AMERICAN ORIGINALS: The Old Vine Officers
Mike and Kendall Officer, owners of Carlisle Winery and Vineyards in Santa Rosa, California, know what they like to drink: "I have a fruit-driven palate," says Mike, "wines with a focus on fruit. We probably drink Shiraz five out of seven nights a week." And their preferences are amply reflected in Carlisle's debut-vintage wines, whose full bodies and rich textures bring Barossa Valley Shiraz to mind.
Despite the couple's love for Shiraz, they've concentrated on Zinfandel for their first commercial releases. "Our old-vine Zin is somewhat equivalent to old-vine Shiraz in Australia," asserts Mike. "And there's romance associated with old vines. That's really what we're about." This love and respect for established old-vine vineyards has resulted in Carlisle's releasing of five separate bottlings, all under 250 cases, from the 1998 vintage, including three separate Zinfandels: Sonoma County ($23, 180 cases; a blend of several old-vine parcels), Russian River Valley ($29, 110 cases; from vines planted in 1926), and Dry Creek Valley ($29, 232 cases; from vines planted in 1889).
"I thought about blending them together, but when I tried it the net result was inferior; the wines really lost their individuality, and we want the wines to reflect where they come from," says Mike. Even smaller quantities were made of a Dry Creek Valley Petite Sirah from vines planted in 1889 ($20, 73 cases) and a Russian River field blend called Two Acres ($36, 78 cases). "We think the vineyard was planted around 1910. I just stumbled across it when out cycling one day, and talked to the owner. A while later I got a call asking if I'd like to take over the vineyard management."
Officer immediately accepted, despite not knowing what grape varieties were planted. "It was pretty overgrown. We pulled out 40 or 50 small trees, brush, blackberries, and lots of poison oak. We started work in the fall after the leaves had dropped so it was hard to avoid—I was on prednisone a few times," he admits ruefully.
Once the two-acre property was cleaned up, the Officers went through the entire site, color-coding and labeling the intermingled vines by variety, though some cuttings had to be sent to U.C. Davis for identification. The results? Mostly Mourvèdre, with smaller amounts of Petite Sirah, Valdepeñas, Refosco, and Alicante Bouschet. Having the vines coded meant the Officers could identify and harvest each variety at optimum ripeness, and their care has been reciprocated in the Two Acres table wine, which successfully synthesizes complexity and grace with heft. Despite weighing in at more than 15 percent alcohol, there's not a hint of heat to be found.
Mike, a software engineer, caught the winemaking bug 12 years ago when he made five gallons of Alexander Valley Zin from purchased grapes. Before long it was a barrel in a corner of the garage, then five, then ten. "I'm just a grape junkie," he says. "You need to get bigger to have more options."
While Carlisle, which carries the name of Kendall's family, is still practically microscopic by commercial standards (670 cases in 1999), total production will near 2,000 cases by the 2001 vintage. The increase will be driven by fruit from a roughly 10-acre Russian River Valley Zinfandel vineyard the Officers purchased in 1998. Old-vine Zin fanatics now know it as the source for De Loach's Pelletti Ranch bottling, but our bet is that before long it will be famous as the Officer Family Vineyard. —Joe Czerwinski