Life as a Winemaker: Nathan Carlson

Life as a Winemaker: Nathan Carlson

For my second installment of my 'Life as a Winemaker' series, I am going to explore the idea that being a winemaker is glamorous, romantic & full of popping bottles. On certain days of the year, winemakers assure me that is a true statement. There are days of the year when they are tasting through the winery library collection, either to update tasting notes for the wine club or evaluate vintages with a restaurant customer. Other days winemakers find themselves out visiting customers with a distributor all day, and then hosting a winemaker dinner promoting the winery that evening. As any winemaker will tell you, the easiest part of the business of wine is making the beverage to bottle. Then you have to make people aware of your wine, so that they can find, buy and consume your bottles.

Tonight our Winemaker spotlight is on Nathan Carlson of Center of Effort, where he oversees the winemaking operations and manages the estate. He forged close ties with winemakers around the world, while making Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County, Carneros, the Sonoma Coast and Oregon’s Dundee Hills. He demands a rigorous standard of quality and artistry in the wines he produces. To learn more of how Nathan got into wine...

Nathan Carlson

How did you get started in the wine business? What made you decide to become a winemaker?

I studied Marine Biology in college, but worked in restaurants to put myself through school. The restaurants that I worked at had wine as an important part of the program, and I was curious to learn as much as I could. When I moved to Santa Barbara intending to pursue further study, I continued to work in wine affiliated restaurants, and met many vintners. I met the folks from Sanford winery, and had known and loved their wines for a long time, and basically begged my way into a job, promising to roll barrels around or clean tanks, or whatever it took to learn more about winemaking. I grew up in a family that had farmed for generations. I had a life-sciences background, and a reference of some of the great wines in the world. I really loved the creative part of the business where you see the work you have done each day, week, season, vintage.

Do you have a degree in winemaking? Or are you self-taught?

Initially I apprenticed basically for about seven years, with some coursework locally and weekend extension classes. Then an employer covered my tuition to enroll in the UC Davis Certificate program, basically an intensive program for working winemakers that is mostly distance education.

Are there any memories / lessons you learned in your training that have stuck with you?

Yes. It is ALL winemaking. One of the winemakers I worked for told me the story of two medieval workers toiling along the roadside in Chartres, France. A nobleman came by on horseback and asked them what they were doing. The first man said ‘We’re digging a ditch.’ The second man said - ‘No, I am building a cathedral!’ It is all perspective, and it all contributes.

How would you describe your winemaking style?

Really careful in picking decisions. But then I try to leave the wines a lot of room to diverge during their early life – native yeast ferments, low SO2, just carefully checking in to make sure they are heading in a safe direction. I do make sure that the basic chemistry is correct – pH needs to be low enough, Brix can’t be too high.

What does your day-to-day actually look like as the winemaker?

I am the General Manager as well, so a lot of time is taken up by the business end of what we do – HR, sales, reporting to ownership, we have capital expansion going on much of the time. I try to keep Friday to go through wines, make decisions that need to be made. I often will pull samples to take home and taste when I won’t be disturbed, or come in on the weekend to taste barrel by barrel when the cellar is quiet.

What has surprised you most about being a winemaker?

Wine doesn’t require a bunch of poking around at it. There are a million additives that many companies are trying to sell all the time, and honestly most of them are nothing but a nudge. The real work comes in the vines, having the right timing on vineyard operations and harvest.

What is your favorite varietal to work with and why?

Pinot Noir is pretty rewarding right away. It gives up its color and begins to have great aroma development early on. It is pretty clear whether the quality is going to be there by the time we drain down.

In the world of wine, who do you most admire and why? Who influenced you?

There are a number of people who really influenced this area of the Central Coast. Richard Sanford really established quality wine growing in what is now the Sta Rita Hills. Richard Graff of Chalone had a huge influence on many winemakers who went on to influence winemakers who continue to influence young winemakers.

How involved do you get in the vineyards?

I have an incredibly talented viticulturalist and dedicated team that have been on our property for many years. Early on I did a lot of walking and watching, but over time they are anticipating everything that I could anticipate, and now they know what is going on in the vines better than I ever could. We talk back and forth on what is working and what the challenges we need to solve together are, but on a day to day, it is something that I do not have to worry about.

Do you have a favorite wine or vintage that you have made?

v.2009 was my first vintage to bottle here at the property. In tasting the Chardonnay barrels at 10 months old with the consultant winemaker at the time, most of them were still sweet, with a fair amount of residual sugar. ‘But they taste fine, right?’ the consultant asked – and they did, so we left the barrels alone through harvest and came back around Thanksgiving to taste through again. By then, the wine had fermented completely dry, and the acidity that had been hiding behind the sugar became apparent – it was almost too acidic to drink! (2009 was a very cool vintage, with tremendous natural acidity.) We debated removing some of the acid, but in the end we decided to move ahead with the wine, despite it being fairly austere and hard. We bottled at 22 months old, released it into the market about six months further on, and the wine was incredible – vibrant, fresh, beautiful bitter lemon fruit character and great weight. Even to this day, it is drinking incredibly freshly – it should age another ten years without a problem and has developed beautiful custard, truffle, and lemon curd character.

What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out?

Keeping balance in my life. This can suck you in and consume all of your time, provide most of your friendships, dominate your social calendar, and even your vacation and travel can be spent eating and drinking and enjoying the great wine regions of the world. My girlfriend enforces a time limit on wine talk when we get together with our wine industry friends.

What is one of the most rewarding things about your job?

I love seeing our wine on someone’s table. Love knowing that in a small way we are part of celebrations, romances, family and friends.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

I love Collioure / Banyuls. Grenache right on the Mediterranean coastline on the border of Catalunya. Simple, fresh, amazing food from the oceans, forests, mountains, and farms of the region.

If you could drink wine anywhere, in any region or country, where would it be and why?

Alsace is beautiful, like a fairytale setting. Great scenery, great food, great history. They are more set up for tourism than Bourgogne or Bordeaux, they are used to Germans driving over to load their car up with bottles to take home. The wines are so well suited to food, and they are diverse enough to keep your interest. They are also remarkable values.

What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?

Just trying to get better each year, keep the systems organized, and develop our team.