As general manager of Napa Valley vineyards for Jackson Family Wines, Chris Carpenter is a prolific California vintner. He heads up winemaking at Oakville’s Cardinale Estate and does the same for Lokoya, Mt. Brave and La Jota Vineyard, all owned by Jackson Family. He is the company’s standard-bearing winemaker.
Not quite settled after years spent building a stellar Napa Valley career, the veteran vintner opted in 2012 to flip things on their head and make for the Antipodes.
“I’m connected to the South Australia community,” Carpenter said in late February of his thrice-yearly sojourns in the wine-centric Australian state. “Understanding that has been a great revelation to me.”
His destination is always McLaren Vale, one of the principal grapegrowing regions in sunny, California-esque South Australia. The late Jess Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, decided nearly two decades ago to establish a Southern Hemisphere outpost there.
Carpenter was preparing for his next trip to Clarendon, a village near the South Australia capital city of Adelaide and home to Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard, one of two Australian wineries owned by Jackson Family. On top of his local responsibilities, he has directed the winemaking at Hickinbotham for its last seven vintages.
Compared to most winemakers, Chris Carpenter follows an unusual schedule. His Australian calendar is centered on an annual harvest trip in March. As a vintner working in two hemispheres, he oversees a harvest and crush not once, but twice a year.
He seems to welcome the challenge the last several years have brought to his life.
In the Veeder Room, an elegant meeting space at Cardinale Estate, the tall, gravelly-voiced winemaker talked about his Australian project. A winery colleague opened a bottle each of Hickinbotham’s newly-released Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Carpenter started the conversation discussing a region he doesn’t work in: the Barossa Valley.
Arguably Australia’s best-known place on its wine map, the river valley 90 minutes north of McLaren Vale began to capture the attention of the wine critic Robert Parker more than 20 years ago.
“There’s a lot going on in Australia right now with the wine culture,” he said. “I think for many years, particularly around Shiraz, it was being driven by the success of brands that Robert Parker had anointed.”
Some of that critic’s favorite wines, he noted, went “a little too far on the ripening scale. But the Aussies are coming back on that, especially in the Barossa.”
He pointed out that winemakers in McLaren Vale didn’t receive the same critical attention in the ‘90s but have distinguished themselves in their own way. “They’ve concentrated a lot on producing wines that really speak to the terroir. So, it’s been very exciting, because there are some beautiful McLaren Vale wines over there that we don’t see here.”
Hickinbotham is a notable exception. Along with its other McLaren Vale property, Yangarra Estate, Jackson Family has put considerable energy into marketing these wines across the U.S. In addition to making wine on opposite sides of the globe, Carpenter works with sales teams in this country and in major Australian cities to promote the Clarendon winery.
Australian red wine is practically synonymous with Shiraz and, to a lesser extent, Grenache. At Hickinbotham, Carpenter produces well-regarded versions of both Rhône grapes. But with the winery’s 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in front of him, he zeroed in its Bordeaux varieties.
“Our climate in McLaren Vale, our terroir, is much more similar to California than it is to Bordeaux. So what I’ve been trying to do is take advantage of what I’ve learned here in California and apply it, terroir-wise, to what I’m seeing over there. I’m letting the vines tell me when to pick and how to pick from a flavor standpoint, from an acidity and tannin development standpoint. And that’s kind of driven my style of the wines, not only here but down there, and I think it really shows in these wines.”
At $75 each, the prices for Hickinbotham’s wines are higher than many other Australian imports. In relation to Cardinale and the Napa Valley brands Carpenter makes, however, those prices seem pretty reasonable, at least for collectors.
And they are collectible red wines. The Hickinbotham Merlot is more approachable than the Cabernet, but neither wine is forbiddingly tannic. Tightly wound, to be sure, with dark red-to-black fruit, and earthy, exotic flavors, they’re the kind of wines that benefit from a few years in a cellar. Carpenter has over a decade’s more experience in Napa Valley than in McLaren Vale, but you wouldn’t guess it by his Australian wines’ depth and complexity.
“One of the things that’s happened to my winemaking style here in California is it’s been influenced by what I’ve learned in Australia,” he said. “I’m constantly trying to understand how Aussies think about wine and find the synergies—and there’s a tremendous amount of synergies—and find the departures. There’s enough that it’s benefited what I do here.”
When Jackson Family launched the Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard brand in 2012, it was named for the viticultural estate the company purchased. The previous owners supplied grapes to a renowned McLaren Vale winery, Clarendon Hills. Carpenter’s Australian colleague and good friend Peter Fraser, who is the winemaker at Yangarra Estate and a guy “with his ear to the ground,” according to him, was the facilitator of the deal. He was also the person who enabled the Napa veteran to take on a project Down Under.
“Pete was instrumental in bringing this into the fold, this vineyard,” recalled Carpenter. “When we acquired it he…thought it might be a good idea if I went over there and put my efforts into working with the Cabernet planted in the vineyard.”
“So I jumped at it, because it was a new challenge. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to go. And Pete’s a good mate.”
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After seven years of extended stays at Hickinbotham, with a vineyard house and a “Ute,” an Australian pickup truck, at his disposal, Carpenter has come to think of McLaren Vale as a home away from home. He emphasized that he hates being away his family, but he has made lots of friends in South Australia, both in and outside of the wine business.
“I’m down there for a good four or five weeks. People take pity on me and invite me over for dinner,” he exaggerated with a smile. “I get to know some folks. And you know, I’ve gotten to the point now where I’ve hosted people coming back to Napa, and it’s become a really nice community of people that, when I go down there, I don’t feel like a stranger anymore.”
