Carter Cellars, not to be confused with Carter Estate Winery and Resort in Temecula, CA, was founded in 1998 by Mark Carter, a longtime resident of Eureka, California. Today Mark divides his time between Eureka, Napa Valley and Kentucky. During harvest especially he helps oversee winemaking operations at Envy Cellars which is where Carter Cellars is produced. Carter Cellars is co-owned by Carter and winemaker Nils Venge.
Long time industry veterans, Carter and Venge have built strong relationships with growers over the years and source grapes from some of the valley’s most premiere vineyards. Some of these sites (all Napa) include vineyards with instant name recognition, IE., the Beckstoffer managed To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville and Las Piedras in St. Helena. While Venge used to craft the Carter Cellars wines, he is no longer their winemaker. Mike Smith produced the Carter Cellars wines from 2009 through 2020. As of our latest update to this review, the wines are crafted by Russel Bevan. Carter met Bevan through a mutual client who tasted him on some of Bevan’s wines at Tench Vineyards. Mark remembers he made a mental note that if he ever needed a winemaker, he would reach out to Bevavn first. Bevan’s style matches Carter Cellars and the vineyard sites that Carter Cellars works with were extremely appealing to him.
Mark’s maternal side of the family is from the small mountain village of Dosso del Liro in northern Italy not far from the shores of Lago di Como. His great grandfather moved to Argentina in the 1880s, but later returned to Italy. Mark’s grandfather Battista Bassi was born in Argentina and came to the U.S., joined the army, became a citizen and fought at the end of World War I.
Bassi moved to Sonoma County and then eventually settled in Humboldt County (where Mark was born and raised). Mark remembers his grandfather would drive all the way down to Sonoma County with several of his other Italian-American friends, pickup a barrel of wine from places like Italian Swiss Colony in Asti or Pedroncelli Winery in Geyserville truck it back up to Eureka and bottle the barrel into 50 gallon Carlo Rossi jugs, enclosed with screw caps.
Bassi and his wife Margherita owned a farm in Humboldt, raising cows. They sold the dairy products to the Humboldt Dairy Association at the time.
This is a unique opportunity to taste extremely low production and very highly regarded wines from a big boy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon dominated brand who doesn’t require interested parties to be on a wait list to eventually get on the allocation list to have a chance to buy wines if those ahead of you have not purchased all of their allocation. Carter Cellar wines are often awarded some of the top scores in the valley from respected wine writers.
Visits are by appointment for serious wine enthusiasts who often are already familiar with the Carter Cellars Wines. Tastings are hosted at Envy Winery in Calistoga in one of two private rooms either on the first floor next to the primary Envy tasting room or upstairs. Envy is one very few wineries located north of Calistoga. The winery is on Tubbs Lane – the same street as Chateau Montelena and just to the west of a local natural geyser (Old Faithful Geyser); if timing is right, one can see it spewing white spray high into the air. This geyser was mentioned once in an article in National Geographic. There are also excellent views of the nearby Vaca mountain range including the tallest mountain in the vicinity, Mt. St. Helena which is sometimes capped with snow on its upper reaches during the winter months.
The wines of Carter Cellars focus on the purity of fruit with oak always playing a complementary and supporting role but never dominating. Remarkably each of their wines are aged in 100% new French oak barrels. The vineyards and the variety are always the stars of the show here. These bottlings drink well in their youth while straddling a fine line between power and elegance.
As of our latest update to this review, all of Carter Cellar’s wines are produced in quantities of less than 350 cases with a total production depending on the year between 2,000 and 3,000 cases. All their bottles are individually numbered, and half bottle sizes are available for most of the wines. For a boutique producer Carter Cellars produces a wide variety of primarily single vineyard wines. Their relationship with Beckstoffer Vineyards is an extremely important one which dates back several decades. And another important early relationship was with Fred Schrader of Schrader Cellars. Schrader introduced Carter to two vineyards which have since become integral in the Carter Cellars portfolio, To Kalon and Hossfeld. Grapes from Hossfeld Vineyard were used in the first Carter Cellars bottling in 1998 and grapes from To Kalon were first used in the year 2000. Carter Cellars continues to source grapes from these same original rows but also purchase grapes from additional parts of To Kalon.
