WOODINVILLE, Wash. — Those with the good sense to tastefully follow the work of Brian Carter know he’s been behind some of Washington’s most delicious wines since the Mount St. Helens vintage of 1980.
It wasn’t until he launched his eponymous brand in 2000 that he truly began to make a name for himself. And in Carter’s soft-spoken way, his wines routinely announce themselves to critics and judges at competitions.
“I remember 40 years ago being interviewed by the press, and I could hardly put two words together!” Carter says. “I am still growing and learning how to promote myself and Washington state wines.”
Last year, during the 23rd annual Platinum Awards, no winemaker received more praise for their wines than Carter. Seven of the Brian Carter Cellars entries were voted Platinum — five of them earned Double Platinum status as unanimous selections of judges who blind tasted through 679 wines. All seven were for work with blends.
And one of the wineries he’s involved with, Bayernmoor Cellars, merited two Platinums. There may have been more Platinums because a number of Carter’s clients have non-disclosure agreements.
Perhaps there will be fewer NDAs with the announcement that Brian Carter Cellars is the 2023 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year for Great Northwest Wine Magazine.
Sidebar: Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year recent recipients
In 2022, the Platinum, our most prestigious tasting, added to the trophy case for both Carter and his longtime friend Rich Cushman, who were science students at Oregon State University but became chums while going through the University of California-Davis program for wine. Cushman took great joy in his Grenache for Mt. Hood Winery finishing No. 1 at the 23rd annual Platinum Awards, just ahead of Carter’s 2016 Le Coursier, a precise blend of red Bordeaux varieties that judges also gave 98 points.
“He did give me a little bit of a friendly ribbing on beating me out on that No. 1 wine,” Carter said. “I will no doubt have a chance to return the favor with this new award.”
Perhaps Carter’s proudest achievement within the 2022 Platinum might be seen as a small victory by others — the uncanny yet routinely successful entry-level Abracadabra Red Table Wine. His retail team sells it for $25. His 2018 vintage merited 95 points.
“It’s the magical wine that just happens every year,” Carter says with a shrug. “With all my other wines I sweat over the exact percentages, and then Abracadabra wins just as many medals as anything else.”
His pink 2021 Abracadabra finished as the top rosé of Platinum. At the Seattle Wine Awards, Carter picked up nine gold medals, two of which were double gold. Judges at the Sunset International also gave gold to his Le Coursier and Tuttorosso programs, and his 2016 Trentenaire won best of class at the Cascadia International.
From Mom’s kitchen to Woodinville bistro
As a teen-aged son of an OSU professor, one of Brian’s blackberry ferments made a well-documented and lasting impression on the ceiling of his mother’s kitchen in Corvallis.
As a professional winemaker, acclaim started pouring in for Carter’s table wines soon upon returning to the Northwest after studying at Davis and working in cellars in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Napa Valley. Few can match his experience as a winemaker in Washington, with the exception of Rob Griffin (1976), Kay Simon (1977) and Wade Wolfe (1978) arriving ahead of both Carter and Spokane’s Mike Conway.
In 1980, Carter was first wooed to Woodinville by Paul Thomas Winery at a time when there were only about 16 wineries in the state, and fruit such as blackberry still played a role in many of those cellars. Carter’s 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon for Paul Thomas beat out famed Château Lafite-Rothschild in a New York judging. His 1986 Chardonnay won best of show at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Enological Society Wine Competition.
That Chardonnay proved to be visionary — a wine that’s believed to be perhaps the first large-scale unoaked Chardonnay in the U.S. Made from Indian Wells Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope, Carter produced more than 1,000 cases of the first-time effort under a long-for- gotten second label called Rushcutter Bay Cellars. Anthony’s Restaurants moved quickly.
“Yes, we took all of it because it was really good,” said Lane Hoss, who continues to head up the wine program for Anthony’s and now serves as vice president of operations. “It seemed there was oak in so many Washington wines in those days, and oak doesn’t pair well with seafood. Brian made a lot of great wine for Paul, including a Chenin Blanc — a varietal you don’t see that much any more.”
When he left Paul Thomas in 1988, Carter’s consulting business took off, thanks to a client list that included Camaraderie, Hedges, McCrea, Randall Harris, Silver Lake and Soos Creek. In 1991, he took over winemaking for Washington Hills and launched both Apex Cellars and W.B. Bridgman, a decision that prompted him to move to the Yakima Valley. It helped him to better learn the vineyards and hone his craft, but he missed living west of the Cascades.
It was in 1997 when he began planning for Brian Carter Cellars. He brought his first wines to market in 2000. Two years later, he stepped away from Washington Hills and returned to Woodinville for good.
Carter has become an unofficial ambassador for Woodinville Wine Country and signed up early on to become an anchor tenant for the long-awaited Woodin Creek Village. His keen interest in cooking and travel prompted him to go beyond a simple satellite tasting room with nibbles and gamble on an open-kitchen bistro with outside seating at Woodin Creek — during the throes of the pandemic.
