First visit or not, the Carhartts’ Santa Ynez estate vineyard feels like home. If you manage to pull Mike and Brooke Carhartt away from their vineyard, winery, and tasting room for a minute, you’ll learn why: Mike spent his childhood living and working on the 50-acre property, which is known as Rancho Santa Ynez and was once a full-fledged cattle ranch. Their quaint house, which presides over their ranch and winery, was once a dairy barn, and the vine-covered hills behind the house are where he kept his haystacks.
That homey feel is reflected in the couple’s approach to winemaking. With seldom any outside help, the two cultivate six varietals, make wines out of 13 different grapes, and pour in their downtown Los Olivos tasting room almost everyday. “When everybody should be relaxing and reading the paper and having breakfast,” said Mike, “we’re in the tasting room washing glasses.” The dishwashing all began when the couple bought back Mike’s childhood abode after his father passed away. In 1996, shortly after they moved onto the property with their young son to resuscitate the cattle ranch, the Carhartts decided to grow 10 acres of merlot and syrah. Today, the family also grows grenache, sauvignon blanc, and sangiovese.
Although they have a hard time admitting it now, Mike and Brooke never dreamt of owning a vineyard or making wine. But their passion grew as did the hard work, and Mike suddenly found himself spending most of his time in the vineyard, while Brooke ended up back in the classroom, studying oenology to improve her cellar clout. Vines and barrels soon commandeered their lives, and by the time they realized the sparsity of their financial profit, they were smitten with winemaking. “We don’t take vacations; we don’t buy new cars,” Brooke explained. “Any money we’ve ever had has gone right back into our business.”
They’ve also watched their son, Chase, grow up enamored with the business. Now studying viticulture at Cal Poly, he plans to become the third generation to work the land. His enthusiasm has helped weave wine into the fabric of the Carhartt family, allowing them to create a legacy on land they consider priceless. “Although sometimes I don’t admit it,” Mike said, “I’m very sentimental about this ground. I’ve been up on the top of that hill [where the vines grow] since I was a little kid. To be able to look out and know that’s where I grew up is really unique.”
Keeping the ranch alive for future generations also means striving for sustainability. Though they’ve been too busy to deal with the tedium that organic certifications entail, no pesticides or herbicides will ever go near their crops. Meanwhile, they’re continuing Rancho Santa Ynez’s heritage by growing fruit and vegetable gardens and raising chickens, sheep, and cattle. While it’s not enough to make them Farmers Market vendors, they marvel at their ability to enjoy a dinner they farmed themselves, with a bottle of their own wine on the table. “There’s nothing like growing something and turning it into something you can consume,” said Mike.
If you ask Mike what makes him tick, he’ll muse about weather patterns and microclimates, showing how his title as a vintner really just makes him a glamorized farmer. But he also just likes making people happy, explaining, “Putting a smile on someone’s face is sort of what makes my world go round.” Brooke, meanwhile, finds most of her excitement in the winery, working in her “lab” to discover new and better ways to express the fruit. As she discusses her work, a tough, unyielding persona shines through her otherwise soothingly benevolent demeanor. “It is really inspirational to always have a challenge,” she continued, “to always be able to make it a little better.”
If challenges keep them going, the Carhartts are in the right business. Surprisingly, though, their biggest hurdles don’t include growing extra arms or being in 10 places at once—their main obstacles happen at the bank. The family “works their tails off” to keep their wines’ prices from reflecting the perpetually rising utility, land, and equipment costs. Their struggle is much like what many family businesses face today, as the “big” guys increasingly become the only ones who can afford to own wineries.
Still, the Carhartts look optimistically into the future as they watch winemakers like themselves permeate the region. They also see promise in the up-and-coming vintners of their son’s generation, who they believe share a kind of perseverance that will preserve the county’s character. After all, the Carhartts know better than anyone that doing what they do, as Brooke put it, “is just not for the weak of heart.”
Taste wines from the Carhartt Vineyard at their tasting room in Los Olivos, 2990-A Grand Avenue. Call 693-5100 or see carharttvineyard.com.