The Man, The Legend - Chuck Carlson

From Vineyard to Cellar: Chuck Carlson, Carlson Wines

March 7, 2015 by Georgina No Comment

By Georgina Stassi and Hannah Brozek. No longer focusing on only Rhones, Carlson emerges from the cellar with other exciting varieties crafted under his own name. Whether Rhone Ranger or lone wolf, Chuck Carlson remains one of the most respected and revered veteran winemakers of the region by both peers and patrons.  He is a wealth of knowledge on California, Burgundy, and Rhone grape varieties.  He is humble and undeniably, possesses that natural, all-American charm that most men can only emulate. He is easy to talk to; he listens to questions, answering the most technical to the most simplistic without a shred of arrogance. He has a quick wit and a good sense of humor.

 As a testament to Carlson’s character, you will often see him in the company of his adult children and his wife at gatherings and wine events.  His beautiful wife Kathleen is a lifelong educator and an accomplished horsewoman; their brilliant and eccentric son Chas always promises a fascinating conversation; and their lively, sharp-witted, lovely daughter Emily brings laughter and joy to any occasion.  It’s refreshing how they seem to really enjoy being around him and doing things together.

Chuck and his family are longtime residents of Arroyo Grande. After earning his degree in enology at Fresno State University, he began his post-graduate employment at Zaca Mesa Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley, one of the founding wineries in the region.  At Zaca Mesa from 1981-1992, he instituted the vineyard’s Rhône varietal program, changing the face of the winery.  Carlson was one of the founding Rhone Rangers, as well as, a past president of the organization.

Following Zaca Mesa, Carlson joined the Firestone Estate Winery (later called Curtis Winery), also located in the Santa Ynez Valley in 1993.  Bringing his expertise on Rhône varietals, as head winemaker, Carlson built, operated and oversaw Curtis Wines for the Firestone family.   While at Curtis Winery, Chuck began what he describes as a “glorified hobby” of chasing after his love, the Pinot Noir grape.  “I started my little brand a few years ago, while I was making wine for Curtis.  I’ve been making wine here (on the Central Coast) since 1981.  I started out making about three barrels of Pinot Noir and it grew into 500 cases.  Then I slowed back down, and I have maintained at the 300 to 500 case range.”

Last year, Curtis began phasing out their wines, so after 25-years of making wine for others, Chuck Carlson spread his wings to start his own artisan brand, Carlson Wines.  Now, Chuck commits all of his efforts to Carlson Wines. “I wanted to explore new avenues with the Carlson Brand,” he says passionately, “I’m still very small but hands-on and I want to hand-craft wine.”

Carlson does all the work from the farming, to the winemaking, to the paperwork.  He even helps to design his label and likes to keep it simple.  “Some people spend tons of money on this, but at our scale, it’s the fun part of it,” he expresses. “It’s what I am — it’s who I am — it’s not some corporate $40K label design that’s been tested and marketed and everything else. It’s what I want and I like it.”

With a little land to help him explore his dream, Chuck’s wines are blossoming and he is bottling four varieties of wines including Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Trois Fleurs, – an aromatic white blend, and Cabernet Franc. “I oversee a Curtis Estate Vineyard in Santa Barbara County that is owned by the Firestone family. I source a lot of grapes from there, and Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Hills as well.” Carlson says. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in this whole area — it’s incredible the amount of change.  I think the increased quality in what’s coming out now is pretty phenomenal.”

Carlson continues adding new grape varieties to his repertoire.  Touching upon his earliest viniculture roots, he is creating a Rhone variety wine that is subject to a naming contest before it’s release. Additionally, Carlson is crafting a Chardonnay wine, a grape that grows very well in the region.

“I started with only Pinot Noir, and then I added a white blend, called Trios Fleur made from Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Chenin Blanc. So it’s very aromatic. It’s an off-dry style wine — very fruity.  It goes great with seafood. I wanted to have something like that to make and sell in this area where we live.  The last couple of years, I increased my production.  This year I made about 2,000 cases of wine, but I’ve also increased my varieties that I work with, so I’m doing Pinot Noir, the White Blend, Pinot Gris and I’ve added Chardonnay this year as well.” Carlson continues, “For reds, I’m doing Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and a Rhone blend as well.  Most of my career has been focused around the Rhone varieties of Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre, and Cinsault.  A lot of people know me for that, so I wanted to have one (Rhone variety blend) in my own portfolio for that as well.  That will come out in year or so.”

