“Wine”ding Into Whiskey

Story Justin Thompson
Photos Victor Sizemore

Napa Valley Vintners Shift Their Focus To Blending Brown Water

Whether it’s a 60-gallon made from French oak from the Allier Forest or a 53-gallon constructed of American oak from the Ozarks, it seems that every barrel that Mark and Sherri Carter get their hands on turns to liquid gold. A global liquor conglomerate sure thought so when they bought the Kentucky Owl Bourbon brand from the Carters and the other co-founder, Dixon Dedman, in early 2017 for what was rumored to be a low eight-figure sum. Instead of having the attitude of, “Been there and done that” the Carters went out the very next day after the sale of Kentucky Owl was finalized and started looking for more whiskey that they felt met the standard for their new brand Old Carter. And when you’re one of the few winemakers in America who can boast of having made at least five different “100-point wines,” that flavor standard is pretty high.

From Inn Keeper To Wine Maker

Mark’s journey as an entrepreneur started in the late 1970’s as a builder in Eureka, California. In 1980, after some successful projects, Mark decided to build a home for himself that mimicked the Victorian architecture that was prevalent in the area. He admits, “I got a little carried away on the project, as I tend to do on my projects” and spent almost triple his original budget. Not to mention his financing was costing him 28% interest at the time. Mark finally finished the project but was broke. He didn’t even have money to furnish the house. He decided to turn the home into a bed and breakfast style inn and called the 7,000 square-foot structure The Carter House. He asked his business partner, Steve Gordon, if he could loan him some furniture to put inside. Along with the building business he was a part of with Mark, Gordon had also started a furniture line on his own called Restoration Hardware, which is now one of the most recognizable brands in luxury furniture. The Carter House became an instant hit in the area, and Mark discovered he enjoyed the daily interactions with his guests and being an innkeeper in general. The Carter House was even dubbed by California Magazine to have, “The Best Breakfast in California” in 1984. In 1986, Mark bought the lot across the street and built a 20-room hotel with a small, 30-seat restaurant. The new inn was evidentially co-branded with the house across the street as the Carter House Inn. When Mark started to buy wine for the restaurant, he didn’t know he was planting the seeds for a career in winemaking.

In 1987 Mark heard about a prestigious award given to restaurants with great wine lists. “Again, I got carried away. I heard about this ‘Grand Award’ from Wine Spectator, and earning that became my new obsession.” Eventually, Mark built his wine list to over 4,000 bottles, which required a menu of more than 100 pages. In 1998 his Carter House Inn was finally presented with the “Grand Award” from Wine Spectator. There have still only been 87 wine programs in the world given this honor as of the date this was published.

During that decade of chasing after the “Grand Award” Mark got to meet several winemakers at dinners he co-hosted at the Carter House Inn. The more interaction he had with them, the more he wanted to join their ranks. Mark became determined to make wine with Nils Venge, who was the first winemaker in America to receive a 100-point wine in 1987. Mark started to ask Venge the same year if he could team up with him to start making wine. It wasn’t until after a decade of asking, that Venge finally agreed to team up with Mark to start making some Napa Valley wine in 1998.

Venge told Mark that all he needed to do was to find some grapes from Napa Valley and he’d help him start the winemaking process. Mark wasn’t aware that he would need to source the grapes, and didn’t really have any connections to buy any. As fate would have it, Mark met someone who could help him with his grape sourcing problem.

One night soon after Venge got on board, Mark walked into the restaurant at his inn and saw only one customer sitting at the bar. The bartender let Mark know the gentleman was buying some of their most expensive bottles of wine. Mark went over and introduced himself to the gentleman, who quickly complimented the wine selection he was able to order from. The man turned out to be Fred Schrader, who today is considered one of the best winemakers in the world, and his Schrader Cabernet Sauvignons have produced the most 100-point wines from America with 17 total.

After hours of talking, Schrader asked Mark if he ever considered making wine, and Mark explained he had Venge lined up to work with him, but no grapes. Schrader told Mark he had some extra Cabernet Sauvignon grapes he could buy off of him. Before Mark knew it, he had two of the best winemakers in Napa Valley helping him out. “Right out of the gate I had Fred [Shrader] and Nils [Venge] as my consultants on my first wine. I couldn’t believe it!” In late 2000, the first bottling of Carter Cellars, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, was offered to the public.

2006 Is A Good Year. 2012 Was Better.

After some successful releases from the Carter Cellar line, Venge started to urge Mark to purchase some land in Napa Valley before it would become too expensive. The two partnered on 20 acres located in the small city of Calistoga, calling the new vineyard Envy. Mark also started seeing his future wife, Sherri, later that year.

Although they have expanded production twice at their winery, the brands they produce are still pretty small in comparison to most wine brands you find on the shelf of a liquor store. The Carters produce 10 different wines from their Envy and Carter Cellar brand and none of them exceed 180 cases a year. Almost all of their wine is sold via their mailing list, with a small portion kept for the tasting room inside their winery.

2012 is described by the Carters as the best year of their lives. Not only did the two soulmates get married, but they received the news every winemaker dreams of. Sherri recalls the significant day when Mark called her on the phone in a panic. “I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I was downstairs and he was upstairs with what sounded like a possible heart attack or something. Then, he came downstairs with tears in his eyes and he moaned, ‘wine’ and hugged me. He finally told me that one of our wines had received a 100-point rating.” The Carter’s earned a second 100-point rating later that year as well and picked up three more in 2013.