The 2021 Carter Cellars Carter Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% varietal and was crafted from lots chosen from their best vineyards including To Kalon, Las Piedras and Fortuna. This wine is deep ruby and opaque in the glass; we tasted this bottling only 2 years post vintage and its fruit shows both ripe and youthful. It offers aromas of blackberry jam, plum and boysenberry. The nose is built around a certain opulence of fruit rather than oak. The palate mirrors the bouquet and offers flavors of dark fruits including blackberry, boysenberry and black cherry along with underlying notes of chocolate, vanilla cardamom and cinnamon. The extended and rich finish features both texture and fruit with sediment almost grainy-like tannins. A light oak toast is a complementary character to the rear of the palate. Full bodied, full throttle and layers of some seriously good juice await.
2021 Carter Cellars The Haze is a blend of 93% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Merlot. This wine is deep ruby and opaque in the glass; the aromatics here are clearly focused on the fruit including blueberry with other complementary layers of violets & lavender and slate rock. This bottling offers flavors of blackberry and boysenberry supported by tannins which are remarkably already well-resolved in their youth. We tasted this wine soon after it was released. Their texture is gravely on the seamless finish. This wine lingers with a light drying character; the oak plays a subtle complementary role. This wine was produced with grapes from the Fortuna Vineyard and Weitz Vineyard both sites on eastern Oakville bench land soils. And the name The Haze as Mark told us is a whimsical homage tied into his Humboldt County – a reference to a part of the state known for its marijuana production.
The 2021 Carter Cellars Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was crafted from a middle section of this vineyard not far from the iconic Vine Hill Ranch. Grapes for this wine come from a coveted ‘hump’ portion of the vineyard. This wine is deep ruby and opaque with an amaranthine rim; the bouquet is focused on the purity of the fruit with bright and ripe, but not opulent aromas. There are also scents of petrichor, boysenberry and blackberry with a very subtle hint of caramel deeper in the bouquet. The palate bursts with flavors of boysenberry, blackberry and dark plum. Juicy. The finish is fruit filled and lengthy, lingering with a light dark spice, dust, a drying character and grainy textured tannins. Both fruit and tannins parallel each other for quite some time.
The 2021 Carter Cellars Las Piedras La Verdad ((meaning the truth in Spanish) is from a Beckstoffer owned site on the western side of St. Helena just below the Mayacamas mountains. Carter Cellars General Manger Daniel Moberg suggested the name La Verdad for this particular bottling. This wine is deep ruby and opaque; the bouquet is immediately open knitted and expressive of the fruit including aromas of Santa Rosa plum, dark raspberry, blackberry jam and dark chocolate. The palate is ripe, opulent and hedonistic sporting flavors of Pakistani mulberry, boysenberry and blackberry, The tannins offer a dusty character, are firm but rounded with a gravelly texture (also an appropriate description considering Las Piedras means little stones in Spanish). Their textural character shows more on the front of the palate than the back and is long-lasting. This wine is clearly a step up in texture compared to several of the other bottlings. And this makes sense; Mark told us when he first walked this part of the vineyard he noticed the vines looked particularly stressed and were low yielding. The smaller yields result in a higher skin to juice ratio, hence more tannins. And an earlier vintage of this bottling was Carter Cellars first 100 point wine.
The 2021 Carter Cellars Three Kings is deep ruby and opaque in the glass; simply put, this wine smells beautiful with aromas of plum, blackberry, boysenberry and mulberry. The palate features mouth watering layers of fruit which are ripe but never over ripe. The tannins are broadly distributed and long lasting; they ultimately outpace the fruit on the finish. Their grip is firm, long lasting with a dense, pixelated but rounded texture. This wine reveals flavors of plum, blackberry, dark cherry and chocolate. Grapes for this wine were sourced from the To Kalon Vineyard D1 block (two sections of this block) on the back/western side of the vineyard. Grapes from the D2 block were also used in this bottling – each harvested at separate times. This wine has loads of life ahead of it with the proper cellar aging.
The 2021 Carter Cellars Las Piedras Vineyards La BAM (meaning, the bomb in Spanish) is produced from grapes growing a short distance from where the grapes are harvested for Las Piedras La Verda. Despite such close proximity the resulting character in the wine is completely different. Mark often notices a juicy and fruity character in this wine. And like the La Verdard bottling, this wine is also made from Cabernet Sauvignon clone 337. This wine is deep ruby; the aromas smell fresh like the grapes were just recently harvested. The bouquet is sweetly fruited showing blue fruits including blueberry along with dark chocolate, boysenberry, blackberry and mulberry. It offers flavors of blackberry jam reminding us when we were in college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. The parents would visit and we would all go out to Apple Farm Restaurant and enjoy breakfast including toast with our favorite spread of their home-made blackberry jam. This wine is a crowd pleaser with a long fruit-filled finish. Its texture is one of the hallmark characteristics with a dense but almost creamy texture featuring ripe and resolved tannins.
