Cris Carter is the one-man show behind Weatherborne Wine Co., a small producer who has exclusively made pinot noir from the Sta. Rita Hills. For his 2015 vintages, the fourth year of making commercially available wine, Carter will take on a second varietal available only to members of his wine club.
Getting involved in the growing process is important, as a percentage of Weatherborne wine is made with whole-cluster grapes. Rather than producing a broad selection, Carter’s strategy is to concentrate all his efforts on a few well-executed wines -- it’s quality over quantity.
After representing his wine at the L.A. Garagiste Festival, Carter opens up about diverting his career trajectory from the sky to the ground, focusing exclusively on one varietal, and the challenges of competing with big producers for market presence.
California Winery Advisor: How did you get your start in winemaking?
Cris Carter: So, I always wanted to fly. My grandfather, my dad and my uncles were all professional pilots. I wanted something fun to study while getting my flying credentials, and I was always good at chemistry, so I learned about the winemaking degree at UC Davis and knew that was what I wanted to study. Plus, I got a full scholarship, so the choice was easy. I got my pilot's license while at Davis and almost finished my Commercial license, but when I graduated it was just after September 11th, so there were thousands of out-of-work pilots with way more experience than I. I took my first job as a harvest intern at Cakebread in Napa and loved the work. After a while I just got too far down that path to think about turning around.
CWA: So you transitioned from pilot to Weatherborne winemaker?
CC: I started Weatherborne in 2012 when I left my position as an assistant winemaker in SB County. I always loved working with pinot noir and knew this would be my focus. After working for almost a dozen years for other winemakers I was of the mindset, "I'm tired of working for all these jerks. I want to be that jerk." So, here we are. Luckily, I'm a one man show, so I'm the only one who pays for my, let's say, miscalculations.
CWA: Your focus is pinot noir, are you branching out from that varietal?
CC: Until this year, I only bought Pinot Noir, but because I'm starting a wine club, I wanted to have an exclusive wine just for members. I love Grenache, it can be pretty and delicate or big and tannic. Totally depends on where it's grown and how old the vines are. The John Sebastiano Vineyard Grenache I got was more the lean and pretty side of things. I intend to keep focusing on Pinot Noir, but honestly it's just fun to play around with small lots and tinker in the kitchen. Don't want the mind to start contracting from boredom!
CWA: How much wine are you making?
CC: I made only 225 cases my first vintage in 2012, and now hover around the 450 case mark per year. I use the Brewer-Clifton facility to make my wine.
CWA: What are the challenges you deal with as a small winemaker?
CC: Well, the growers don't need you. So getting your grapes picked on time is not always easy. The growers are very preferential to the larger purchasers or the guys who the wine media is fawning over at the moment. This is the biggest challenge. Also, because I buy small amounts of glass, labels, etc., the prices are always higher than buying in bulk.
CWA: Are there advantages to being a Garagiste here in California?
There are lots of mouths in California, so it's easier to find buyers here, but then again there's more competition. I wouldn't say the state and local governments make things easy with all the layers of regulation (read: fees, excessive fees.) But, in wine country people like to buy local products and are very interested in local wines.
In LA, wine buyers don't seem to follow the farm-to-table approach, but are much more cosmopolitan in their attitudes to California wines. Mostly, they complain they are too expensive, but then again they are used to charging 300-400% markup, so I don't put too much thought on that! (My markup is much, much smaller, I assure you.)
CWA: Is there longevity in this business for small winemakers?
CC: I think most of the garagistes won't make money in this industry, so they will probably be forced to stay small or give up entirely. If you are wealthy to begin with, I guess you could manage to stay small. The stars align for some, though, and they will almost always have to make more wine to stay in the game.
CWA: What about cost?
CC: Basically, if you're not selling most of your product direct-to-consumer via a tasting room or wine club, you're handing over your margin to your distributor. If you go directly to a restaurant, they invariably ask for by-the-glass (BTG) pricing which means you sell them a bottle at $15 and they price the 4-5 glasses they get at $15 per glass. So, the retailers are the ones driving up the price of wine in bars/ restaurants, not the producer.
CWA: As a one-man show you have to deal with marketing as well. What is your strategy?
CC: Well, I pour at various festivals which are great to connect with consumers directly. I have a website to sell wine and push my wine club (starting in October). I try to find a few key retail accounts to be my allies in getting the word out. I've had a bit of luck and a few places really like my wine and do a great job promoting Weatherborne. Sometimes, you send wines out for review in national publications, but it's easy to get lost in the shuffle if that taster doesn't like the style of your wine. Hopefully, local newspapers hear about you and ask some questions. It's a multi-pronged attack!
CWA: What changes would you like to see for small producers?
CC: Mostly, I'd like to see more people interested in the small producers because they are the ones pushing the envelope. If you're a big producer it's like piloting a big ship -- slow to change direction, slow to stop and accelerate, many voices telling you which way to go. If you're a small producer, you make what you want. Sometimes they are good, sometimes great, and sometimes not so much.
CWA: Tell us about one of your wines you’re excited about.
CC: I only make one wine per year, so I guess that's not too mainstream! The 2012 Weatherborne is fun because it's all neutral-oak and a good portion of whole-cluster, so that graphite note really pops. The bright red fruit is really pretty in it right now, as a counter-balance to this earthiness. Most big wineries don't use whole-cluster too much, as some find it a bit vegetal on the nose, but done properly, it's brilliant.
CWA: Where can we find your wine?
CC: The best place to find Weatherborne is on my website. Retailers are fickle, so they buy wine sometimes and then move on to something else. Recently, Buzz in Downtown L.A. and Spin the Bottle in Toluca Lake have been carrying my wine.