Tony Cartlidge’s first act in the wine business was co-founding the successful Cartlidge and Browne Winery in 1980. In 2011 that winery sold and his search for a second act was on.
It didn’t take long. In 2014 he and his family launched Dancing Crow, which makes sauvignon blanc from their vineyard in Lake County.
Cartlidge first started making wine from the vineyard some 10 years ago.
“We fell in love with it and made a little sauvignon blanc for our Cartlidge and Browne label,” he said. “The wine that came from the organically farmed vines was extraordinary, and the vineyard definitely had a magical sense of place.”
To his joy, the property became available two years ago.
“The owners, Maile Field and Lars Craal, moved to Virginia and offered to sell the 28-acre vineyard that had been owned by the same family since the 1850s,” he said.
When asked what makes the vineyard so special, Cartlidge was quick to reply.
“The vineyard’s strength is its proximity to the moderating effects of Clear Lake and the dense black soil called Diablo that dries and cracks in the summer, causing the roots to fracture, which results in the vines struggling, only able to produce about half the volume of what normal sauvignon blanc vines do.”
Cartlidge gathered his family and they struck out on a new adventure, this time together.
“I wanted to do something with them — something that could continue on from generation to generation. Something from the land,” he said. “And now we have that.”
“It’s wonderful to be in business with my wife and boys,” Cartlidge said. “And having our friends David and Katharine DeSante actually make the wine adds greatly to the experience. Their other wines can be found at the French Laundry.”
The winemakers for Dancing Crow might not be family, but nearly everyone else associated with the brand is. Adam is co-owner, his wife, Sarah, is in charge of special events, and his son Stefan heads up marketing and production.
“I am even hoping that my other son, Alexander, may join us at some point,” Cartlidge said.
While Adam, Sarah and Stefan all grew up in the Napa Valley, Tony was born in England.
“I came from a bohemian English household and grew up at a turbulent time,” he said. “By the late ’60s I was attending the Architectural Association of the University of London, but I spent most of my time traveling to Paris and even Russia.”
Tony had learned a little Russian growing up and found a job taking groups on camping trips to Leningrad, Moscow, Smolensk and Minsk. But by 1971 he had moved to Oregon, where he found a job driving cement mixers.
“Driving cement mixers brought me down to earth and was really important for me at the time,” he said.
In 1976 he left the United States to export hammocks from Juchitan, Mexico, to France. By 1977 he had come back and worked at a restaurant called The Left Bank in Walla Walla, Washington, but he left the restaurant for another cement-mixing job, this time at a nuclear power plant.
But even the glamorous world of mixing cement could not keep him away from what would end up defining his life: making wine. After reading a book on California winemakers he became inspired and headed to Napa in his 1960 Rambler. He checked into the old Motel 6 and used the yellow pages hanging from the pay phone in the lobby to call wineries looking for employment. To his surprise he soon procured a job as a tour guide at Rutherford Hill Winery, and by 1980 he had started Cartlidge and Browne.
Tony continued to talk enthusiastically about his fascinating past, his family and the winery while he poured the 2014 Dancing Crow Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is their first release and has aromas of citrus blossom and papaya that contrast nicely with bright flavors of pear and candied lemon rind, a lingering hint of dried apricots and an almond trail-off in the finish. The wine is complex with a rich texture considering its relatively low alcohol — 12.3 percent — making this wine refreshing and lively but not overwhelming. The price is $18 a bottle, and it can be found at Sunshine Foods and local restaurants such as Terra.
As to future plans for Dancing Crow, Tony said, “We might buy a little more land, but we’ll focus on sauvignon blanc — it grows perfectly in what is a very extraordinary place.”
When asked about his legacy, Cartlidge paused for a moment and looked wistfully into his glass.
“Fifty years from now I hope people look back and say that our family recognized that Lake County was going to become a world-class wine region.”
Time will tell if his wish comes true, but one thing is certain: The Dancing Crow 2014 Sauvignon Blanc is a lovely wine that comes from a new venture between one very interesting man and his cherished family and friends.
Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart from Rutherford and then went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D in biology at CU and then became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. firstname.lastname@example.org.