met some of the best winemakers from the Willamette Valley including David Lett and Dick Erath, two of the early pioneers of the Oregon wine industry. Their passion was so evident to Brian that he decided being a winemaker was what he wanted to do, “I really hadn’t envisioned being a winemaker as a career until I met those guys.” He asked them what he needed to do to become a winemaker and they suggested he start by attending UC Davis (home to one of the most recognized oenology & viticulture programs in the world).
After graduating from Oregon State with a degree in microbiology, he earned his master’s degree at UC Davis, and went to work at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. Just a few years earlier, Montelena had gained worldwide attention when their Chardonnay beat out its French counterparts at the now infamous “Judgement of Paris” tasting putting Brian at the epicenter of the most anticipated wine region in the world at the time. With Napa Valley the new darling of the wine world, Brian made the unexpected decision to return to the northwest.
He considered Oregon but had visited Washington frequently as a good friend lived in Seattle. He had also gone to UC Davis with David Lake who was with Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery), based in Woodinville, “I was drawn by the diversity here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling…there was just a lot more going on here whereas Oregon was really just Pinot Noir.”
He began the Washington portion of his wine career at Paul Thomas Wines when there only about a dozen wineries in the state. His impact was felt almost immediately when his 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon was chosen over a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild at a blind tasting in New York. He eventually left Paul Thomas Wines to become a winemaking consultant helping launch such wineries as McCrea, Soos Creek, Hedges and Silver Lake. Given the rapid growth of the Washington wine industry at that time, he could have easily continued as a wine consultant but a few years later became the winemaker at Washington Hills and Apex Cellars.
After successfully helping launch or make wine for so many other wineries, Brian decided he wanted to make his own wine and established Brian Carter Cellars approximately 15 years ago. The need to set himself apart once again took hold and he decided to follow his passion for blending becoming the first Washington winery to focus exclusively on blends (although he does make a few single varietal wines). “Blends are interesting in the sense that they seem to have come full circle. Historically, blends were more common in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s and then in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s the real interest moved to single varietals. That’s actually been a good thing because it has helped educate consumers on what the varieties taste like which has been an advantage to blends today.”
For Brian, blending isn’t just about grape varieties, it’s also about blending sites, “I buy from a variety of vineyards. During a warmer year I’ll pick more from the cooler sites and in the cooler year from the warmer sites. In an area like Washington where the vintages are fairly consistent, I like the notion that the best wines are from the cooler sites in the warm vintages and the warmer sites in the cooler vintages. I’m able to grasp that pattern and try and make the best wines possible from any vintage.”
Brian buys fruit from 10-12 vineyards in any given vintage. Most of the grapes he purchases are by the acre with specific rows designated to him allowing him to make all the decisions with respect to picking, pruning, irrigation, crop thinning, green thinning, chute thinning and other aspects of viticulture. “I’ve been working with a lot of these growers for a long time (some more than 30 years) so when I say the difference between 10 or 12, it’s because I’m experimenting with 1 or 2 sites. There are always new and exciting vineyards that I’m interested in trying out and always opportunities to buy new and interesting grapes.”
As for his philosophy in the cellar, Brian is focused on making European style wines that are relatively low in alcohol, low in tannins, and use a modest amount of oak (never using more than 50% new oak). “For me, it’s all about the flavor. After the flavor the most important thing to me is the pH. Sugar is less important to me than the flavor and the acid balance in the wine, so the picking decision is pretty critical. In general, my philosophy is to try and make the best wine that I can out of each lot of grapes that I’m bringing in.”
Each lot is brought in separately, fermented separately, and goes into the barrel separately. It’s not until the following spring that he starts the blending process. “Usually I get all the blending done in the spring and early summer the year following the vintage, so the wine has another chance to marry for about another year before it’s bottled. Because I’m working with a dozen vineyards and 20 different varieties there’s a lot of variation in the theme in how I treat each one of these varieties”.
