Central Valley region
Daringly different Mediterranean inspired blends
Carmichael Vintners was born out of a desire by its original owner to produce a number of blended wines that were European by design and Californian by nature. Owner Michael Levin sourced grapes from different parts of California and made the winery name a combination of his wife Carmen and his own first names.
Carmichael Vintners was sold in 2003 to Richard Spencer, who immediately built an imposing 20,000 square foot winery in Madera, California, a city that is known industry-wide as the home of the incredibly successful (and large) Gallo Brothers Winery. “Since we were buying a great deal of our fruit from both the Central Coast and also the Sierra Foothills region,” informed Debra Morris, general manager of Carmichael Vintners, “the selection of Madera as a home for the winery was a natural since Madera is practically in the middle of everything. The location is also quite cost efficient, and that makes a big difference to our bottom line.” Carmichael Vintners made its debut in the wine business with a smallish production of around 500 cases sometime in 2001. It has grown slowly and will produce just over 3,000 cases this year.
“We’re in no real hurry to grow,” Morris added, “in fact, our five year plan calls for us to be around the 8,000 case level, and that just happens to be our ultimate goal. By staying small, we will be able to control our own destiny and to us that means quality.” Morris and the small staff of eight at Carmichael Vintners are truly excited at the future prospects of the Central Valley boutique winery. Morris pointed out that the winery has already enjoyed an uptick in grape quality with some recent purchases and new contracts.
“In Napa Valley, for instance, we have already bought some Cabernet from Chalk Hill and have several other top vineyards under contract for this coming year. It’s much the same story around the state, where we are starting to really pick and choose our sources. This sort of quality direction is great for the staff and also for the winery.”
Debra Morris is a wine industry veteran for more than two decades and has had a major hand in developing the marketing aspects of Carmichael Vintners. In her own words, “we are aiming for an old world feel for our wines, a feel that also includes a fruit vibrancy that the wines might not enjoy were they made in Europe.” Simply put, Morris wants to make European style blends that accurately reflect the personality of superior California fruit. She explained further, “California, in my opinion, really doesn’t have bad vintages. It’s true that some are better than others, but due to the excellent growing conditions California vintners always enjoy the luxury of being able to produce wines with great vibrancy. We want our wines at Carmichael Vintners to be very drinkable but also to be able to stand a bit of bottle and cellar age.”
Carmichael Vintners is also expressing the winery’s continued development with some new packaging that will tend to reflect the patina of something old, well worn and also tied to the earth. A chocolate brown theme with earthy color palates highlighted by a modern edge complete the new packaging. Carmichael Vintners seems poised to join the growing number of smaller, well-priced wineries that are carving out specific niches for themselves in the incredibly difficult wine industry of today. With more consumers feeling the pinch of the extended recession, Carmichael Vintners might just be in the right place at the right time.
“We have been fortunate that our wines have always been well received,” concluded Debra Morris.” It has always provided us with a good consumer base to draw from. I feel that with our new emphasis on high quality fruit, the upside looks very bright. Our new owner has provided us with all the tools we need, and now it’s up to us to make things happen. It’s really a grand time to be around the winery.”
From the looks of it, a good deal of what is mentioned is already happening, as proved by this month’s Gold Series selections. It’s always fun to catch a winery on the way up when it’s small, and then enjoy its wines as it gains notoriety. Such is the case with Carmichael Vintners, a good story and really good wines.
About the Vineyard
Since the major focus at Carmichael Vintners is on blends, it is almost of necessity that practically all of California’s top wine-producing regions are utilized in sourcing fruit for the Carmichael selections. Fruit from Napa Valley as well as the entire Central Coast is used, depending on the palate affect winemaker Ken Post is seeking.
“Since we are looking for specific fruit nuances as well as freshness on the palate,” Post related, “it’s quite possible to see grapes blended together from entirely different regions to produce a desired taste and appeal. This process tends to give us our own special niche in the marketplace, which is the desired effect.”
The Art of Fine Wine
Painted by artist Ronald Raasch, who enjoys working with watercolors, pastels, and acrylics. Raasch is also the political cartoonist for the Central Oregonian newspaper and a licensed architect.
Ken Post - Winemaker
Winemaker Ken Post, 50, is in this third career. Ken and his family were farmers (alfalfa & grains) until the family ranch was sold. Next, Ken and his father ran a successful building company until it was also sold some years ago. Unhappy with retirement and wanting to spend more time with his family, Post attended Fresno State and got his degree in enology. He first worked for the respected small winery Oak Hollow and joined Carmichael Vintners in time to finish the ’06,’07 and ’08 vintages.
Richard Spencer never thought he would one day find himself in the wine business, much less the owner of Madera-based Carmichael Vintners. The Wisconsin native and long-time resident of Fresno was deeply involved in the construction business. His Harris Construction was extremely visible in North Central California as a builder of hospitals, schools and numerous other large buildings and projects. At one point in his life, Spencer thinks it was around the age of 40, he began drinking wine as his choice of beverage.
‘It was almost like it was the thing to do socially,” Spencer recalled in a recent interview. ‘Before it was always beer but the more I drank wine the more I enjoyed it. My wife Karen and a couple of our really close friends actually made a number of trips over the next few years to Bordeaux and some of the other great wine areas of the world.” Spencer also began collecting wine and now has a cellar that numbers over 5,000 bottles. He says he enjoys Bordeaux a great deal but is equally at home with a number of top California wineries. A little less than a decade ago, an unusual event occurred that ultimately thrust Richard Spencer into the wine industry.
‘I had a friend who owned a winery that wasn’t doing very well,” he recalled. ‘He wanted to get out of the business and I wanted to help him out so I wound up buying some of the used equipment. The idea at the time was to move the equipment somewhere else or maybe sell it. Well, one thing led to another and we finally decided to do it ourselves. We located a nice 19-acre piece of land in Madera with an empty building on it and agreed to do it up right.” That was in the early 1990’s and today’s modern Carmichael Vineyards winery and tasting room serve as a jewel in the Central Valley, where smallish boutique wineries are the rarity rather than routine.
‘We wanted to do everything first class,” Spencer added. ‘With my background in construction, I was there to see it all through.” Spencer admits to being a hands-off owner and had chosen to employ a top-notch management team for Carmichael Vintners. He did however, have a hand in deciding to separate Carmichael Vintners from others in the Central Valley who relied on Central Valley grapes for their wines.
‘We wanted to utilize grapes from a number of sources that would provide us the ability to make our Euro-style blends. We have managed to stick with that philosophy and it seems to have worked out quite nicely,” added Spencer. While Spencer’s passive management approach is relatively unique in the wine business, he and Karen officiate at the winery’s quarterly events that showcase new releases. The events are designed for their club members and take the form of all day parties.
‘It’s all great fun,” confided Spencer. ‘They are actually long and wonderful events and are an enjoyment to everyone involved. They make us feel like a part of the winery even if they only last a day.”
Richard Spencer has the best of all worlds and is smart enough to truly enjoy what he has.