Carlson’s handcrafted wines, along with his Special Edition Pinot Noir, are treasures of Central Coast Wine collectors.  “One of the more unique things about small wineries like ours is that we’re making wines that age for several years, rather than a lot of the bigger wineries are making wines to taste ‘game on’ when you buy them in the grocery store.” Chuck Carlson notes.

“They say the best way to make a million dollars in the wine business is to start with $4 million,” Carlson jests. “It’s funny, that for a lot of people in the wine business, obviously, money is not a big issue to some of them,” he notes more seriously. “Little guys like Kevin (Law of Cottiere Winery) and myself, we always think that we can skin that cat a little differently and make it work.  It’s a challenge, but I think it’s all about us getting in there and doing our own work, being hands-on in every aspect of it.  Even the sales and the marketing — which I’m not very good at,” Carlson is careful to note with a smile.

However, Carlson need not worry about his wines sales if the truth be, that an excellent product sells itself.  The wines he is producing are well structured with elegant tannins, balanced acids, and complex aromatics and flavors. Moreover, Carlson’s wines are approachable and enjoyable made to accompany quality cuisine, reflective of his own refined palate and tastes, and undeniably, his experience and expertise both in the vineyard and cellar.

Tasting Carlson Wines: Trois Fleurs 2013 and Carlson Cabernet Franc 2011

Carlson Trois Fleurs 2013 – 50% Gewurztraminer 25% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Old Vine Chenin Blanc, mostly coming from the Curtis Estate Vineyard in Santa Ynez.   The Gewürztraminer drives the aromas of lychee and rose petal; the Sauvignon Blanc gives bright citrus notes; and the Chenin Blanc gives a hint of flint.  No one else is doing this beautiful blend. Chuck recommends pairing this with scallops with ponzu sauce, prawns, Thai food, and to serve also as a refreshing cocktail wine.

“The 2013 Trois Fleurs is my second vintage of producing this wine under the Carlson brand. My goal was to put together a wine that captured the essence of our colorful Spring and Summer months here on the Central coast. Vibrant, Fresh and wonderful balance is what this wine is all about. The fruit for this blend comes from the Curtis Estate Vineyard.” Winemaker Chuck Carlson on his 2013 Trois Fleurs.

Carlson Cabernet Franc 2011 (80% Cabernet Franc; 20% Petite Verdot)(20% new wood: 75% French oak /25% Hungarian oak)A savory, herbaceous, aromatic blend rich with Italian herbs; olive tapenade; and subtle fruit of blackberry; black cherry. An enjoyable, approachable food wine for lamb, pork, fowl, and Tuscan-style dishes. With elegant tannins, it’s surely cellar-worthy and made for the long haul.

“The grapes for this wine come from the Curtis Winery Estate Vineyard. This particular block of Cabernet Franc has been regarded as one of the best blocks in all of the Santa Ynez Valley. The vineyard site is located on a mesa set amidst the rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley. The soil is sandy loam with scattered limestone aggregate. It is very deep and consistent. The layout of the vineyard, the soil type and the rootstock/clonal selection combines to yield a wine rich in complexity and concentration.”  Winemaker Chuck Carlson on his Cabernet Franc 2011

Carlson Wines can be found at the following retailers and restaurants. For direct purchase, or for information on carrying Carlson wines, contact

Lazy Acres Market; Vons (Montecito); Restaurants

Nielsens (Solvang);
Wine Country Orcutt (Orcutt); Restaurant
Firestone Walker Taproom (Buellton
Root 246); Solvang
Far Western Tavern (Orcutt)

Tastes of the Valley (Pismo Beach)

SAN LUIS OBISPO: Retailers Monterey Street Wines; Central Coast Wines

PASO ROBLES: Restaurants
Firestone Walker Taproom (Paso Robles)

Los Angeles Area: Retailers
Duke of Bourbon (Canoga Park); AZO Vino Wine Bar & Gallery (Covina CA)


About Author

Georgina Georgina is the Executive Director, Editor-in-Chief and Founder of She is an accomplished writer, artist, cook, horsewoman, is WSET certified and has an extensive knowledge of gourmet food and world travel. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications and websites. The granddaughter of a Piedmontese winemaker and topographer, her passion for winemaking, food, animals, and culture comes from her Northern Italian heritage rooted in family, home-life, and simply prepared flavorful, farm-fresh meals. She studies Middle Eastern dance, gardens, cooks and bakes, travels, and visits extraordinary places -- moreover, she enjoys writing about it all!