As we begin to talk about yeast, the scientist in Brian really comes out. He tells us how 85% of the wines he makes use native yeast fermentation and that he does a fair amount of non-Saccharomyces experimentation. As we prepared to google that terminology, he thankfully explained in layman’s terms that Saccharomyces is the genus of yeast that can finish alcoholic fermentation on its own. It’s the only genus that has the alcohol tolerance to get up to 14-15% alcohol so 99% of the yeasts sold in freeze-dried form to winemakers are using this genus. “When you start a native fermentation, the majority of yeasts that are on the grapes that come in that start the fermentation are non-Saccharomyces, but they tend to die off and then another species will tend to dominate so sometimes 4 or 5 species will grow up and die off as the fermentation progresses but eventually it’s always Saccharomyces that takes over and finishes the fermentation. So the advantage of having a native fermentation isn’t who finishes the race, it’s who starts it which results in more complexity in your wine because you have different species growing during fermentation.”
Spending an afternoon interviewing Brian was truly special. His experience and knowledge are far more interesting than any wine book or class, and we soaked up as much as we could in the hours that we spent with him. The list of accolades bestowed on him by the media and his peers is beyond impressive including being named Winemaker of the Year (twice) by Washington Magazine, winning the Industry Service Award from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, and being the Honored Vintner at the esteemed Auction of Washington Wines. The scientist in Brian lets the wine speak for itself as evidence of his life of experimentation. As we tasted his wines beginning with the “Oriana” white blend through to his “Opulento” port-style dessert wine, we were struck by the exquisite balance noticeable in each. They were, quite simply, blended to perfection.
“Oriana” is Latin for Golden Lady. This wine is a blend of 50% Viognier, 40% Roussanne and 10% Riesling, all from top Washington vineyards: Solstice, Olsen and Dineen. The Riesling is an unusual touch but it works as it give the blend a touch more acidity for balance. White peach, stone fruits, melon and even hints of fig come together in this medium body and nicely textured wine.
Very Good+ (USD$25 at their tasting room)
Italian for “all red” this is Brian’s take on a Super Tuscan. Sangiovese dominant with 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Syrah blended in, we pick up black cherries and some earthy notes on the finish. There is great intensity without being heavy. Like all things Sangio, there is good back-end acidity. Medium body, this is a perfect pasta partner.
Excellent (USD$34 at their tasting room)
French for luxurious, Brian takes us on a trip to the Southern Rhone with his blend of 53% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 17% Mouvedre, 5% Counoise and 3% Cinsault. Loads of black cherry, pepper and other spices, this richly textured wine is full throttle in style and absolutely delicious! 20% of the blend was raised in new puncheons (about 50% bigger than regular barrels) which adds decadence but stays in bounds.
Excellent (USD$34 at their tasting room-great value when compared to CDP or Priorat at similar quality levels)
This blend is kept a mystery. But it is very satisfying in its medium body and smooth texture. Black cherry dominates and the plush texture makes us think this year’s blend is Merlot dominant. A fun, tasty wine for casual evenings at a good price point.
Very Good+ (USD$25 at their tasting room)
Spanish for “Bull Fight” this blend is Tempranillo-dominant. Brian told us this was his take on Rioja but its black fruit profile took us more to Ribera del Duero. Dark cherry, raspberry and savoury/earthy notes provided lots of complexity. There is good intensity here too. Washington State does a great job with Tempranillo; we don’t know why it is not planted more.
Excellent (USD$34 at their tasting room)
Latin for “Sun and Essence” this is a blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec. All the fruit was sourced from E&E Shaw Vineyard (Red Mountain) and Stone Tree Vineyard (Wahluke Slope). This inky-coloured wine shows black currant, cassis, and plum with earthy notes and hints of cedar boughs. Savoury spices poke through on the long finish. Dark, deep and powerful, this has the structure and depth of fruit to carry it through to its 15th birthday in fine form.
Excellent+ (Sold at their tasting room. Worth looking out for at local retailers)