For three decades, Carter has been kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the wine industry -- well respected by his colleagues, but not given the respect and accolades by consumers, despite the fact that his value wines are good, easy to drink and pair well with food. Carter is the winemaker and vice president of Washington Hills Cellars, which also makes W.B Bridgman and the higher-end wines of Apex Cellars ($20-$30).
The Corvallis, Ore., native's first steps toward winemaking came at the age of 12 with a microscope, a massive amount of blackberries in his neighborhood and native yeasts. By the time he was 15, Carter made his first wine from blackberries.
"My parents were not wine drinkers, so we didn't grow up drinking wine with our meals," recalls Carter. "I love to forage -- berries, mushrooms, you name it. With the microscope, I got interested in looking at yeasts and we had a billion blackberries in the neighborhood. I made wine."
While attending Oregon State University to study microbiology, Carter was one of the first students to begin taking winemaking courses, before the program was formally introduced. He eventually attended UC Davis in the master's program, but left school to work in the vineyards in Napa, at Mount Eden Vineyards and Chateau Montalena.
It was during this time he met "Papa Pinot" -- David Lett, who is credited with pioneering the Oregon Pinot Noir movement. Inspired, Carter came to Seattle in 1980 to work for Paul Thomas Wines, which made other fruit wines in addition to grape wines. (Remember those rhubarb and pear wines of the early 1980s?) With Carter as winemaker, Paul Thomas produced outstanding grape and fruit wines.
With just 16 wineries in Washington at the time, Carter's reputation among his colleagues grew, winning him the title of winemaker of the year several times during the 1980s. He became the "go-to" guy for young winemakers looking to make a mark in the industry, including Doug McCrea, Tom Hedges and Randall Harris, to name a few. But the wines gaining attention at the time came from Leonetti and Woodward Canyon.
"I thought I was making wines as good as any in the world," Carter says. "But I wasn't making wines I could call my own -- I was making wines for others."
After making wines for Thomas and consulting for more than eight years, Carter formed a partnership with businessman Harry Alhadeff to make quality, but affordable wines under the Washington Hills label. They created a second label -- Apex -- for higher-priced, premium wines and eventually created W.B. Bridgman for a mid-tier wine.
Despite winning awards for crisp, dry white wines to dense, chewy red wines, Carter still wasn't satisfied.
"I wanted to be even more focused and showcase the bright fruits of the Yakima Valley," Carter says. "I wanted grace and elegance in the glass, not overblown, over-oaked fruit bombs. Age-ability is important, but not the essence in a glass of wine. If you make a balanced wine, it will age well."
On Jan. 1, Carter launched his own wines, using Seattle artist Stephen Black to design art-like quality for his new labels. The wines showcase blends that are not highly alcoholic, have great acidity to work well with foods, and don't disrupt or stumble on the palate. Instead, the blends are smooth and round, hugging food as though they were meant to be together.
"It takes a long time to learn about sites where great fruit can be grown in Washington -- we are still young in the wine industry," Carter says. "The art comes in blending those grapes."
Brian Carter wines ($20-$40) are showing up in restaurants and wine shops in the Spokane region, even though he produced only about 1,000 cases. He has plans to build a winery that can expand to about 7,000 cases in the coming years in Sunnyside.