From Mark Carter's home near his Grand Award-winning restaurant in the far northern California city of Eureka, it's a long and winding four-hour drive south to Napa Valley. But the journey, which Carter makes every few days, is well worth the effort for the owner of Carter Cellars, who is on a quest to make his very own Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Besides, Carter has been looking for a little place to buy in Napa, a plot of land with room for a small winery and maybe 10 acres of vines. Since the Carter label was launched with the 1998 vintage, the wines have been made by Nils Venge at Saddleback Cellars in Oakville, and Carter has been buying grapes, most prominently from Coliseum Block Vineyard in Soda Canyon and Beckstoffer To-Kalon Vineyard in Oakville.
"I've looked at just about every piece of property in Napa in the past year," Carter says with exasperation. "And I've bought about 10 of them, but only for a day or two. Something always gets in the way."
If Carter's current release is any indication, wine lovers have every reason to be excited about what the future might bring. The Carter Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard 2003 (95 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $75) is sleek, rich and deep, with vanilla bean, dried currant, sage and dusty berry accents that end with firm tannins but also expansive flavors.
Carter's production is tiny—only 375 cases in 2003—and that represents the two Cabernets from Coliseum Block and To-Kalon along with a Merlot from Truchard Vineyard. Though the 2003 vintage is not California's strongest, Carter's bottlings, which arrive on the market soon, showed promise in a preliminary tasting.
The goal, Carter says, is to expand slowly, but still remain small. For the 2004 vintage, to be released next year, Carter has added a Cabernet from Revilo Vineyard, located near Hundred Acre Vineyard east of St. Helena. The wine will have a 200-case production.
Meanwhile, Jeff Fontanella, Venge's assistant at Saddleback, is taking on more of the winemaking duties for Carter, although Venge continues to be involved. "The Cabernets are very extracted, with great concentration, but they're not over the top," Venge says of his approach with the Carter wines.
Carter, 54, came to wine in a roundabout way. Born and raised in Eureka, a historic lumbering center amid the redwoods of Humboldt County, not far from the Oregon border, Carter originally had a career as a contractor restoring the town's many Victorian homes. In 1978, he came across the plans for a San Francisco Victorian that was built in 1885 but destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906. He and his wife, Christi, decided to meticulously recreate the house in Eureka, finally finishing it in 1982.
To help pay the bills, the Carters turned the house into a hotel called the Carter House Inn in 1986 and soon afterward added a fine dining room, Restaurant 301. As Carter developed the restaurant's wine list, he became increasingly fascinated by wine, and in 1998 Restaurant 301 won its first Wine Spectator Grand Award, the only California restaurant north of San Francisco to earn that honor. The restaurant has received a Grand Award every year since.
As Carter continues to look for land in Napa, he's starting to think that he might also need room for a small house. He wouldn't mind handing over the day-to-day operations of the inn and restaurant to someone else, allowing him ample time to lead the life of a Napa vintner. "I mean, as it stands now," Carter says, laughing, "I have the longest commute around."