Meeting Local Winemakers

My husband Eddie and I spending a day wine tasting in Santa Clarita (SCV) is not news. But wine tasting at two different vineyards within ten minutes of our house in SCV is.

Chris and Jeannie Carpenter of Newhall have a cellar I have long coveted. Free standing and temperature controlled, with an attached sitting room, it is normally filled with exceptional wine. But on this day it was also filled with oak barrels to sample from and a “wine thief” (think classy turkey baster) to sample with.

“We have what you call a collective co-op,” Chris began. “Three couples and a single winemaker. We had 500 pounds of Cabernet that we made into 30 gallons. Two 26 gallon half barrels – they’re easier to move and hold plenty of wine anyway -makes about 35 bottles per couple.”

“The grapes are all from a local grower in Bouquet Canyon. During the crush the grapes are ‘popped’, cleaned, covered, slosh around in a truck getting here and then we ferment it for a month with the skins on.”

“Our ‘Lost Pruners’ vintage was the last one we made. We will age the new one in American oak for about 4-5 more months. The wood softens the wine, but we have the remaining juice in glass containers. If it happens to be too ‘oaky’, we’ll blend them to taste. We are also making a Barolo style from 100% Nebbiolo grapes from Santa Ynez. It will be a little drier and needs one more year before taking home.”

At this point Chris checks his composition book to tell us that his “Cabernet Tempranillo was first bottled in July of 07.”

We asked how in the heck he learned how to do this and he said, “Reading a lot and learning by mistakes. I also tried to do everything my favorite winemaker from Saxum did; right down to picking his brain and planting the same grapes. The 200 vines we’re growing are Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre that we’ll use to make a Southern Rhone-style blend. I’ve learned a lot from collaborating with my friend, Roman Weiser (another Newhall grower) on the crafting of these wines.”

We reluctantly head away from the cellar and out to take a look at the vines. Jeannie took charge of our tour then. “I plan of having Assistance League fundraisers here,” Jeannie said. “To support our community.”

She then introduced us to her brother-in-law, Tim Carpenter, who had named the “Compa Vineyards” in memory of his dog, who was lovingly seen as a true “compadre”.

“You can come back for the grape stomp,” Chris added. “We may do that next time. Until then we let the grapes drop, to give structure to our 2009 harvest.” We’re there.

Then, back in the car, we drove ten minutes to Two Hearts Vineyard, this time into the hills above Hasley Canyon and to the beautiful home of Kerry and Susie (not Suzie Q.) Clark. And, even though they were in the midst of preparing for a wedding, it didn’t prevent them from being gracious hosts to an impromptu wine tasting.

With a 4 year old all organic vineyard they have just a bit over 200 vines. Growing Rhone reds, Primitivo, Cabernet and Barbera; whites include Colombard, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and White Malvasia.

“We are strictly amateur winemakers for now so we either drink our wine or give it away,” Susie reported. “We also buy grapes (Paso, Santa Barbara, and Lodi), and juice (Napa, Washington, Australia and Austria) and even use wine kits. We have won quite a few awards for our wine in the past few years. Last month we received 5 medals at the 2008 Wine Maker International Amateur Wine Competition.”

“There were over 4,300 entries from 6 different countries making it the largest wine competition of any kind – commercial or amateur – in North America. Our 2006 Cat Canyon Santa Barbara County Sangiovese won a gold medal and the 06 Sangio-Cab blend took a silver. The 2006 and 2007 Gruner-Veltliner both took gold medals and the 07 Viognier got a silver. Our wines have won awards at other competitions including the California State Fair and the L.A. Cellarmasters U.S. Winemaking Competition”.

“We enjoy the competitions as professional judges give us feedback on our wines”.

It was a hell of a tasting. I had a hard time pouring out any of the wines Kerry had us taste. But the warm weather, excellent learning experience along with the subtle cheeses, fruits and meats, all increased our pairing experience.

“It all happened by accident,” Kerry explained. “We were invited to go to Napa and all I thought was that I didn’t need any auto parts.” There was a jokester in this winemaker. “Now we have a hard time taking a vacation at all because we can’t predict when the grapes are going to be ready for pick up, tasting and testing.”

“I enjoy writing the labels,” Kerry said. “I think every wine has a story to tell. My labels help tell the story of what’s in the bottle. Wine should be fun!” My husband read one of his quips, “Be a mellow fellow – drink Bordello Verdello” on the 2006 Mullaro Creek and “GRU-V” the 2006 Gruner Veltliner.

“Making wine isn’t hard,” Kerry continues, “But making good wine is. We started making small batches of beer before we lived in this house. And it was actually more complex with grinding grains and adding caramel. We had names like Brain Dead Red and Liver Killer Lager. Beer should be fun too!”

“We are also very green conscious: This is not a Rombauer Chardonnay, it’s my French Colombard, and we just reused the bottle.” Other wine making tips include oak cubes and stays and a cold fermentation process that “keeps the whites delicate.”
“In blending my own wines I can make my own decisions and make them consistent, I’m a slave to nature. But we don’t try to strong arm our grapes to taste a certain way, we go where the grapes take us.”

So do I.

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