“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





12 April 2013


Hickinbotham Vineyard at Clarendon, McLaren Vale, South Australia ... photo Maynard

Another winemaking Carpenter
Name of Chris of Cabernet tops
From way up the Napa mountain

Chris Carpenter makes expensive mountain Cabernet sauvignon wines for the Jackson Family in the Napa Valley in California.  Expensive Mountain sounds like a brand which would perfectly fit his brief and the portfolio, but in fact the wines come from various mountaintop vineyards above the Valley rather than from the valley floor, which they call a bench, and some of them are more expensive than others.  Since the Jackson Family bought the famous Hickinbotham Vineyard at Clarendon two vintages ago, Carpenter’s been visiting to make Cabernet and Merlot wines from its lofty slopes, and now has two vintages in oak at Yangarra Estate, where I live.  I have no financial interest here, but intense curiosity. And reasonable awe.

Before his death, founder Jess Jackson made a habit of buying mountaintop vineyards.  He acquired them with the same fervour he showed the procurement of great racehorses.    The story of how Carpenter, this giant jazz-loving Chicago barman who also worked as a scientific equipment and lab machinery salesman became the rockstar king of Jackson’s suite of California’s mountain vineyards is confounding and entertaining and even picaresque, but let’s just say it involved a lot of revolutionary saxophonist John Coltrane, some blindingly good luck, and a stint working for the Marchese Piero Antinori, the winemaking king of Tuscany.  Antinori is also the actual King of Tuscany, as his modest title indicates.

Like Carpenter, Antinori is the master of delicious understatement in conversation.  I once asked him what his family did before they got their winemaking license in 1385.  “We made wine without a license,” he said.  Carpenter hasn't yet laid claim to such a timeline, but that combination of the earnest sincerity of Americans, his friggin size, uncommon gastronomic intelligence, love of good meat pies and that velvety baritone gives him the air of someone who is well versed in the halls of royalty, where a rare combination of confidence and humility is what’s needed for comfortable survival if one is indeed not quite your actual king.

Chris Carpenter left, with Scott Zecchin, wrangler of everything in the Yangarra winery, with the last bin of fruit to go through that door in 2013.  It's Clarendon Cabernet sauvignon for Chris's new king-hell crown of creation. 

Chris hasn't inherited his crown.  He worked for it in the gladiator yards.

While he slid his wines across the table to me, Carpenter sang a song of altitudes, aspects and geology very similar to what you may hear whilst tasting at a premium Barossa upland winery, like Henschke or Mountadam.  But he applied extra precision to explain that the Jackson Family philosophy is tailored to suit the USA market, where it would be difficult to launch a brand like Penfolds, where various Bin Number wines are blends and others true to certain estates, covering such a wide range of flavours and styles, but all under the same livery. 

“Jess always stressed that everything should be kept separate, stylistically and geographically” he said.  “I oversee four different brands in two wineries.  Each of those brands has a precise idea behind it and that idea doesn’t stray.  I specialize in the mountains.  I think I have a lot more flexibility there than say I would operating inside the Penfolds Bin system.

I kept thinking of Penfolds scientist Ray Beckwith explaining how he convinced the Penfolds regional wineries to work together and cease competition after the war.  These histories entwine like vines from afar.

“Aussies can see through the brand hierarchy of say, Penfolds, and they accept it, but when Robert Mondavi tried a similar structure in California he proved Americans couldn’t grasp it.  Everything Mondavi tried to sell at premium prices suffered – like everything above US$12,” he said.

The four exquisite Cabernets Carpenter showed me are well above US$12.  The Mt Brave is US$75, the two Cardinales US$250; and the Lokoya US$350.  I can't work it out, but it seems you can just about double those prices for Australia.

“These wines are about intensity.  I struggle to get that intensity.  There’s a lot more reward in that process.  That sustains me,” he says, reminding me of the great Coltrane.
The wines are not quite like Australian Cabernets, but close.  The Mt Brave (with fruit from Mt Veeder) is from a lofty vineyard which gets morning sunshine while the valley below is still under fog.  Like the rest of the wines, it shows little oak, but gets plenty.  It also has a few percent of Merlot (2%) and Cabernet franc (2%) to add a little floral and tease away at some of the Cabernet’s austerity.  It has a wondrous, confident intensity without showing any over-ripe jam, overt alcohol, or sap.  It seemed to me most like the similarly-blended reds of Frankland Estate at the bottom of Western Australia.  And then it sometimes pointed me at the olivine tightness of Clare reds.

“This one’s orchestra music,” the big man said as he poured the Cardinale 2009.  Like a typical Barossa or McLaren Vale blend, it’s a carefully-composed mixture of various vineyards and appellations around the Napa. 

“We can tease out the sub-regions as we wish with this wine,” he said.  “The blend changes from year to year.  The vintages change, but it’s true to vineyard.  I build it around the best-performing vineyard each year.  This one’s mainly Spring Mountain, and I added 9% Merlot.”

Spring is right.  The damn thing leaps about.  It’s acrid, bright, nose-tickling red with a silky texture gradually enveloped by long velvet tannins and the masterly balance of components which is this maker’s trademark.

“Aussies prefer this one,” he said.  “Collectors will still be comfortable pouring this in 25 years, but right now it’s fine in the restaurant.

I teased him a little about his Cardinale 2006 being his Penfolds wine: it has a tickle of balsamic acetic acid about it, and it’s more complex and closed than the 09: a very different wine indeed. 

“I’m trying to keep the middle and the length constant in this one,” he said, “but other factors can change.”  It’s built around Mt Veeder fruit this year, reinforcing my theory that Mt Veeder is indeed like the very best of Clare.  

And then came the Lokoya, from Howell Mountain fruit. 

“This is no punches pulled California Cab,” Carpenter explained.  I could drink this beauty all day long, and wallow in it: it’s a silky, luxurious wine of amazing intensity and elegance.

“I make this wine for collectors.  All Lokoyas need time.  It’s all tannin management.  That’s my job.  Up in the mountains the tannins don’t develop like they do on the Valley floor.  I fined the Cardinale 09, but I never fine or filter Lokoya.

“Winemaking is 75-25,” he concluded.  “75 is science.  25 is – well it sounds kinda goofy but it’s spiritual.  It’s reflective of you and Mother Nature.  It creates a memory.  If you can express that in a way that resonates then you’ve done your job.”

Having watched this gentleman’s Clarendon Cabernets go through their business in the winery, I can honestly say there’s some resonance coming out of his Australian adventure.  The wines are not like McLaren Vale.  These ranges are barely mountains, but they're not like the Willunga Embayment, which is the geological name for the region we call McLaren Vale.  Clarendon is much more Adelaide Hills in location, altitude, geology, geography and spirit.  The wines are not quite Coltrane yet – the vineyard’s going through a major rejuvenation and renovation – but it’s teetering on orchestra music with a very determined and expressive soloist. 

And while I rea
lise that Jacksons would be well within their rights to call the wine  Expensive Mountain, I’m sure its eventual price will be quite evident without rubbing it in. 

Just look at the size of this bin washer.

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