From Seashells to Vines with Mike Officer
Mike Officer examining old vine Zinfandel from Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014
The beaches of the Southern Philippines, I discover, offer some of the finest seashell hunting in the world. Mike Officer is telling me about his early desire to be a Conchologist, that is a seashell collector with a scientific basis.
Soon after my Sunday morning arrival at Carlisle Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, a mutual friend of Mike and myself has mentioned I grew up a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska. Discussion of what it means to do that sort of work launches our conversation. It winds into talk of childhood pursuits.
It turns out at the age of twelve, Officer was able to fulfill an early dream. He traveled to South Philippines and roamed those Southern beaches with a family friend, seeking unusual seashells. To make the trip Officer worked from the age of ten at odd jobs, saving all the money for his trip.
The Philippines, at the time, were under Martial law. Officer’s stories of the experience include at least one escaped car heist, and an account of a rogue sea captain taking the young but deceptively tall Officer under his wing.
The image I gain of Officer through these stories, however, proves not that of young adventurer but a man driven to collect and catalog in the midst of serious study. For a budding conchologist such study meant travel to the South Seas. At its root, Officer’s early love for seashells carries the same dedication now behind his work with old vine vineyards. For the vine lover, old vine preservation and study means life in the North Coast of California.
Mike Officer standing in Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014 (I love this photo of Mike — you can see the genuine enthusiasm, and kind approachability he has here)
Officer’s love for wine showed early. He kept a wine cellar in his college dorm room.
In 1986, Officer started home winemaking. It would serve as a side project through his career as a software developer. Then, in his thirties, when Officer would suddenly realize his time was spent staring at a computer screen, it would also serve as the path away from his career and into life with vineyards.
By 1998, still working in the city full-time, Officer and his wife, Kendall Carlisle Officer, would launch their first commercial vintage of Carlisle Wines. All of Officer’s vacation, and weekends were channeled into the work it took to manage harvest and winemaking over the year.
By 2000, Carlisle Wines was producing a 1000 cases per year, the most they could manage with Officer’s day job.”We needed the money from my day job to afford the winery, but couldn’t make enough at that point to quit the day job.” Officer explains. Such an approach included five hours commute by bus between their house in Santa Rosa, and his work in the city.
In 2001, the Officers would bring in college friend Jay Maddox to help with winemaking and viticulture. The day job-winery combo otherwise proved too much. The addition of Maddox would allow Carlisle wines to slowly increase production until finally Officer was able to move full-time to wine.
Spending years on the commute, Officer describes what would be a sort of final epiphany with his day job. In the midst of a long bus ride, Officer came up with the design for what could be called, The Commuter’s Sleep, a kind of velcro head board for sleeping upright.
The idea was the commuter would wear a sort of board that extended above their back, a velcro strap would then wrap the forehead, thus holding the commuter’s head upright so he or she could sleep without suffering the problematic head-roll of sleep sitting up. The design humorously reveals the desperation that accompanies doing whatever it takes to follow life’s passion.
In 2004, soon after his design concept, however, instead of going ahead to make his own Commuter’s Sleep, Mike’s wife ran the numbers. Carlisle was finally making just enough wine for him to leave his day job.
Stepping into Old Vine Vineyards
Mike Officer next to old vine Zinfandel, Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014
In 1997, having started making home wine, but not yet stepping into commercial release, Officer was biking down a private lane in Russian River Valley. He had the sense he’d like to own a vineyard someday but recognized he didn’t yet have the experience tending vines.
In the midst of the bike ride he happened upon an over grown two-acre vineyard. The site had vines grown through with blackberries, poison oak, and big trees. Big trees were the best indication of how long it had laid in rest. The site barely resembled a vineyard.
Officer decided to take a leap. He tracked down the owners and offered to renovate the vineyard for free. It was his chance to gain experience. In the midst of that first meeting, Officer explains, “I asked, by the way, what kind of vines are they? They told me old vine Zinfandel. The next spring I realized, it’s not all Zinfandel.” By 1998, Officer would discover that Two Acres proves instead to be a mixed-black Mourvedre-based planting, something not quite common in the Russian River Valley.
In 1998, the site Officer now calls Two Acres would become the first plot he would map vine-by-vine through the region. Eventually it would lead to he and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Vineyards mapping other old vine sites together as well. Today, vineyard mapping seems almost second nature for Officer. Walking a site with him he points out and names vine types as we go.
Using a simple graph paper, Officer would chart each vine by type and location. To begin, the work would depend on him researching scientific drawings of grape varieties there vineyard side. On unusual types he would send cuttings to UC Davis for identification. Officer’s work, then, would also turn out to support the work of UC Davis to build DNA-mapping for all surviving grape varieties around the globe. In this way, Officer’s early training in conchology would become his current work in ampelography, the identification and study of grapevines.
