Many winemakers “fall” into winemaking as a side project that grows into a full-fledged company or a passing of the torch in a family-run business. However, Chuck Carlson got into the wine industry from the get-go with an early inclination to make wine. Growing up on a farm in the balmy San Joaquin Valley, Chuck admits he wanted to live closer to the coast. Like so many other talented Santa Barbara winemakers, Chuck started out at “Zaca University,” a colloquial reference to Zaca Mesa Winery.
In his early years, Chuck and others were still learning how to grow the best grapes in the valley. Through “admittedly” everyone stumbled growing Cabernet or other grapes we know now are best suited to Napa and Sonoma. Chuck can certainly claim to have seen it all in our corner of the winemaking world.
Carlson Wines doesn’t have their own tasting room; keeping his operation low profile with a limited, but exclusive distribution. Between this month as our featured winemaker in our Monthly Featured Winemaker Series and his normal bottlings, Chuck typically only produces 2,500 cases a year.
Traditional Approach to Wine
We ask our featured winemakers to sum up their winemaking style in one word. Chuck didn’t hesitate; describing his style as “Traditional.” We can vouch for this! In his decades in Santa Barbara County and Arroyo Grande, he’s kept a consistent, traditional style of winemaking dating back to early California labels.
After 37 years of winemaking, if Chuck Carlson has a preference, it’s Pinot. When his label started in 2004, his focus was creating outstanding Pinot Noirs from the Central Coast. Over the years, Carlson wines have expanded to five different vineyards across multiple local AVAs.
In Chuck’s own words he describes his Pinot: “The 2014 vintage provided Pinot Noirs that tend to reflect the sun year. These wines are impacted by the climate throughout the growing season. There tends to be slightly darker and riper berry flavors that show a beautiful restrained balance. The chemistry of the fruit yields wines that can age gracefully and have a beautiful balance.”
Chuck Carlson’s wine adventure is one of many local vintners in Santa Barbara County. Read our blog for our interviews with several local winemakers as part of our Featured Winemaker series.
I’m fortunate that I am in a position to taste some amazing wines from around the world on a regular basis. As a result of this, when I assess wines from our area (or any area for that matter), I compare them not just with their local peers, but with my personal benchmarks for great wine on a global scale. Santa Barbara County, I am proud to say, is making the best wines in its history, and it only seems to be getting better. I am consistently pleased and excited by what is coming out of our little corner of the world. Every now and then, however, I taste something that goes a bit deeper, that burrows into my mind and truly blows me away, forcing me to recalibrate the way I view a particular grape variety. This past week I had that experience with the Zinfandel of Eric Bolton.
A graduate of CSU Fresno, Bolton has vast knowledge of the science of winemaking. Yet he is not a mad scientist in the winery; rather, he prefers to focus on bringing in healthy, balanced fruit from properly farmed sites and let it do its thing. Fermentations happen with native yeast, and there are no additions beyond sulfur. Bolton first gained acclaim as head of the winemaking team for the Ambullneo (now known as Greg Linn) label. While these have flown somewhat under the radar locally, they are stunning expressions of Pinot Noir: lots of whole-cluster, alcohols in the high 12s to mid 13s, an incredible array of floral and spice aromatics, and great longevity. 2013 marked Bolton’s first year stepping out on his own, making just around 40 cases of Zinfandel.
“The vineyard source is Tres Niños, right across the street from DePaola Vineyard near Lake Lopez in Arroyo Grande. It’s a rocky clay loam,” Bolton states matter-of-factly. (Okay, so technically we’re in San Luis Obispo County here, but Bolton is making his wine in Santa Maria and he is the essence of SB County’s spirit through and through). Despite being picked quite late in the season, the fruit was just barely/perfectly ripe, clocking in around 13% alcohol, almost unheard-of for modern Zinfandel. Bolton also embraced Zin’s textural resemblance to other thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Grenache and fermented the grapes 50% whole-cluster, a somewhat atypical decision that proved wise. Nick de Luca of Ground Effect recently did the same with his Zinfandel out of Paso Robles and the results were equally stunning. “You don’t really pick up the whole-cluster much now other than texturally. It’s really shifted a lot in barrel,” says Bolton.
The Arroyo Grande Valley may be one of the most underrated locations in the state for great Zinfandel. Colder than many of Zin’s more fashionable locales, yet warm enough to ripen Zinfandel to extreme levels should one choose to do so, it is a perfect spot for more classically balanced Zin. Saucelito Canyon has long produced legendary wines from their estate here, particularly their small parcel of vines dating back to the 1800s. Bolton’s rendition, however, is without comparison. Opening with classic varietal notes of peach and brambly red fruits, it unfolds to more exotic aromatics of wet gravel, white pepper, and violets. Texturally, the whole cluster provides precision and a lithe presence, with an intensely mineral finish reminiscent of chalk. To find Zinfandel in this style, one would have to go back to the early iconoclasts, such as Ridge and Joseph Swan. “I have to say Ridge would be the biggest inspiration,” smiles Bolton. “Those Zins they made in the ‘90s were great. I had an ’87 in 2006 and it was a wonderful wine, still going strong. I also worked with Michael Dashe and liked what he was doing; he’s certainly an inspiration as well.”
Bolton will continue to make this wine in 2014, and hopes to add Sangiovese to his roster in the near future. “I would love to do something that could stand head to head with great Brunello, but I have to find the perfect source,” Bolton says. Given the beautiful wines he’s crafted thus far, I have no doubt that he could do great things with a grape that has perplexed many of California’s best. For now, I’ll be grabbing all I can of his Zinfandel, as it is a singular wine of inspiration and place, and a new favorite.
In the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country, we are the premier wine merchant for California Central Coast wines, from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County, with select vintages from other areas of California’s Wine Country and noteworthy wines from around the world.