Life Lessons with Chris Carpenter of Jackson Family Wines

The winemaker and former bartender talks of his newfound love of the mornings, his ability to read minds and how crafting wine in the mountains has brought all his passions together

Words by Adam Lechmere

christopher carpenter jackson family wines

Chris Carpenter of Jackson Family Wines has given up bartending – an enjoyable bit of moonlighting he’s been doing more or less consistently since 1984, and for the last couple of decades at Napa’s Rutherford Grill. ‘It’s both good and bad,’ he tells me over Zoom. ‘My youngest daughter is a soccer player and if I’d stayed doing that I would have missed half her games.’ His LinkedIn profile still lists bartending, perfectly seriously, after his day job, which is winemaker at Jackson Family Wines in charge not only of some of California’s very finest winesLokoya and Cardinale – but also the company’s outposts in Australia’s McLaren Vale and its recent acquisition, a vineyard in Washington state’s Walla Walla, which they are calling Skysill.

cardinale estate jackson family wines
Cardinale Estate in California, part of Jackson Family Wines and where Chris Carpenter oversees the winemaking

Carpenter obviously loves his job, which he says keeps him ‘engaged intellectually’. He’s in charge of Lokoya – four interpretations of Napa mountain fruit from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Spring Mountain – the $300 Cardinale, a multi-regional blend of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain’s La Jota, and the new blend Caladan, some of which comes from JFW’s highest vineyard at 2000ft on Spring Mountain. There’s also the Hickinbotham Vineyard in McLaren Vale, producing ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Franc; and the 25ha purchase in Walla Walla.

In all, Carpenter oversees some 16 vineyards in California plus half a dozen out of state. How many wines does he make altogether? There’s a pause. ‘Oh gosh, I should know this. Probably about twenty.’

I’m so fired up, it’s endlessly fascinating and endlessly stimulating to have that opportunity to learn and become part of a new region

As a winemaker who’s always been associated with mountains, he says it’s fascinating working at different elevations and different climates. ‘A lot of the expertise I’ve gained in mountain vineyards transposes itself. As I explore, I try to grasp what’s similar, and concentrate on what’s different as a learning proposition.’ The diurnal shifts (between day and night-time temperatures) are similar in McLaren Vale for example – and as for Walla Walla, that’s ‘completely new. I’m so fired up, it’s endlessly fascinating and endlessly stimulating to have that opportunity to learn and become part of a new region.’

Carpenter still has, at the age of 57, such pleasure in his job partly because it allows him to draw on a range of skills. He studied biology at the University of Illinois but was always interested in the arts, and music (he plays trombone). Winemaking combines all those things. ‘From the science standpoint I’m utilising plant biology, microbiology, geography, geology, chemistry, physics, climatology, and I also get to do something creative, to bring the wines together in the way I would bring sound together, and to see how people respond to them. I love that.’

hickinbotham jackson family wines

Of course, with two daughters at or near university age, Carpenter has to keep working – he’s given up the bar job, after all. He was going to buy a motorcycle, an Indian Scout, but had to scotch that idea. ‘My elder daughter has decided to go to university in Georgia so there’s out-of-state tuition to pay,’ he tells me cheerfully.

Even if he had no other claims to his income, it’s unlikely he’d be splashing on Rolexes and Ferraris. He seems to be a man of few needs: ‘I appreciate the trappings of wealth but I’m fairly simple. I like listening to music, being out in the vineyard, having the freedom to move around when I can. That’s my life.’

What was your childhood ambition?

To become the next Louis Leakey [the legendary anthropologist and archaeologist who first demonstrated that humanity originated in Africa].

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?

How to talk to women without making an ass of myself.

What exercise do you do?

Basketball, swim, lift, jog, hit.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

It’s hard for me to say no.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?

My elder daughter’s college education.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

Italy. If I could make wine anywhere else it would be Bolgheri. Europe is the wellspring of winemaking and it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge it.

Bolgheri vineyards
Bolgheri, where Chris Carpenter says he would most like to make wine outside of his US operations

If you could do any other job, what would it be and why?

A musician because music means sharing emotions in a visceral and magical way.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?

A harrier jet.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

Total consciousness.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?

John Belushi, Johnny Cash, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Gregg Allman, Robin Williams, Tom Petty, Lucille Ball: laughs, music and beautiful, interesting women.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

[Energy drink] Diet Rockstar and Neil Diamond.

What’s your secret talent?

I can read minds.

When were you happiest?

When my children were born.

chris carpenter

Whom do you most admire?

People who get up in the morning and do what makes them happy for a living.

What’s your greatest regret?

Not realising the opportunity I had when I played Division 1 Football.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

American Idiot by Green Day – but I wouldn’t be sitting on the sofa.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?

My topsiders.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Currently, Oenotri [Italian restaurant in Napa]

What time do you go to bed?

Between 9 and 10pm. I’m usually up at 4.30 or 5am. Funny, back in Chicago I was a complete night owl and usually got to bed at 5am. Now it’s the other way round, and I just love the mornings.