Master Blends: Brian Carter, John Bookwalter


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Brian Carter came to Washington in 1980 and began making wine when there were just 16 working wineries in the state. He began as a consulting winemaker for pioneering producers such as Paul Thomas, Doug McCrea, Hedges and Soos Creek, then signed on full time at Apex.

While there he launched his own Brian Carter Cellars in 2006. In the first edition of “Washington Wines & Wineries”, which came out the following year, I noted that “Carter’s goal is to make about 7000 cases of six different wines, all blends, not varietals. ‘That’s where the fun is and that’s what I want to do,’ he says, adding, ‘I think blends are a continuing trend and an area that Washington state will excel in over the next decade. Only recently has Washington had the number of sites and maturity of good sites for different varieties such as Petit Verdot and Sangiovese’.”

Looking back from 2024 this was an inspired prediction. Though much has changed in the intervening years, Carter’s focus on blends has continued to be his guiding star. In my reviews of his current lineup, I consistently found them to be smooth, beautifully balanced, well-integrated and immediately approachable yet ageworthy wines. So I asked Brian to share his current thinking about blends, and how all the extra work is reflected in the finished wines.

BC:  “When I started Brian Carter Cellars, I wanted to do something unique and after thinking about it I realized that making blends was the most fun part of winemaking. Blending is pure art and a big departure from the science background I have always relied on.

Brian Carter Cellars was the first winery in Washington to focus entirely on blends [today just 5% of the state production is varietal wines]. Aside from being the most enjoyable part of winemaking, I think blending makes the best wines. Most wines have their little imperfections and blending is the best way to solve them. Balance! Complexity! Food Friendliness! Those are what I strive for.

I also like to think that while most of my wines are blends they have a varietal aspect to them. I want each to have a core variety that is not destroyed by the blending process. The Tuttorosso should be a very good Sangiovese, the Byzance a very good Grenache, the Corrida a better than average Tempranillo etc.”

PG:  I will echo and applaud your success with these goals, and especially with the Corrida and the Byzance. Can you share some thoughts on the changes you’ve seen in this industry over the past 45 years?

BC:  “The obvious one is there were only 16 wineries in the state when I got here in 1980. I take some pride in the growth, thinking I have done quite a bit to help in its success what with winemaking and consulting for a couple dozen wineries. Another significant change is global warming. Not only are there far fewer incidents of winter injury, but we can grow later ripening varieties in more places. Another is drip irrigation, allowing precise control of water applications controlling vigor and berry size. Trellising and pruning systems have had big improvements also, allowing much better sunlight penetration and better flavor development.”

PG:  You’ve also mentioned that you are starting to plan “some sort of wind down, which may include selling the winery.” Before you become a true éminence grise and head off to work on your golf game (kidding!) what advice might you give to a young winemaker just starting out?

BC:  “Taste lots of wines. Be patient with your wines, let them develop slowly. The most important decision you will make is where you get your grapes (including who grows them). The second is when you will pick them. Use barrels as a subtle addition, don’t overdo them. Finally, making wine is easy, selling it and selling it at a profit are the hard parts.”

PG:  That’s an entire book of knowledge in a few choice sentences. Thank you! Now on to a look at some of your current wines.

Brian Carter Cellars

Brian Carter 2020 Karen Sue Dedication Series Red – This is a Cab Franc-dominated Bordeaux-style blend, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot filling in the rest. Cherries and plums are the core fruit flavors, with accents of chocolate and mocha from aging in one third new French oak. It’s smooth and approachable, with a frame of ripe tannins and brown stems. Firm, polished and ready for drinking over the next five years. 164 cases; 14.5%; $60 (Yakima Valley) 92/100

