WOODINVILLE, Wash. – For more than three decades, Brian Carter has crafted some of Washington’s best wines and helped launch several wineries. Now, he’s accomplished a remarkable feat.
So far this year, Carter’s wines have won best in show at three separate Northwest wine competitions.
- In February, his 2011 Opulento, a fortified dessert wine using Yakima Valley grapes, earned the top award at the Seattle Wine & Food Experience Wine Competition.
- In May, his 2009 Solesce, a Bordeaux-style red blend, won top honors at the Northwest Wine Summit.
- And in June, the 2009 Solesce struck again, earning best in show at the Washington State Wine Competition.
“You always feel fortunate when your wines are recognized,” Carter told Great Northwest Wine as he walked through a block of Cabernet Sauvignon at famed Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain.
Here’s our interview with Carter:
Brian Carter’s early winemaking efforts
Carter began making wine when he was a teenager, thanks to an inquisitive mind and parents who fostered his curiosity rather than squelched it.
“The first wine I ever made was a blackberry wine,” he said. “I liked to forage a lot and would collect mushrooms and pick blackberries. I also had a microscope and enjoyed looking at yeast.”
Making homemade wine also helped him make friends.
“When you’re 15 years old and make blackberry wine …” he said with a bit of a grin.
In those early days, Carter had a book on winemaking and tried his hand with a variety of ingredients, including beets (great color, terrible flavors), blackberries, Concord grapes and rose hips (his favorite). Even though he grew up in the Willamette Valley, at that time in the 1960s, there were no wine grapes to be found back in the 1960s, so he worked with what he could find.
While his parents were not against his experiments, they weren’t really wine drinkers.
“They were part of the scotch and soda crowd,” he said. “My mom let me do what I wanted.”
One memorable batch of blackberry wine left an indelible mark on his memory – as well as his mom’s kitchen.
“I filled the 5-gallon carboy a little too full,” he said.
The blackberries filled and blocked the fermentation lock and enough pressure built up to cause a geyser to escape and hit the ceiling. His mother was good-natured about it, and the splotch remained for a couple of years until his folks repainted the kitchen.
College then Napa then Washington
In the 1970s, Carter attended Oregon State University, where he studied microbiology. After graduation, he went to the University of California-Davis and its famed school of enology. After two years, he went to work in the California wine industry.
In 1980, he was at Chateau Montelena, which still was glowing from its 1976 victory at the now-famous Judgment of Paris tasting in which Montelena’s Chardonnay beat out the best of Burgundy (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon topped the best of Bordeaux in the same judging). A man named Paul Thomas was starting a winery in Bellevue and came to Calistoga to recruit Carter back to the Pacific Northwest.
When he took the job, he was met with incredulity by fellow winemakers who couldn’t believe he would leave the wine mecca of Napa Valley for little-known Washington. In addition, this was soon after Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, and some California winemakers wondered if it was safe for him to head north.
Carter quickly found fame at Paul Thomas Wines, with his 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon beating out Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in a competition at the Windows on the World restaurant in New York. His 1986 Chardonnay later won the grand prize at the Pacific Northwest Enological Society competition.
Moving to Apex, Washington Hills
In 1988, Carter left Paul Thomas Wines to become a full-time winemaking consultant. In that role, he helped launch a number of wineries, including Silver Lake, Apex, Hedges, McCrea, Soos Creek, Camaraderie and Randall Harris.
But being a full-time consultant spread him a little too thin, so in 1991 Carter decided to focus his efforts by joining owner Harry Alhadeff at Washington Hills and Apex Cellars (they later added the Bridgman Cellars label). By 1993, he had relocated to Yakima to be closer to the Sunnyside winery.
The winery was in an old dairy in the Yakima Valley, and the two made a formidable force, with the high-end Apex label earning top accolades and the Washington Hills label finding fans for its quality and value.
Today, the Washington Hills, Apex and Bridgman labels are owned by Seattle-based Precept Wine, and Apex has a tasting room in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser.
Launching Brian Carter Cellars
By 1997, Carter began to scratch the itch for owning his own label by making wines for Brian Carter Cellars as a side project. The first wines were released in 2000, and Carter left Apex/Washington Hills in 2002 to focus all his efforts on Brian Carter Cellars with managing partner Michael Stevens, who was heavily involved in launching Suncadia resort near the Cascade Mountains town of Roslyn.
Carter opened his tasting room for Brian Carter Cellars in the Hollywood Hills District of Woodinville – the first to do so – not far from Chateau Ste. Michelle. Today, one can walk about 100 yards from Carter’s operation and find no fewer than 30 other tasting rooms. Even such Oregon wineries as Lachini and Torii Mor have opened Woodinville tasting rooms now.
From the beginning, Brian Carter Cellars has focused on blends. After years of focusing on varietal wines at Paul Thomas and Apex, Carter decided to explore the European tradition of blends. Today, he crafts no fewer than 10 wines – all blends. He finds his inspiration in Bordeaux, the Rhône, Tuscany, Spain, Portugal and the United States.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I look around the world and see where great blends are made. Then I see if I can emulate them. It seems we can do almost anything (in Washington), with the possible exception of Pinot Noir.”
Today, Carter works with 20 varieties from multiple vineyards on Red Mountain, the Wahluke Slope and the Yakima Valley, proving those Napa naysayers from so long ago that greatness can come from Washington wine country.
“I continue to have a lot of satisfaction with making these blends.”