A Visit with Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery

Recently, K&L domestic wine buyer Ryan Woodhouse took some of the K&L NorCal team up to Sonoma. We wanted to speak to some of the amazing wine producers located right in K&L’s backyard, so to speak. It’s always a good thing to get out of the shop to see where and how the wines we love are made. You can talk endlessly about terroir staring at shelves of bottles, but it doesn’t take on substance until you walk the vineyard grounds, touch the soil, smell the plants, and see everything that goes into producing those bottles you enjoy so much. Everyone in the wine industry knows this, of course, but there are times that understanding fades and it’s time to get back to Wine Country and refresh your mind as well as your palate.

One of many treats we had on our Sonoma day trip was a visit to Carlisle Winery to speak with Mike Officer. Aside from having a reputation as a premier wine producer and all-around nice guy, Mike has an encyclopedic knowledge of grape varietals and is one of the stewards of the Historic Vineyard Society. The HVS is a non profit group dedicated to locating and preserving some of California’s oldest and most important vineyard sites. They carefully research and catalog beautiful vineyards around California, ensuring that the history of each of these treasures is preserved and passed on. Significantly, they also make sure that each of the vineyards continues to grow grapes and keeps producing wine. Currently, over 120 vineyards are registered with HVS - several of which date back to the 1880s—with several more under review for consideration. If you’re a fan of old vine domestic wines, you owe a debt of gratitude to Mike and his colleagues at HVS.

At the winery, Mike led us through a tasting of some of what Carlisle has to offer. Certainly, Carlisle has a reputation for producing outstanding Zinfandel, and in this regard Mike and his team did not disappoint. The 2017 Carlisle Sonoma County Zin is bright, spicy, and elegant. The fruit and spice notes are robust, but there’s an unmistakably refined nature to this wine, possibly due to the fact that some of the fruit is being harvested from vines over 100 years old. Next, I was blown away by the diverse fruit characteristics in the 2016 Piner-Olivet Russian River Valley Zin that Carlisle makes. It ran the flavor gamut from blueberry, raspberry, and cassis all the way to cherry cola and even mandarin oranges.

While everyone knows Carlisle for their Zinfandels, they’re also producing excellent Rhône varietal wines and a couple of whites as well. We got to taste their 2017 Sonoma Valley "Compagni Portis" White Wine, a true field blend of Gewürztraminer, Trousseau Gris, and Riesling along with a few other varietals. We completed our tasting at Carlisle with the show-stopping 2017 Papa’s Block Syrah. This wine is deep, dark, and dense! It’s 100% Syrah and not for the faint of heart. I got aromas and tastes of nearly every berry I know—some berry flavors ripe, some jammed, some baked into pies. It was a great way to end the lineup we had that day, and I noted to myself that this wine would be an excellent end to a dinner as well.

After seeing the winery, Mike offered to take us out to a special site: the eponymous Carlisle Vineyard itself. The sun was shining and what we saw before us was a phenomenally beautiful plot of grapes. Row after row of old gnarly vines stretched out as Mike explained the history of the vineyard. The area had been settled by Italian immigrants with a rich heritage of winemaking. This particular vineyard was planted in 1927 by the Pelletti family and passed through a few hands before Mike acquired it for Carlisle. The earthiness of the soil smelled fecund and intoxicating, and as we walked through the vineyard we pulled up rocks that looked like dinosaur eggs. We learned, among other things, that this single vineyard has 40 different wine varietals planted here, some of which required genetic testing to determine what they were. Roughly 2/3rds of that is Zinfandel, but there was truly an impressive array of varietals from Spain, Italy, and even a Fire Tokaji standing bold and massive in the middle of one of the fields. It was most excellent to stand and talk among some of the plants that produced the wines we had just tasted.

—Neal Fischer

On the Trail