A magical touch with blends inspired by Europe
Aside from “The One” project, which features one or two single-varietal wines each year, Carter focuses on blending — even when it comes to his rosé, which is under the Abracadabra tier and leans toward Sangiovese. The 2017 Tuttorosso, done in a Super Tuscan style with Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, received 96 points at last year’s Platinum.
In terms of his history within Great Northwest Wine’s year-end judging of gold-medal winners, Carter has had the most success with his Rhône-inspired Byzance. Seven times his blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre has garnered a Platinum, and he pairs it with duck.
Carter and longtime assistant Robert Takahashi, who recently announced his retirement, also were the talents behind Array Cellars, the Chardonnay-only brand launched in 2010 by Henry Smilowicz. Those wines made from historic Chardonnay sites such as Celilo, Conner Lee and Otis received acclaim in competitions and found their way onto shelves at top bottle shops throughout the Puget Sound.
“The Celilo we used to bring in for him now goes to Bayernmoor,” Carter says. “I don’t make Chardonnay for Brian Carter Cellars, and Oriana is our only white blend, but we’ve done a couple of white wines under The One program — including a Roussanne.”
Last fall, the Bayernmoor 2019 Celilo Chardonnay earned a Double Platinum and was the highest-scoring Chardonnay of the judging.
Deep roots in Yakima Valley, Columbia Basin
When it comes to the BCC wines, Carter’s relationships with his vineyard partners are rock-solid. They include Dineen, Lonesome Spring Ranch, Olsen, Upland and Willard Family in the Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area, Klipsun on Red Mountain and Tedd Wildman’s StoneTree on the Wahluke Slope.
“While I do buy a fair amount of grapes from the Wahluke Slope, specifically StoneTree, the majority of my grapes come from the Yakima Valley,” Carter says. “I love that there are so many microclimates that exist there, and each one seems to do best with a different variety — Cabernet Franc from Rattlesnake, Port varieties from Snipes, Sangiovese from Prosser/Grandview, Grenache from the bench west of Benton City, Cabernet from Red Mountain.
“This gives me plenty of opportunities to blend these varieties and keep the Yakima Valley AVA,” he adds. “The three wines that I always make under that AVA are Oriana, Tuttorosso and (the Port-style) Opulento.”
And while Walla Walla builds upon its reputation as the Mecca for wine tourists, the vast majority of consumers live near Interstate 5. That’s why Brian Carter Cellars pours in Woodinville, The Tasting Room in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the remarkable Vancouver Waterfront Development, where Carter signed up early for the opportunity to lease a retail space across the Columbia River from Portland.
“I will admit that I followed Maryhill when I heard they were going in there,” Carter says. “Maryhill and I have the best spots, I think, because they look out right at the river.
“I thought about opening another tasting room in Portland or Hood River, but we get Portlanders at the Vancouver tasting room,” Carter adds. “Now, if they could just get that I-5 bridge fixed.”
Carter continues commitment to Woodinville
For more than decade, Carter has been crafting his 8,000 cases of wine near the corner Woodinville-Redmond Road and NE 145th Street, off the back alley of the former home of Columbia Winery.
That neighborhood is changing, however. In 2022, E. & J. Gallo abruptly closed the Columbia tasting room, and across the street, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates put the land surrounding Château Ste. Michelle on the market. It also moved all wine production to Eastern Washington.
Meanwhile, a number of the state’s top players have turned the former Redhook brewery into a wine destination just a stone’s throw from the Sammamish River and Carter’s loading dock.
However, his decision to become an early tenant at Woodin Creek Village, 10 minutes to the north, has paid off. The thoughtfully crafted wines complement the fresh fare at his showpiece bistro. And on a clear 80-degree day, it’s difficult to beat a sidewalk table at BCC, a plate of the Hamachi Crudo and a glass of the Oriana or Array Chardonnay.
“I am happy that my wines are perceived to be as good as they have ever been,” Carter says. “I like to think that I am still learning — how to grow grapes, how to use wild yeast, the best barrels, etc. Of course, my palate is changing so what I like keeps evolving, and with hope, in the right direction.”
His wines routinely earned praise from the late Tom Stockley, whose columns in The Seattle Times were integral to the rise of the Pacific Northwest wine industry. In 1997, longtime Seattle wine merchant Ron Irvine authored The Wine Project, which remains the definitive look at the formative years of Washington wine.
“Carter is one of the great winemakers in Washington state,” Irvine wrote.
After 25 years and 33 career Platinum Awards, that statement stands.
Brian Carter Cellars
Woodinville’s Woodin Creek tasting room and bistro
17140 135th Ave. NE, Suite 1030 Woodinville, WA 98072
Vancouver USA Waterfront Tasting Room and Wine Bar
660 Waterfront Way Vancouver, WA 98660
The Tasting Room
1924 Post Alley
Seattle, WA 98101
Gregory Beach, former owner Valley Cafe says
Congratulations to Brian Carter for his many achievements and the well deserved recognition .
I very much enjoyed reading through this well crafted article Eric. It brought back many pleasant memories.
Well done to you both!
Barry Rucker says
I sold corks to Brian while he was at Paul Thomas Winery and later at Washington Hills. Always a great sales call as Brian was always a gentleman and willing to give me time to try and sell my corks. Keep up the good work.