Northwest Wine

Northwest Wine: Brian Carter’s path remains solid gold after 40 years in Washington

This year marks Brian Carter’s 40th anniversary as a Washington winemaker, and according to the latest Platinum Judging, the Woodinville producer is making some of the best wines of his storied career.

The three-day competition staged by Wine Press Northwest magazine is an international gathering of Pacific Northwest wines that earned a gold medal somewhere around the world during the previous 12 months. Four of the Brian Carter Cellars wines earned a Platinum, and each reflects his delicious passion for blending and a thoughtful approach to cellaring.

His knowledge of the Columbia Valley carries over into his long-standing relationships with many of the state’s top growers, which explains why the car with the Washington vanity license plate that reads “BLENDS” is frequently spotted in renowned vineyards as he walks the rows to chart the progress of the grapes grown for him.

Carter grew up in Corvallis, Ore., where his father was a professor at Oregon State University, and while his folks were more into cocktails, Brian’s fascination with biology prompted him to make berry wines as a teen. He went on to earn a degree in microbiology from OSU, and classwork included field trips to some of the Willamette Valley’s first wineries. Time spent with the late David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards prompted Carter to pursue winemaking as a career.

So Carter studied at University of California-Davis and was working in Napa Valley at Chateau Montelena of Judgment of Paris fame when he got offered a job in 1980 to make wine in Washington at Paul Thomas Winery. There were just 16 wineries in the state at the time.

A decade later, Carter became the founding winemaker for Apex Cellars and Washington Hills in the Yakima Valley.

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In 1997, he began working on his eponymous brand and turned his eyes to Woodinville. In the two decades since, the product of Oregon still does not work with Chardonnay or Pinot Noir for Brian Carter Cellars.

Along the way, Carter has quietly assisted many of the state’s top producers as they were getting started. Among the most recent is the new Klipsun brand, a luxury project spearheaded by longtime friend Doug Fletcher on behalf of Terlato Wine Group. The Terlato family purchased the iconic Red Mountain vineyard in 2016, and Fletcher, a University of Oregon grad who found fame in California, works on the small-lot Klipsun wines in Carter’s cellar. And few know Klipsun Vineyard fruit better than Carter.

In 2015, Wine Press Northwest selected Brian Carter Cellars as its Washington Winery of the Year, and the hits haven’t stopped. Last week, his 2014 Opulento, a Port-style offering, received a unanimous vote for gold — a double gold medal — at the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, North America’s largest judging. The competition in Sonoma also awarded gold medals to his 2018 Oriana White Wine, the 2014 Byzance and the 2015 Paul Thomas Red Wine, a tribute to man who recruited Carter to Washington.

Carter’s track record with rosé also is paved with gold medals, so when 2019 Abracadabra Rosé becomes available this spring, look for the food-friendly pink to charm critics and qualify for the 2020 Platinum Judging.

Below are reviews of Carter’s top wines from the 2019 Platinum Judging. For the complete list of Platinum winners, visit or pick up a copy of the Winter 2019 issue.

Brian Carter Cellars 2015 Takahashi Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $38: A master blender, Carter pays tribute to longtime assistant winemaker Robert Takahashi with this thoughtful blend of Malbec (58 percent), Merlot (34 percent) and Cabernet Franc from standout vineyards StoneTree on the Wahluke Slope, historic Olsen in the Yakima Valley and Dineen in the Rattlesnake Hills. Subtle eucalyptus notes on the nose pave the way for gorgeous flavors of blackcurrant, Bing cherry and blueberry jam. A pinch of nutmeg, a slice of roasted red bell pepper and underlying cocoa powder add elegance. It earned a double gold at the Cascadia International Wine Competition on its way to the Platinum.

Brian Carter Cellars NV Upland Vineyard 1 Graciano, Snipes Mountain, $85: “The Wizard of Woodinville” might take fans by surprise with this glorious effort with Graciano. Traditionally, this Spanish red is a prized blender in the Rioja and BCC’s Tempranillo-based Corrida program, but Carter set aside two barrels of Newhouse-grown Graciano from the 2014, 2015 and 2016 vintages. So, while it is a single varietal wine, it’s a multi-vintage blend of six barrels. The juice is all about blackberries and blueberries, providing stellar brightness to mesh with supremely managed tannins that leave room for a long finish of licorice. It earned a double gold medal at the Seattle Wine Awards.

Brian Carter Cellars 2009 Byzance, Columbia Valley, $65: In this true GSM, Carter leads off his annual romance of Rhône Valley reds with Grenache (53 percent), Syrah (23 percent) and Mourvèdre (18 percent) with added touches of Cinsault (4 percent) and Counoise. As usual, its structural fingerprints hit on the delicious acidity and smooth tannins that provide the background for hints of cured meat, strawberries and pomegranate amid the accents of violets, fresh cedar strips, blackberry and plum. A lasting bite of Kalamata olive adds food-friendly savoriness that helped earn it a gold medal at Seattle Wine Awards.

Brian Carter Cellars 2014 Byzance, Columbia Valley, $38: It’s remarkable but almost predictable that Carter would earn Platinums for GSM-blends that are five vintages apart. Then again, the fruit sources are dialed in, and so is the formula of Grenache (54 percent), Syrah (24 percent), Mourvèdre (15 percent), Counoise (4 percent) and Cinsault. There’s less of the gamy and savory approach in this younger brother, but it’s still a juicy and balanced drink of black cherry, Damson plum and pomegranate with fine-grained cherry-skin tannins and a pinch of baking spice. The Tri-Cities Wine Festival voted it best of class, and it opened 2020 with a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at

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