Category Archives: Autumn 2009

Making Wine by Hand and Heart

Mike and Brooke Carhartt at the Carhartt tasting room in Los Olivos. The couple has created a reputation in wine circles for their meticulously crafted artisanal wines made from grapes grown on a mesa above their home.

A dramatic land of rolling hills, shifting light and affable communities, the Santa Ynez Valley breeds intense loyalty in its native sons and daughters. For winemaker Mike Carhartt, who spent his formative years roping cattle and riding horseback on his family’s Alamo Pintado ranch, the place represents not just a glorious spot on the map but an entire way of life.                 Though Mike and his wife, Brooke, no longer run the dairy and cattle operation begun by his father in the late 1950s, they do continue to farm family land on the old Rancho Santa Ynez. Instead of hay, however, the couple grows 10 acres of wine grapes in a hilltop vineyard they planted in 1996.
In 1998, to help fund the farming of the vineyard, the pair made two barrels of wine in a converted hay barn—one Merlot and one Syrah—and launched Carhartt Winery, a labor of love that admittedly requires passion, fortitude and no small capacity for taking risks.
“Winemaking is like a pure alchemy,” Brooke says, “taking soil and turning it into gold, making something for celebratory purposes. The whole year’s cycle of growth—from root to grape to wine—is a magical thing,”
“Originally we were going to just be growers,” Mike says, his blue-gray eyes sparkling,  but Billy, [Wathen, co-owner of Foxen Vineyard] said it was ‘the circle of life’ to grow the grapes and make wine. In fact we needed to sell wine to support the farming expense of the vineyard. Farming is a 24/7 job, it’s a ton of work, but it’s what I know”
“It’s a pretty incredible industry,” Brooke adds, the sun glinting off her white-blonde hair, “but a lot more expensive than people think. And it’s farming, so every year is different and you just never know.”

Brooke at work in the winery lab, performing a routine test for quality.

With the help of Agustín Hernandez (their right-hand man), Pete Phillips (Brooke’s brother) and their 20-year old son, Chase, the Carhartts do most of the work themselves, from managing the vineyard and pressing the grapes in a manual hydraulic basket press, to boxing up wine club shipments and analyzing the chemistry of each vintage.
“We do it all,” Mike laughs. “We truly are the epitome of family-run and hands-on. I do the distributing, work in the tasting room and manage the farming. This operation IS us.
“Brooke does the lab work,” he continues. “She has a chemistry background that she supplemented with classes at Hancock College and UC Davis. Plus, early on we got a lot of help from Billy Wathen and Ken Brown [Ken Brown Wines].”
“I keep taking seminars and classes ,and I work really hard,” explains Brooke, who grew up in Southern California and did graduate work in psychology. “I’m always looking for seminars and classes, and I do a lot of reading. There’s always something to learn in the wine business.”
“It’s a fascinating industry,” she says, beaming one of her signature bright smiles. “Everybody supports one another, everyone wants to share, and there are all these people in our lives who’ve helped make us what we are.”
The Carhartts produce several varietals, including Syrah and Merlot and a Rosé from their own vineyard, and Sangiovese, which will soon be available from the nearby Eleven Oaks Vineyard, a small planting that they farm in exchange for the fruit.

From left, Chase Carhartt, a student in the viticulture program at Cal Poly, and ranch manager and assistant winemaker Agustín Hernandez, take Merlot samples for testing.