The 2021 Carter Cellars To Kalon Vineyard the O.G. (meaning original grapes) is from the middle part and one of the oldest sections of the vineyard with vines dating from the early 1990s. Its early footprint is reflective of wider spacing as compared to surrounding newer replants. This part of To Kalon has excellent sun exposure and is usually one of the earliest harvests for Carter Cellars. This wine is deep ruby; the bouquet is sweetly fruited, a ripe expression of both vineyard and grapes. It offers some floral scents including of violets but its focus is on its fruit core including boysenberry jam and Santa Rosa plum. The palate reveals flavors of dark plum at peak of ripeness, dark tobacco spice and a dusty character. There is a pleasing tension between fruit and texture. The finish is long lasting, fruit filled and showcases a firm tannic grip. This is a very age worthy bottling.
The 2021 Carter Cellars G.T.O. Cabernet Sauvignon is made from clones 4, 6, 7 and 337. This wine is bottled in magnums only, usually less than 400 per vintage. It was made from vineyard blocks previously used by Schrader Cellars in To Kalon Vineyard with the vines dating from the mid 1990s. This wine is deep ruby and opaque in the glass; the aromas are diverse and are focused on the fruit with scents of dark plum, cherry, blackberry, boysenberry, a dried herb character and lavender. The palate sports dark fruited flavors of plum, cherry and blackberry. This wine offers a noticeable depth of both flavor and texture. The firmly textured granulated and pixelated tannins are persistent, long lasting and broadly distributed across the palate. The finish lingers with a chalky character paralleling plenty of fruit. This wine is built to age, especially considering it is bottled in magnums.
Carter Cellars produced some wines in 2020 but not from all their normal vineyard sources (due to smoke taint issues from the devastating Glass Fire late in that year).
The 2006 Carter Cellars Merlot was sourced from the Truchard Vineyard in the southern part of Napa; this is a much cooler growing region as compared to Calistoga. The 2006 vintage is an intriguing wine; it is 100% Merlot and is noticeably dark in the glass. The bouquet is fruit and floral driven with pleasing aromas of blackberry and cherry leading to a palate that is lush and mouth filling. The entry is soft but leads to flavors of concentrated fruit throughout with a beautiful mid palate. A noticeable earthiness and a minerality nuance show on the finish.
The 2006 Carter Cellars Hossfeld Coliseum Block Red is named for a vineyard site on Atlas Peak which is roughly planted in the shape of a Coliseum based on the topography of the site; it is a unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah. This wine offers notes of cedar, toast and earthiness on the bouquet. Big fruits show on the opulent palate including flavors of blackberry, dark cherry and blueberry. Good acidity. The finish shows great structure yet is balanced. While tasting this wine young, we enjoyed the robust structure and its exceedingly long finish.
The 2006 Carter Cellars Revilo Vineyard; Revilo is Oliver spelled backwards in honor of the vineyard owner Reg Oliver – see our review of El Molino Winery for more details. This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but showcases an elegant side…but also with some structure. Cocoa powder, vanilla, raspberry and red cherry show on the bouquet. Well integrated layered flavors showing more red fruit rather than dark fruit, make this a good wine to pair with food.
Grapes from the Coliseum block were used in the first vintage of Carter Cellars and are still being used in current releases. The 2007 Carter Cellars 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon is a very dark and concentrated wine displaying some dark chocolate on the nose. Winemaker Nils Venge brought over some roast beef during our tasting and that was exactly what this wine needed to be paired with at such a young age. “Big fruit and big structure” (with mouth filling tannins) is the hallmark of this wine.
The 2007 Carter Cellars To Kalon 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was released in November 2009, but we had a sneak preview. This wine offers an elegant bouquet with aromas of plum with notes of chocolate and cocoa. It shows sweet and sour cherry in the mouth; the palate offers more of a lean mouth feel compared to some of the much bigger juicier Carter Cellars wines. However, this wine is still well-structured, featuring broadly grained tannins on the finish. While this wine was incredibly youthful at the time of our tasting, give it some time – age will certainly integrate the flavors and should become a well-balanced example of the long-term benefits of aging wine, especially from To Kalon Vineyard.
