Brian Carter started making wine when he was just 15. It was a blackberry brew that exploded in his mother’s kitchen.
“There was a big stain on the ceiling for a couple of years, until it finally got painted,” said the native of New Mexico, who grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, where his father was a professor at Oregon State University.
Yes, that sticky sweet wine impressed a few of his young friends, but that wasn’t his primary motivation. He was just fascinated by yeast.
“I was given a microscope when I was 12 and spent a lot of time, running around and collecting samples before somebody told me about yeast,” he said.
While getting his undergraduate degree in microbiology, Carter took an independent study course on winemaking that involved visiting some famous vintners. “(Eyrie Vineyards) David Lett had a huge impact on me. He was a perfect gentleman, so gregarious and generous about sharing his knowledge,” he said. “It was during that time, I decided I had to become a winemaker.”
After attending University of California at Davis, it would have been a natural to work in the Oregon wine industry, but Carter said he was drawn to Washington State’s diversity.
“I took a couple of road trips up here and spent some time in the vineyards. I talked to Jerry Bookwalter and visited Preston, and liked the dynamics,” he said.
During a short stint working at Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, Carter got a visit and a job offer from Paul Thomas. For eight years, Carter made a mix of fruit wines (“Those were a pain in the patootie,” he said) and classic European varietals under the Paul Thomas label. Carter’s 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon beat a 1983 Chateau Lafite at a 1986 blind tasting at Windows on the World restaurant in New York City. “That helped put us on the map,” he said.
In 1988, Carter left Paul Thomas to become a consultant. He helped launch a number of wineries including Silver Lake, McCrea and Camaraderie. He was the first winemaker for Hedges Cellars and mentored that winery’s current vintner, Pete Hedges. And he partnered with Harry Alhadaf to start Apex/Washington, which became a full-time gig in 1990.
“At that time, I was really focused on becoming a better winemaker and learning as much as I could about grape growing at our estate vineyards,” said Carter, who lived in Yakima for eight years so he could be hands on in the vineyards. “I probably should have focused a little more on the business side, but I always wanted to be a winemaker first, and thought that if you make really good wine, it will sell itself.”
Since launching Brian Carter Cellars in the late 1990s – his first vintages were made while he was still at Apex – the affable winemaker has devoted a serious chunk of time to marketing his whimsically named proprietary blends.
“I regularly make the rounds, meeting with people,” he said. “It’s important to remember this is such a people-driven industry.”
It was through networking that Carter landed a sweet deal with a group of clubs in China, a market that is challenging to penetrate.
“They told us they wanted a wine that tasted like a Lafite, but they wanted it to be smooth,” he said. “A first-growth Bordeaux isn’t smooth right after it’s released.”
Besides promoting his own wines when he’s out in the marketplace, Carter is also a huge booster for Woodinville and for Washington State.
“We really need to expand our presence in the world,” he said.
Carter has long been an advocate for expanding viticulture and enology education, and serves on the wine advisory committee, which helps direct state funds to research projects at Washington State University and other programs.
Beyond the many awards – he’s the only three-time winner of best in show at the (now defunct) Seattle Enological Society Competition – and accolades he has received over the years, Carter said he still gets the biggest kick out of watching somebody enjoying his wine.
“I occasionally work in the tasting room and it’s a lot of fun hearing the feedback, having consumers say they appreciate my wines because they’re not over-the-top, that they’re good with food,” he said.
During his down time, Carter loves to hike and kayak. He and his sons paddled around the San Juan Islands late this summer, and he would like to get out on the slopes more often. As he looks forward to a milestone birthday, turning 60 in January, Carter says he has no plans to retire.
“I still love what I do,” he said. “I’m a very lucky guy.”
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