“It was originally planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Bryan Babcock [of Babcock Winery] farmed it,” Mike reveals. “Then Bryan went to Italy and said it needed to be grafted over to Sangiovese. We’re rehabilitating it and replanting some of it, so it’s all Sangiovese growing on its own rootstock.
“Logistically, it’s difficult to farm,” he continues. “It’s just a little three-acre piece and I’m the best person to do it, because I live right next door.”
The couple sources Zinfandel, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from other top-notch vineyards located in both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and bottle a total of about 2500 cases of wine each year.
Mike and Brooke, who married in 1982, decided to plant their own vineyard after famed viticulturist Dale Hampton scouted the ranch and pointed out a hilltop site with ideal soil structure and maximum exposure to the sun’s ripening rays. They take pride in farming their fruit sustainably and with the “utmost care and consideration for the environment.”
“Every year, we grow nitrogen-fixing cover crops that we incorporate into the soil,” Mike explains. “And every year we compost greenwaste from market lettuce, that kind of stuff, and spread it under the vines.”
They treat their wines with similar respect, carefully picking each cluster of grapes at optimum ripeness, fermenting the juice in small, three-quarter-ton bins and refraining from filtering or fining in order to retain the delicate characteristics of each varietal.
“We do as little messing around as possible,” Brooke says. “We try to bring out the best in the wine in the most natural way.”
This vintage Carhartt overalls poster hangs in Brooke and Mike Carhartt’s home. Mike’s great-grandfather, Hamilton Carhartt, founded the company in 1889  in Lexington, Kentucky, originally to supply quality, durable overalls for railroad workers. Two generations ago Mike’s uncle took over the clothing company and Mike’s father went west, to California. The company continues today and sells clothing all over the world. Most SYV Valley ranchers have at least one Carhartt jacket. According to Brooke, the 2009 vintage looks fantastic, quality-wise, but may come in a week or two behind schedule.
“We had a relatively cool first part of the summer,” she says, “though it has heated up a bit here and there, so my hunch is it’s going to be a little bit later.
“The yield looks better than ever, though,” she continues. “I think that’s a result of last year being so awful and so much of the crop being killed in the frost and/or heat. The vines came back with a vengeance this year and that’s really good for everybody.”
This summer, the Carhartt’s were delighted to have their son, Chase, work with them while on vacation from Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, where he’s in his third year of the Viticulture and Enology program.
“He did everything,” Brooke grinned. “He worked in the winery, the vineyard, and basically worked the business with us. And he loved it! He was a huge help,” she adds.
“I was so thankful that he was around this summer, because I really needed him for a lot of things. There were years we didn’t know where we were going,” she notes, “but with Chase showing interest in the business, there’s some sense of the future.”
Born in Pasadena, Mike, 56, moved to Rancho Santa Ynez in the early 1960s, several years after his father purchased what was then a 2500-acre property. While his parents remained in Southern California, venturing north only on weekends, Mike lived with the ranch foreman, worked cattle and helped with the custom farming.
“I was a full-blown cowboy,” he declares, seeming to marvel at the memory. “There was a roping arena and people would bring in horse trailers on Sunday to do jackpot roping. The place was famous.
I went to Ballard School, which had one room—first through sixth grades—and then to Santa Ynez High. Chase also went to Ballard, which is pretty cool!”
(And yes, Mike’s last name is familiar, because his great-grandfather, Hamilton Carhartt, did indeed found the eponymous company famed for making heavy duty clothing for railroad workers.)         After working “a bunch of different jobs,” including one at Nielsen’s Building Materials in Solvang, and studying agriculture at both Allan Hancock College and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Mike joined up with an employee-owned insurance agency.
“We had eighteen branches and served areas of ag in Arizona and California,” he says. “We provided workers compensation and health insurance. Those twenty years were, in some ways, the worst years of my life,” he says bluntly, “but also the best, because they provided me the opportunity to get out, get the ranch and be self-employed.”

This vintage Carhartt overalls poster hangs in Brooke and Mike Carhartt’s home. Mike’s great-grandfather, Hamilton Carhartt, founded the company in 1889 in Lexington, Kentucky, originally to supply quality, durable overalls for railroad workers. Two generations ago Mike’s uncle took over the clothing company and Mike’s father went west, to California. The company continues today and sells clothing all over the world. Most SYV Valley ranchers have at least one Carhartt jacket.

