A winery that we frequently feature is located just south down Highway 101 from me in Camarillo, CA: Cantara Cellars which uses fruit almost exclusively from Lodi, CA.
So following my post about Susan Tipton of Lodi’s Acquiesce where we also compared and contrasted Lodi with the Rhone Valley in France, it seemed high time that we wrote about Chris Brown, co-owner of Cantara Cellars and a Ventura County winery leader.
In contrast to Acquiesce’s focus on white Rhone wines, Cantara makes all reds save a Chardonnay made from family grown fruit. In addition to Rhone favorites like Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, they make Malbec, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, and more, plus a number of blends, and of course, that Lodi darling, Zinfandel, including one from old vines.
Last weekend my friend Drummer Diane and I visited Cantara Cellars to taste through the list and chat with Chris in the busy tasting room. Diane loves wine, but with limited mobility, her tasting stays closer to home in Ventura. She’d heard about Cantara, as recently as the previous day from folks who were on their way there to taste, but she had never been to Cantara before or tasted their wines.
Sometimes we don’t know what treasures lie in our own backyard!
It’s not like Cantara is brand new to the scene. In fact, they are one of the first in Ventura County, following in the footsteps of Adam Tolmach’s pioneering The Ojai Vineyard which uses fruit from Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Cantara Cellars recently celebrated their 10 year anniversary as a commercial venture with a wonderful wine pairing dinner in October 2017.
According to Chris, in 2002, on a whim and in their garage located in the “Cantara” tract of homes in Ventura County, she and her husband Mike fermented fruit from his mom’s Chardonnay vineyard in Lodi. Hence the name of “Cantara Cellars” which started out as joke, but the name stuck.
“We started making wine from his folks’ chardonnay,” recalls Chris, “and by the time it was ready to start tasting, it was amazing! We picked this fruit, we made this wine: it really got both of us amazed that we could do this.”
Chris points out that “You have to buy good fruit, and you have to know what you’re doing.”
“Lodi is unique,” says Chris, “it’s a nice warm area so the grapes ripen evenly.”
“There’s a lot to learn and know,” Chris says, so in 2003, “we volunteered at Camarillo Custom Crush and learned the process and what they did. In 2005 we did our first commercial harvest which is what we had when we opened in 2007.”
They must have done a lot right: among a shelf of ribbons is a four star gold medal for Cantara’s 2007 Petite Sirah — “our first award,” says Chris, and the one that means the most to her.
Both Mike and Chris are analytically minded. Mike was an engineer and productions manager, and Chris had a former career as a materials manager— as an inventory analyst, doing injection molded plastic jars, scheduling, managing bills and materials;
she points out that she does the same thing here at Cantara but with a different product. “Instead of widgets, it’s wine,” Chris says with a chuckle.
Concerned about stability in manufacturing, they wanted to start their own business figuring their jobs would be more stable if they owned it. They had just put their four kids through college – all at once because it is a blended family with the oldest and youngest Chris’s kids and the two middle girls Mike’s kids, with her son Jesse as the youngest –and were ready for something new and of the means and “of the age where we’re able to have that second career to pursue a passion; it’s not cheap to get into this business.”
I asked her how it was being female in a male dominated business, and she agreed that wine is not as bad as manufacturing. However, “Salesmen in particular will say ‘I’m here to see Chris” — and they are talking to Chris, a woman, when they are expecting Chris, a man. Chris says that she has always used the non-gendered name “Chris” purposefully for that reason so no one knows her gender in advance and judges her.
Chris definitely loves being in the wine business, and enjoys sharing their wines and sharing her knowledge:
“Wine is one of those businesses where you don’t see cranky people,” Chris says, “People are 99% happy coming here. They’re here because they want to be here.” She also appreciates that “People really want to be educated, they are hungry for your knowledge. Wine is such a wonderful business.”
Her favorite aspect is talking with people: “I’ve solved many problems for folks; a lot of problems get solved around this bar,” Chris says with a smile. “You don’t get a lot of social life when you’re in your own business and your husband and son are in the business. People once they’ve been coming here as long as most have been it’s like family, like your friends come and visit you all the time.”
Working with her son, Jesse, 33, she says is “wonderful… he’s really a talented kid, very creative. He does most of our facilities work. He can do anything from working on wine to plumbing; he’s a talented kid!”
At our tasting, we started out with a red blend 2012 Mischievous with predominately zinfandel which led us to a discussion of winemaking practices at Cantara.
Not huge fans of heavily oaked wines, at Cantara they take a light touch, and they use “neutral oak barrels and staves to manage the oak so it is subtle and not overwhelming” says Chris, “it allows you to put oak in the barrel and control it,” and it is easier to take the staves out when the amount of oak is right. “A barrel is a mechanism for wine to evaporate and concentrate,” points out Chris, “and a packet of staves is 60-70 instead of $600-700.”
2012 Mischievous 14% SRP $32
Blend 80% old vine Zinfandel from Mohr-Fry Ranch with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc
Diane observes that this has a beautiful nose and velvet on the tongue –
“a soft dance of the taste buds!” says Diane.
Lots of lovely yet elegant fruit, with the cabs adding structure.
2013 Syrah 14.7 SRP $36
Earthy, silt, blackberry, bramble fruit, silky tannins.
2011 Trio Sonata 14.1 SRP $36
80 Syrah, 10 PS, 10 Grenache
Earthy again but with violets and herbs, menthol and some cocoa on the finish. Definitely a winner for me!
2011 Graffina Zin SRP $38
Damp earth, river stones, rose petals: like walking through a farm in Lodi, spice carnations, some mint, nutmeg, very elegant and integrated – been in the bottle for a long time! About gone but the 12 is ready to go and, Chris says, it’s more rambunctious, with more fruit.
2012 Left Bank Cuvee SRP $34
Cab Franc, Cab, Malbec, PV
Lots of cherry on the nose, some salinity, white stone like river stones and granite stones, an edginess we like a lot — and Diane liked so much she bought a bottle!
2012 Frankenvine – 13.8 SRP $36
Cab franc, PS, Cab, Syrah, Zin, Malbec
Complicated and fun — quite the monster! Texture of Chalk on the finish; overall, we likened our experience of this wine today as reminded us of chocolate oranges — you know the kind with of chocolates that are shaped like an orange and has citrus notes to it?
What’s next for Cantara Cellars? Believe it or not, a brewery! And they started brewing beer this week!
Thanks to Chris Brown for her time and to Diane for her company and her tasting notes!
Stay tuned for our May #WinePW post about wines that start with M where we are focusing on Malbec from around the world including Cantara’s from Lodi.