Spring 2015

Washington Winery of the Year: Brian Carter Cellars

Growing up in Oregon, Brian Carter always had a fascination with science. Thanks to nurturing parents who encouraged his inquisitive mind, Carter made his first batch of wine when he was just 15 years old.

His parents “were part of the scotch-and-soda crowd,” Carter said. “My mom let me do what I wanted.”

That backfired once in an explosive way: Carter was making a batch of blackberry wine and filled the carboy a little too full, and the top blew during fermentation, sending a geyser of blackberry juice all over his mom's kitchen. A purple stain remained on the ceiling for the next few years as testament to a hard lesson learned, but Carter's mother was good-natured about the accident.

Despite this minor setback, Carter was destined for greatness. Today, he is crafting some of Washington's most graceful and energetic wines, earning him the distinction of 2015 Washington Winery of the Year.

Carter graduated from Oregon State University in 1977 with a degree in microbiology. Knowing wine was going to be in his future, Carter immediately headed in the only viable direction in the United States: to the University of California-Davis, where he earned a master's degree and went to work in the California wine industry.

By 1980, Carter was in the epicenter of the American wine industry: Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. This was just four years removed from the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, during which the Montelena 1973 Chardonnay was the No. 1 wine in a blind tasting of California and top French white wines. The tasting propelled the California wine industry into the global spotlight, and Carter was perfectly positioned to take full advantage.

Then he did something completely unpredictable and, to his fellow Napa Valley winemakers, utterly insane: He focused his gaze north to the nascent Washington wine industry.

Not only was he leaving the mecca of the wine industry for the wild west, but Mount St. Helens also had just erupted. Some of his fellow winemakers actually were concerned for his safety.

In 1980, Washington had barely a dozen wineries, and Carter became head of Paul Thomas, a new winery near Woodinville. He quickly raised the profile of the state wine industry. His 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon beat out famed Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in a New York judging, and his 1986 Chardonnay won the trophy for best wine at the Pacific Northwest Enological Society Wine Competition in Seattle.

By 1986, Carter decided to leave Paul Thomas to become a winemaking consultant. He helped launch such wineries as Camaraderie, Hedges, McCrea, Randall Harris, Silver Lake and Soos Creek. Five years later, he took over winemaking for Washington Hills and Apex Cellars, teaming up with owner Harry Alhadeff. In 1993, he relocated to the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside in a former dairy, where the pair made a formidable team.

By 1997, Carter had the itch to create his own identity, so he began Brian Carter Cellars as a side project. His first vintage was released in 2000, and two years later, he left Washington Hills to focus all of his efforts on his eponymous winery with managing partner Michael Stevens.

Soon, they opened their tasting room in the Hollywood Hills district of Woodinville, just up the street from Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Since launching his brand, Carter has focused primarily on blends, exploring Washington examples of European traditions. These days, he makes red and white blends inspired by such regions as Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, Tuscany, Spain and Portugal.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Carter said. “I can look around the world and see where great blends are made. Then I see if I can emulate them. It seems we can do almost anything, with the possible exception of Pinot Noir.”

For the past 35 years, Carter has prowled the vineyards of Eastern Washington's Columbia Valley, and he knows exactly what grapes he wants to craft into some of the New World’s best wines. He brings in 20 different grapes from the Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope and Red Mountain.

Last year, Carter pulled off a remarkable feat: His wines earned best of show at three different competitions. His 2011 Opulento, a Port-style dessert wine topped the Seattle Wine & Food Experience. And his 2009 Solesce, a Bordeaux-style red, was the best wine at both the Washington State Wine Competition and the Northwest Wine Summit.

Nobody thinks he’s crazy now.

This story was originally published March 16, 2015 12:00 AM.

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