Mike’s father, who died in 1990, had sold all but a fraction of the ranch over the years to generate cash flow. Fifty acres, which included the family home and outbuildings, came back to Mike when he and Brooke successfully negotiated the purchase of the land from the elder Carhartt’s estate.
“It was falling apart,” Brooke remembers. “We rebuilt every fence, every road. But Mike loved the place. He was raised here, he has a real connection with the land. And there was a nice piece up top,” she adds, “that we realized was good for growing grapes.”                                “I’ve been here all my life,” Mike declares. “It’s home. Every day I thank my lucky stars. I’ve always maintained I’m not sentimental, that even if this place went away, I’d be all right. But as I get older, I don’t think I would be.”
Inside their home, a rambling dairy barn that Mike’s dad converted in 1967, the Carhartts point out concrete walls and a patch of floor where Mike etched his name in wet cement on October 17, 1964. In the corner of their bedroom, where sacks of feed once rose to the rafters, an old, built-in milk refrigerator serves as an efficient wine cellar and a tangible link between two distinct, yet not so very different, ways of life.

Learn more about Carhartt Vineyards at Visit Carhartt Tasting Room in downtown Los Olivos at 2990 A Grand Avenue. 805.693.5100

Atterdag Village Serendipity Shoppe

A thrift store that feels more like a kicky boutique, Atterdag Village Serendipity Shoppe welcomes browsers with creative displays of goodies, all tagged with wonderfully low prices. From vintage stoves and glassware to linens, jackets, old hats and new lotions, the eclectic inventory offers something for everyone. The shop’s manager, Karen Novack, ran an elegant… Continue Reading

Santa Ynez Paint

A famously friendly region, the Santa Ynez Valley fosters communities that care and businesses with a heart. Honoring that model, the folks at Santa Ynez Paint offer quality products at competitive prices, deliver old-fashioned customer service and give back with gusto. Established nearly 30 years ago, Santa Ynez Paint is the only store in the Valley… Continue Reading

PETROS “California-Hellenic Cuisine” in Los Olivos

The Santa Ynez Valley got a taste of something different when Chef Petros Benekos opened his Greek restaurant in Los Olivos in June. The words “great” and “Petros” linked up and spread like wildfire. And for good reason. First, there was the stunning interior transformation of the Fess Parker Wine County Inn & Spa lobby… Continue Reading

PAWS Park Unleashed!

On August 1, 2009, 36 large and 12 small dogs gathered to celebrate the opening of their very own off-leash park in the suburbs of Buellton. On hand with the canines and their people were a half dozen dedicated dog-lovers whose hard work and tenacity made PAWS Park a reality. After more than two years… Continue Reading

Our World of Oceans

For 20 years, Solvang’s Richmond Productions has refined the art of marine videography, capturing breathtaking footage both above and below the surface of the world’s oceans. Though their company covers subjects as diverse as winemaking and air quality, owners Earl and Kay Richmond have committed their formidable energies to filming, sharing and preserving the wonders… Continue Reading

The Lavender Lady

A banker turned farmer, Cheryl Wagner laughs that she still gardens green stuff, though her current crop offers a marked improvement in the fragrance department. As proprietor of Andre Organic Lavender, Wagner cultivates nine varieties of the pungent perennial for both culinary and topical purposes. “I worked with Rona Barrett when she had her lavender… Continue Reading

Beauty Care for Women and Children

As the great granddaughter of one of Solvang’s founding fathers, Kimberly Skytt Storey intends to keep the family tree firmly planted in Santa Ynez Valley soil. She has always loved the area, but with the birth of her daughter, Sophia, now four, she appreciates her hometown even more. “I’m here forever,” Storey declares. “I don’t… Continue Reading

From Figueroa Mountain

Chia — long valued by early Native Americans, the health benefits of Chia seeds have become mainstream news. This year, various magazine articles touted the benefits of Chia seeds: keep you full, excellent source of nutrients and inexpensive to boot. The only thing that came to my mind were Chia Pets. Little did I know… Continue Reading

Classic Organic

One of the many joys of living in the Santa Ynez Valley is the drive home. Once I realize I’m back in sight of this beautiful place, a sense of calm always comes over me. A few months ago I noticed some new signage off the 101, close to the Nojoqui Park turnoff. “Classic Organic–FRESH… Continue Reading