OTHER CARTER OWNED PROPERTIES/PRODUCTS
Carter House, Eureka
Mark founded the romantic Carter House Inns in Eureka; the original Carter House in the Carter House Inns collection is a beautiful Victorian mansion designed after plans that Mark found in a thrift store in Eureka. The plans were for a home known as the Murphy House which was built in San Francisco but was destroyed in 1906 by the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires.
Mark built the Carter House from scratch based on these plans and completed the home in 1982. This was not his first construction project; he began his career in Eureka at age 20 in 1972 working for himself on remodeling jobs. A number of stately and colorful wooden mansions are also located in this same neighborhood including the grandest dame of them all, the Carson Mansion (which incidentally was designed by the Newsom Brothers, Samuel & Joseph – the same designers of the original Murphy House and architects of the Napa Valley Opera House). Unlike in parts of San Francisco where large mansions are lined up next to each other block after block, here the mansions stand out because they are surrounded by smaller less prominent homes and there is more space between the homes.
Carter Inns is composed of 5 Victorians (all within a block of each other) including the Hotel Carter, the Carter House, the Carter Cottage, the Bell Cottage, and Annie’s House. The inn features 33 rooms.
Restaurant 301 is located on the ground floor of the Carter House; it features farm to table and locally sourced ingredients as well as seafood caught offshore. Restaurant 301 opened in 1987 and has won the much-coveted Wine Spectator Grand award for many years. And for those wanting to enjoy a drink prior to meal – an elevated tiny bar across from the restaurant is the ideal place to do so. This space features a happy hour with select very reasonably priced drinks. During our meal we enjoyed excellent food and exceptional service.
While purchasing wines for his restaurant Mark was introduced to a number of Napa’s top labels, vineyards and winemakers during the 1980s and into the 1990s. One of those vintners was Nils Venge; for many years Nils crafted the wines for Carter Cellars beginning with their first vintage in 1998 (however, he is no longer their winemaker).
Old Carter Whisky Co
Mark also owns Old Carter Whiskey Co focusing on hand crafted small batch straight rye and bourbon whiskies. His father’s side of the family used to live in Somerset, Kentucky. Old Carter Whisky currently produces three separate bottlings. The Old Carter Whiskey Single Barrel 12-year old is so aromatic that if you smell it with your mouth open you can actually taste the aromatics.
Batch 1 was released in early 2018. Already in high demand, several of the outlets that we visited in Lexington, Kentucky that carry Old Carter Whisky including Justin’s House of Bourbon told us they sell out within several days once the product goes on their shelves although we did spot some at the nearby Dudley’s on Short restaurant (excellent food by the way and service).
Select bottlings of Old Carter Whiskey are available in several retail outlets in Napa Valley including at Papa Lou’s Wine & Spirits in Calistoga and the Napa Valley Cigar Lounge in downtown Napa.
The roots of Old Carter Whiskey began when Mark and his wife at the time Sherri partnered with a friend Dixon Dedmond to resurrect an old bourbon brand Kentucky Owl. Their first release was in 2014 – the Kentucky Owl Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch 1. They sold that brand in 2017. The Old Carter whisky is produced at several locations within Kentucky. Until more recently all their release batches have been released in Kentucky only. Releases range from merely approximately 40 bottles to around 1500 bottles at a time.
Sherri is a prolific creator with a primary focus on horse related works of art. She grew up around horses and was influenced by them from a young age; today she operates Blue Horse Studios, Hide Bag Co (whiskey totes), wrote a book called Daily Decadence (based on a number of journals she kept over the years and includes primarily recipes but also personal stories and her notes on life), and created the branding for Old Carter Whiskey and is directly involved in their social media and marketing efforts.
Old Carter Whiskey, Louisville Lounge
Old Carter Whiskey maintains a cozy small lounge in downtown Louisville at 105 West Market Street in a building owned by Carter. In mid 2022, Old Carter Whiskey opened the Old Carter Social Club space, a much larger space located above their original lounge.
We plan to visit the space sometime in 2024 and will update our notes and photography accordingly here.
Mark used to be a partner with winemaker Mike Smith in Ancillary Cellars, a limited production premium brand that focused on cooler climate wines from neighboring premium vineyard sites in Sonoma County (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). Ancillary Cellars no longer produces wine.