The Owl Is Reborn

After an expansion of production at the Envy Winery in 2007, the Carters were on the hunt for new clients to make private labels for. They started looking inside the tight-knit inn-keeping community. They came across an old friend, Dixon Dedman, who was running his family’s Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Ky during an inn convention in Austin, Tx. Mark had known Dedman since he was a baby, and actually helped his father lobby successfully to get restrictions for alcohol sales in the Harrodsburg area lifted in the 1990’s so the Beaumont Inn could sell liquor and wine.

Dedman heard the Carters were seeking clients to make private labels for and expressed interested to them about doing that for the Beaumont Inn. But according to Mark, the Carters weren’t exactly interested in making wine for Dedman. What caught the interest of Mark was a story that Dedman’s dad, Chuck, had told him during the time he was visiting Harrodsburg to help change the liquor laws.

Chuck had told Mark that their family used to have a distillery and produced a Bourbon called Kentucky Owl in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the story that was passed down to Chuck, the distillery was not only shut down during Prohibition, but the government seized all aging barrels and moved them into a government-owned warehouse. The family was told a few years later, that those warehouses had burned down and the whiskey was a total loss. The family tried but failed in court to recover monetary damages from the barrels that disappeared under those unusual circumstances.

Mark recalls responding to Dedman’s request for making him some wine with, “We can make a wine for you no problem. But we’d be more interested in helping bring back your family’s Bourbon brand that your dad told me about.”

After several meetings, the Carter’s assured Dedman that they could handle most of the compliance, financing and even use Sherri’s skills as an artist for design work. What they needed Dedman to do was to find some Bourbon.

It took a few years for Dedman to come up with the sourced Bourbon that would eventually become Kentucky Owl. When they finally felt they had enough product, Dedman and the Carters starting blending the whiskey they accumulated. The Carters thought it would be beneficial to use a “double-barrel” method, which pours the whiskey into a second barrel. That second barrel is usually treated or charred differently in order to achieve a specific flavor profile. Sherri says, “We took our winemaking process and put it to work. We wanted to add alittle more oak to this product.”

They decided that all Kentucky Owl Batches should be bottled at barrel proof. In 2014 the Carters and Dedman released Kentucky Owl Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch 1. Mark says, “We felt that product deserved a little respect so we charged what we thought was a premium price. With the double-oaking, it did cost us more money.” It was released only to Kentucky for around $175 a bottle. By the time Batch 2 was released in 2015, the brand was already a hit with Bourbon connoisseurs.

Mark shares, “We weren’t in a rush and wanted to put out a great product. People told us if we cut it (the process of adding water to the final product before bottling) we could make more money, but we weren’t really interested in that. We just wanted to make a quality product.”

They also wanted each batch to be unique in taste, just like how every vintage of their wines has a different flavor profile. Sherri says, “We were very proud how each batch turned out, and everyone seems to have their own favorite one.”

Old Carter Whiskey Company

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving of 2016 was the first time the Carters heard about someone interested in buying the Kentucky Owl brand. Dedman had called them and let them know in a “ believe-it-or-not” tone that a serious buyer had reached out to him. That buyer turned out to be SPI Group, whose best-known brand is Stoli Vodka.

The Carters are both very clear that they initially were not eager at all to sell their share of the brand. But eventually a deal was made and finalized in January of 2017. The very next day the Carters started searching for barrels of whiskey for a new project called the Old Carter Whiskey Co.

The Carters plan is to repeat most of the major components of what made Kentucky Owl a hit, starting with sourcing what they consider are exceptional barrels of whiskey. They claim they have been successful in doing so, by securing whiskey made in Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee for their future Old Carter brands.

Sherri once again designed the label for this project. At the center of the Old Carter label is what she calls, “a workhorse” which pays homage to Mark’s family who used to have a farming operation in Somerset, Ky in the early 20th century. This horse was designed 20 years earlier as one of her original wood carvings and feels it represents, “Strength and tenacity to continue to build something you’re proud of.”

Their first release will be Batch One of Old Carter Whiskey Co. Straight Rye Whiskey and is scheduled to be released in late March of 2018. Batch One is a 95% rye that was distilled in Indiana and is bottled barrel-strength at 112.2 proof. Only 1269 bottles will be available in Kentucky only with an MSRP of $180. The Carters also hope to have a Batch Two for their rye and a Batch One Old Carter Whiskey Co. Straight Bourbon released later this year.

“Barrel-strength is what we do,” says Mark. Sherri follows up with, “With our winemaking background, you develop a library of tastes and smells. As we got into whiskey, we’ve experienced similar nuances of taste. But we feel that barrel-strength is the best representation of those flavors we’re looking for.”

The Carters sure don’t seem to be in a rush to grow their whiskey company outside of the Kentucky market anytime soon. They haven’t allowed critical acclaim pressure them into a large increase of production for their wine brands, so it seems they’ll exhibit the same patience over their new whiskies if they strike a chord with consumers. Sherri explains, “We’ve never had an interest to mass produce something. We believe there’s integrity involved with quality over quantity.”

Find out more about Old Carter Whiskey Co. at www.oldcarterwhiskeyco.com.