One of Carpenter’s mates is a gentleman affectionately known to friends and colleagues as “Biggles,” and to the world at large as Leon Bignell, MP. He is a member of the South Australian Parliament for McLaren Vale and the former Minister of Agriculture, Food, Wine, and Tourism for his state.
“I’m the Bill Dodd of Down Under,” the good-natured politician quipped over the phone recently, though, as a state representative, the analogy was apt.
Dodd, the California state Senator and Napa native, arranged for Bignell to visit Napa Valley in 2010 while he was a Napa County supervisor. “Biggles” had come from Adelaide with an agenda to find out about the Napa County Agricultural Preserve, which he hoped to emulate back home in the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley wine regions. He has since done so through separate preservation acts that were passed by the Parliament in 2012, both of which he backed as a legislator.
On a follow-up trip in August 2014, which happened to coincide with the Napa earthquake, he met Carpenter through their mutual friend, Yangarra’s Peter Fraser. “I met Chris Carpenter, and the earth moved for me,” he laughed.
Joking aside, the MP is one of Carpenter’s biggest fans back in Australia.
“We haven’t had a lot of Americans down here in McLaren Vale. So to have someone of Chris’ stature coming into town, people just hang off what he’s got to say. We’re very open here, just like people in Napa are, and we love to learn new things. And I guess having Chris here, he’s seeing two vintages a year, because he’s doing the Napa vintage and the vintage in McLaren Vale.”
“He’s an outstanding winemaker who can teach us some things,” Bignell added. “He’s also a keen learner, so he wants to hear from our guys about how they do things. He just fits in perfectly here; he’s good for a laugh, he’s good for sitting around listening to a bit of music, and he loves his sport.”
In college, Carpenter played football at the University of Illinois and is admired, according to Bignell, for his ability to follow the Australian rules version of the game. He has a sense of humor about the differences between Napa Valley and McLaren Vale, particularly when it comes to South Australia fauna like noisily mating koalas, grape-devouring lorikeet birds, and deadly spiders.
Kangaroos, of course, are ever-present. They’re his companions in the Hickinbotham vineyard when he’s alone practicing his trombone. Via his passion for Jazz Fest in New Orleans and that city’s music, he picked up the instrument several years ago and often brings it to Australia. He believes he’s gotten pretty good but confessed that his family would differ.
“Music really drives me. It’s one of my passions outside of winemaking,” he said. “I think you’ll see this with a lot of winemakers: many are frustrated musicians in one way or another. So they realize their creative abilities by way of taste versus by way of sound. But we still reflect back on that music side of it.”
At the end of the Southern Hemisphere fall — May in Napa — Carpenter was back home in the valley and able to offer a little reflection on his most recent Hickinbotham trip. For a winemaker who’s been through many harvests, he sounded measured but ecstatic.
“It was a great harvest. It was unique in that we had a couple of heat spells leading up to it, which really took a lot of the water out of the soil. We don’t irrigate that often down there, so the berries were really tiny, which drove a fairly quick harvest.”
He described small clusters of fruit on the Hickinbotham vines, resulting in a yield that was 20 to 30 percent down from his vineyard team’s forecast. “But,” he said, “the fruit and the wine that we made as a result of it was really intense. I think it’s going to be a great Aussie vintage for McLaren Vale and South Australia, because we heard the same thing coming from other regions.”
From a low point in the early 2000s to today, things seem to be looking up for Australian wines in the U.S. The ’19 vintage will only help, if Carpenter’s assessment proves correct. He acknowledged back in February that, through Hickinbotham’s and Yangarra Estate’s wines, the doors pushed open by the Jackson Family’s powerful marketing arm allow smaller but equally quality-driven wineries to reach new consumers in this country.
As a former importer based in Napa, Australian national Rob McDonald has kept his eye on the South Australia wine scene. He founded Old Bridge Cellars in the early ‘90s and after a decade had created a highly respected import portfolio before selling his company in 2004. He has since branched into — some might say single-handedly created, along with his wife, Kat — the craft wine cooler category vis-à-vis their company, St. Mayhem. But South Australia and McLaren Vale artisan wines are never far from his thoughts.
“The things that are going on with Australian wine are things that have been going on all the time consistently,” McDonald said. “Right from the birth of the industry, there have been lots of small, independently minded people making really cool wines from different places. The single vineyards are an important part of it.”
He went on to echo Carpenter’s assessment of the ’19 harvest conditions at Hickinbotham, noting that “it’s more of making something that really works in an area using very little water, because it’s the driest continent on earth. So the idea of making high volume and also very cheap wines from the driest continent is sort of nuts. What we do really well in Australia is the creativity around sites, and around grape varieties that work in a given spot.”
Between the Bordeaux and Rhône varieties that Carpenter’s team in Clarendon work with under the Hickinbotham label, they certainly seem to have found a great place to execute their boss’s plan. And they know that, sooner or later, he’ll be back to help them.
“When I leave, you know, I’m still part of the community,” the winemaker said. “That’s why I go back a couple times a year, to make sure that people are aware that I’m engaged in it and that I respect what is happening. I don’t want to ever be seen as the American who comes in and, you know, anoints certain things and has it all dialed in because of my experience here, or I’m pushing the Aussies one way or another. That’s not what I want to do. I want to be seen as somebody who is still learning, because that’s how I am.”