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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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 www.carharttvineyard.com. Visit Carhartt Tasting Room in downtown Los Olivos at 2990 A Grand Avenue. 805.693.5100