Brian Carter 2021 Le Coursier Red – This is a Merlot-based (61%) Bordeaux-style blend. Six different grapes and six different vineyards are in the mix, making this a well-honed example of the winery motto:  “A Passion for the Art of Blending”. Though just released it’s well balanced and smooth across the palate, with a lick of licorice cresting along the ridge of mixed berry and red plum fruits. Aged almost two years in 40% new French oak, this neatly captures the classic herbal highlights of Yakima Valley Merlots, while adding hints of pepper to the finishing tannins. 365 cases; 14.5%; $45 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

Brian Carter 2019 Solesce Red – Here is the Left Bank companion to the Right Bankish Le Coursier. It’s 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and a splash of Malbec filling out the rest. Given 30 months in half new French oak, and additional time in bottle, it’s past the rawness of youth and settling in to what should be a most comfortable mid-life drinking window. Mixed pastry fruits, berries and citrus, with some acid tang for support, keep it anchored and lively. The oak and alcohol are substantial but contained, and keep the core fruit front and center. This is a classic Washington take on a Bordeaux blend. 270 cases; 14.6%; $60 (Columbia Valley) 93/100

Brian Carter 2020 Tuttorosso – Based on a Super-Tuscan concept, this is two thirds Sangiovese, one third Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It’s a combination that seems to be an excellent fit for Washington, where Cab/Syrah blends have been a fixture for years. Here they add punch and power to the Sangio, pulling the broad, leafy flavors into a tighter focus, with peppery herbs and the gentle herbaceousness of cool climate Yakima Valley grapes. Put Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” on the speakers to set the proper mood for this trendy bottle. 487 cases; 14.6%; $45 (Yakima Valley) 92/100

Brian Carter 2021 Corrida Red – The winery’s high profile red blends are modeled after European classics, in this instance Rioja. Two thirds of the blend is Tempranillo with Graciano most of the rest, along with a splash of Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon. Vineyard sources are top tier, including Stone Tree, Upland and Dineen. Although I have yet to find any Northwest Tempranillo that completely captures the nuances of genuine Rioja, what is here is exceptionally well made and thoroughly delicious. Very light suggestions of tanned leather, dried roses and pie cherries bring it into focus, and with more bottle age may prove me wrong about capturing that Rioja magic. But taken on its own this is a very fine bottle, ready for your next tri-tip extravaganza. 829 cases; 14.4%; $34 (Columbia Valley) 93/100

Brian Carter 2021 Byzance – This Southern Rhône-style, Grenache-dominated blend is the first wine in this grouping to show a big streak of vanilla dominating the palate. Not that that is a negative here – it’s like blackberry vanilla ice cream in a glass, and who doesn’t fall for that? That said, this is wine, with added highlights of spice and espresso and backing acids that keep it vivid and tight. Among the many blends on parade here this is particularly successful, as it brings together the grapes in a classic GSM manner, keeps a tight focus, and finishes with extended details of mint and herb and leaf and earth. 521 cases; 14.7%; $45 (Columbia Valley) 94/100

Brian Carter 2015 Opulento Port-style Dessert Wine – Using four different Portuguese grapes this is one of the most authentically Port-like Washington wines I know. Benefitting from almost a decade of aging, it’s in fine drinking condition already, yet should continue to develop in the bottle for another decade or longer. In terms of style and flavor it’s on a par with a classic such as Graham’s Six Grapes. A small number (46 cases) of full size bottles are also available. 700 cases; 19%; $22/375ml (Yakima Valley) 93/100

Brian Carter 2018 Opulento Port-style Dessert Wine – This vintage comes in a 500ml bottle rather than the 375s previously used. Another change – this was aged in used Bourbon barrels purchased from a nearby distillery. Given that, along with its relative youth, there is a bit of alcoholic burn to the finish. The basic blend is still four key Portuguese varieties, all from the Upland vineyard. This has the power and sweetness to actually be delicious with any chocolate dessert, so put away that Cabernet and dive in to this excellent Port-style wine. For near term drinking I suggest decanting it for at least an hour. 388 cases; 20%; $30 (Yakima Valley) 93/100


Ten generations of the Bookwalter family have been involved in American agriculture. But it was Jerry Bookwalter, generation nine and father of current company president John Bookwalter, who led the family into viticulture. After graduating from UC-Davis in 1963, Jerry spent 13 years farming in California’s San Joaquin Valley before moving his family in 1976 to the Tri-Cities in Washington State.

