Wine Spectator has called Mike Officer a “visionary winemaker.” His Carlisle Winery produces Grüner Veltliner and Syrah; however, the Sonoma County institution’s most acclaimed wines come from Old Vine Zinfandel. You can buy Carlisle wine online from Bottle Barn. In fact, Mike once recommended Bottle Barn in another published interview with SHOUTOUT LA: “where wine country buys wine.” Mike kindly answered a few of my questions.
Do you work exclusively with old vines? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? And how does Zinfandel, in particular, fit into this context?
We typically produce 26 to 28 wines a year. The vast majority of them are from old-vine vineyards but not all. All of our Syrahs come from vineyards planted between 8 and 25 years ago. Our Grüner Veltliner is also from younger vines, planted in 2008. All our Zinfandels are from old-vine, historic vineyards.
One advantage of old vines is they have very deep root systems that can withstand drought much better than younger vine vineyards. They definitely proved their durability and mettle in 2021 and also during the drought years of 2012 through 2016. Another advantage of old vines is that they’re somewhat self-limiting in crop. Their yields may be low but the fruit they produce is often in better balance from a juice chemistry standpoint. Of course, old vines are not a requisite for great wine. Great wines can be made from younger vines as well. But with old vines, a consumer has an opportunity to drink history. How cool is that?
The downside to old vines? They’re a very limited resource.
Please talk a bit about the Historic Vineyards Society.
The Historic Vineyard Society (not Historical Vineyards Society) is a non-profit 501(c) (3) organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of California’s old-vine vineyards through educational events and tastings. It was founded by Tegan Passalacqua of Turley, Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock, consumer Mike Dildine, and me in 2011. Shortly after its founding, David Gates of Ridge and Bob Biale of Biale joined the board.
What is your view of the concept of “terroir” in wine?
Terroir as it relates to wine is a French term that encompasses all the environmental factors (sunlight, dirt, water, wind, exposure, and so on) and farming practices that have an impact on the grapes harvested from a vineyard. It’s a pretty broad term but ultimately it’s what makes a Chambolle-Musigny taste like a Chambolle-Musigny. Or a Pomerol taste like a Pomeral. Or a Russian River Valley Zinfandel taste like a Russian River Valley Zinfandel. Terroir gives a wine a sense of place.
Relatedly, is wine made by the winemaker, the vines, or the vineyard?
Wine is made by a winemaker. If there wasn’t a winemaker, crushed up grapes would be vinegar. Of course, great wine starts in the vineyard. Get it right in the vineyard and the winemaker’s job is easy, or at least easier.
In your experience, how has the advent of buying wine online and the relaxation of laws changed the industry where you are? What happened due to COVID-19?
Not sure what you’re asking. I’m not aware of any relaxation of laws. Every year regulations seem to get worse. As for selling wine online, we sell almost everything we produce through our mailing list in two offers a year so in our experience, nothing has changed.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about the Papera Ranch vineyard?
Papera Ranch was planted in 1934 by Celestino Papera, a first generation Italian immigrant. The vineyard is largely Zinfandel, about 96%, with the balance mostly Carignan. It’s one of the great old-vine vineyards of California. It was sold in 2007 to a private real estate investment fund who almost ripped it out to plant Pinot Noir. Fortunately, Stuart Coulson, an Irishman who had an appreciation for the vineyard’s history and high quality fruit, came along and purchased the vineyard in the 11th hour and saved it from destruction. The vineyard has gone on to produce some of the most highly rated Zinfandels produced in California.
Notably, Carlisle’s 2019 Carlisle Papera Ranch Russian River Valley Zinfandel is available from the Bottle Barn online wine store. It received a score of 95 points from Wine Advocate and contains 95% zinfandel and 5% Carignan, perfectly reflecting the Papera Ranch vineyard.