Officer’s work with Two Acres would eventually expand to work with old vine sites throughout the Piner-Olivet section of Russian River Valley. It would connect him too to others in the North Coast passionate for old vine sites.
The Historic Vineyard Society
Mike Officer demonstrating Peloursin (left) and Petite Sirah differences in Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014
In discussing the vineyards he works with, Officer describes the sense of peace he feels from it. “All vine work for me is like doing bonzai. It’s almost meditative, and stress relief,” he says.
With the success of Two Acres, Officer began connecting to other old vine sites through Russian River Valley. He would catalog vines, develop the viticulture, then produce single vineyard mixed-black bottlings, most sites predominately Zinfandel. Officer’s work with the sites, however, would include personal connection to the vines survival and health.
I ask him to describe the intricacies of working specifically with old vines. “Old vine vineyards are like geriatric wards. Every vine is a patient with a unique character, and its own needs.” He tells me. “You try to sort out what the vine needs, and respond to it.”
His early work with Two Acres meant revitalizing what would otherwise be a lost vineyard, an investment into not only making wine currently, but retaining an irreplaceable link to the history of a region through vines that lived it. (The wine itself, too, proves delicious — a sleek, long lined wine with perfumed aromatics, elegant tannins, and nice cardamom spiced, rose petal fruit.)
Attachment to old vines, however, in today’s wine society proves risky. The real estate of the famed Russian River carries high value for people that can pull out lower production older vines, to plant high dollar young Pinot Noir.
Officer began losing sites to developers. Immediately after losing one of his favorite sites, Carlisle finally was talking with Twain-Peterson. The two of them, as well as Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker and vineyard scout for Turley Wine Cellars, as well as his own newer label, Sandlands, kept seeing old vine sites being lost too easily. Few people knew they existed, and even fewer understood their value in relation to the history or recognition of terroir in California. Out of frustration, and a desire to change the problem, Historic Vineyard Society was born.
Along with David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards, Larry Piggins for vineyard photography, and Mike Dildine, who helps keep the Society functioning, the Historic Vineyard Society works to catalog and register old vine sites, as well as raise awareness of their value for the sake of preserving more of them. The group also works as a sort of support group and hunting party — always on the look out for undiscovered sites, and advising each other on the best care for peculiar vines.
For many, of course, the ultimate point is the wine itself. For those passionate about vines, the wine simply describes an end point for a process that is the actual passion alongside the wine. Still, the love for vines means too a love for their varieties, and the wine each produces.
After tasting through a portion of Officer’s portfolio, I ask him to describe how he sees his development in wine. “I used to think let’s go for maximum flavor and aromatic presence,” he responds. “As I’ve gotten older, it’s all about texture, and how the wine feels on the palate.” We’ve tasted through a mixed-white, and a series of mixed-blacks including Two Acres’s beautiful Mourvedre.
Carlisle wines almost entirely focus on the fruit of Officer’s old vine sites, both mixed whites, and mixed blacks. It’s a discipline from vineyard to bottle that defines Carlisle. The wines offer seamless length, juicy movement with texture it makes my mouth water to write about, and ample while elegant flavor and aromatics. There is a purity to the wines that pleases.
We’re almost done with our visit. Then, in the midst of tasting, Officer mentions in passing what he calls his “one self-indulgence,” the only Gruner Veltliner planted in Sonoma County, and a small bit of younger vines he turns into wine.
The Gruner is planted at 1000-ft elevation on a site he convinced the vineyard owner to put into Gruner. They make only 100-cases, and most of it goes to Farmhouse, a restaurant in the Russian River Valley. Immediately, I am crawling out of my skin wanting to taste it. We have no bottle to try. Still, it’s another glimpse of the passion for cataloging, and work with the many varieties of grapevines that motivates Officer.
“I’m such a grape junky,” Mike tells me smiling, “I would make forty wines, if we could.” He wants to work with all of them.
For Carlisle Winery & Vineyards: http://www.carlislewinery.com/
For Historic Vineyard Society: http://www.historicvineyardsociety.org
Tim Fish on Carlisle Zinfandels: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/48317
Thank you to Mike Officer.
Thank you to Marty LaPlante.
If anyone gets their hands on a bottle of Carlisle Gruner Veltliner, please write me and tell me how it was.
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com
Mike is the kindest wine maker I have met.
great post – glad to see someone who doesn’t think the only reason the Russian River Vally exists is for Pinot Noir ( which we already have enough of, thank you) – I bet Geoff Kruth could hook you up with some Gruner
Thanks for this. I’m a long-time mailing list member and big fan, but this piece gave some great insight into Mike.
Just found this post.
I have had two vintages of the gruner, and it is stunning. Deftly straddles New and Old World, racy as hell and one persistent pup. I’m on the mailing list, and I liked it so much that I emailed Mike and got another case last week.