Chris Carpenter is the winemaker for some of Napa Valley’s most prestigious wineries, including Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota, and Mt. Brave — the grapes for which are grown on the mountains that ring the valley. Chris earned an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and a Master’s Degree in Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. He later studied as a research-intern in Italy at Tenute Antinori, Santa Cristina Estate, before coming back to Napa Valley to Cardinale Estate in 1998. Chris and his wife founded the Napa Valley chapter of Slow Food and have served as Chairs for Slow Food USA.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Chris Carpenter for WineSpeed in August 2019.
Karen MacNeil: How old were you when you tasted your first wine and who gave it to you?
Chris Carpenter: I was 10 years old, and it was my Mom’s second wedding. A very naughty cousin of mine gave it to me.
KM: How did you come to study enology at University of California, Davis?
CC: I read an article in a food and wine magazine that answered the question: “How do I start my career as a winemaker?”
KM: What was the toughest part of your early years?
CC: Learning the nuances of the vineyards.
“[Music] teaches us about wine through tonality, dynamics, pitch, texture, rhythm, highs, lows and the emotional impact of putting all of these things together in a way that our brain can process for enjoyment’s sake.”
KM: You sometimes still drop into a local restaurant in the Napa Valley and bartend. Why?
CC: I tend bar every Friday night at the Rutherford Grill in Rutherford. I got into this business originally as a bartender and it’s something I have always done. I have regulars; I keep up with trends; and I have a social night out to do something I truly enjoy.
KM: Did you have a wine mentor? Tell us about her/him.
CC: I have had many. Jim Wolpert and Roger Boulton from UC Davis. Jess Jackson, Marco DiGiulio, Charles Thomas, and Tom Peffer from Jackson Family Wines. I have drawn something from each of them that has become part of how I approach wine in its science, farming, its creative aspect, and the reality of its business side.
KM: What does your average day look like?
CC: It depends on the time of year, so let’s take harvest. Up at 4:30 am, into the office to write the day’s work orders, taste tanks before my staff shows up and maybe dig a couple of tanks out, get the staff started around 7:00 am, then out to the vineyards to taste and evaluate vine health till mid-afternoon, back to one of the wineries I oversee to make sure all is going as planned, lend a hand where needed on the crush pad till 8ish pm, then home.
KM: You often describe your wines in terms of music. What does music teach us about wine?
CC: It teaches us about wine through tonality, dynamics, pitch, texture, rhythm, highs, lows and the emotional impact of putting all of these things together in a way that our brain can process for enjoyment’s sake. I use that as the foundation for my sensibility around winemaking.
KM: What’s the last wine book you read and was it good?
CC: Wine and War. It was good.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
CC: Non-alcoholic: Iced Tea; Alcoholic: Guinness.
KM: What one piece of advice would you give anyone going into the wine business?
CC: If you are going in as a winemaker then pay the closest attention to the vineyard. Without good grapes, you will go nowhere fast. If you are going into the wine business in general, celebrate all that is romantic about the business but remember that ultimately it is a business and if you don’t pay attention to that aspect of I,t then it’s unlikely you will be in it for long.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
CC: My daughters, Maggie and Sadie.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
CC: I rarely wear underwear but when I do its often something unusual. 😊