From 1976 through 1982, Jerry helped manage the plantings of three iconic vineyards – Sagemoor, Bacchus and Dionysus. He eventually became vineyard manager of the Conner Lee Vineyard which remains the largest source of grapes for J. Bookwalter wines. And in 1982, he leveraged his vineyard connections and industry knowledge to start J. Bookwalter winery.

Jerry’s son John grew up in these vineyards, then left to pursue the sales and marketing side of the business with E&J Gallo, Winterbrook Beverage Group and Coors Brewing Co. In 1997, he returned to his Richland home to take the reins at the winery. I met John soon after, and was immediately impressed with his vision for growing and improving the brand, and his clear understanding (as Brian mentioned earlier) that the hardest part of winemaking is the sales.

Early on John hired consulting winemakers Zelma Long and Claude Gros to guide the company’s winemaking. He developed and introduced a focused brand identity with award-winning packaging. Most recently John appointed Cameron Parry as Director of Winemaking & Viticulture. We chatted during a visit a couple of weeks ago, and I followed up with this email dialogue.

PG:  You’ve been making wines in Washington since 1997. Can you encapsulate the changes you’ve seen over that time? 

JB:  “Yes, my first year in the cellar was 1997. My first year of taking over winemaking was 1999 and my first vine to wine year was in 2000 which was also my first full year with Zelma Long as a consultant. I think the biggest shifts I have seen are in the vineyards and how those that truly ‘grow wines’ are approaching their growing strategies, and how they adapt to climate change/shifts. In the cellar I have seen less oak intervention on our reds due to personal preference and where I see the market trending.”

PG:  What are the biggest challenges you face today; and what strategies do you use to deal with them?

JB:  “I think fires (smoke damage) is one of the greatest threats to vintages year over year. We cannot control them and they appear to be more frequent and severe. Not only do they damage wines, they damage tourism and folks from abroad simply don’t want to visit wine country when your entire area looks, smells and feels like the apocalypse. There are new technologies to help with smoke damage that we are paying close attention to. But I cannot speak from personal experience as to whether or not they are truly effective.”

PG:  What would be your advice to a young winemaker just now starting out?

JB:  “Become a true student of grape growing/viticulture. Learn as much as you can, as that is where you will have the biggest impact in the long run on your winemaking tenure. Learn how to grow grapes and make wine in diverse regions with a diverse set of grapes; I highly recommend at least two vintages a year (northern and southern hemisphere) in the early years to build that winemaking resumé.”

PG:  Some further background:  the J. Bookwalter winery portfolio stretches out over four ‘tiers’, all with some sort of book/library theme. Only a handful of wineries in Washington survive past the first generation as this one has, and along with meeting that challenge, total production has grown significantly and is currently around 75,000 – 80,000 cases annually. J. Bookwalter is one of a very few family-owned Washington wineries with the ability to produce high quality wines at supermarket prices – the Readers wines are especially good values (look for the distinctive labels with a lower case g forming reading glasses as their signature logo).

J. Bookwalter

Readers Wines

J. Bookwalter 2023 Readers Riesling – This classic Washington Riesling shows refreshing tartness set against the off-dry residual sugar. There’s a slight oilyness in the precise and focused mouthfeel. Ripe and polished fruit flavors of Cosmic Crisp apples set up natural acids and under 2% residual sugar to provide point/counterpoint, sweet/sour yin/yang aspects to the refreshing palate. 633 cases; 11.9%; $20 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

J. Bookwalter 2022 Readers Sauvignon Blanc – This winery has a long affinity for this grape, and it’s a perfect match to the two sites (Alder Ridge and Conner-Lee) from which the grapes are sourced, This is super crisp, immaculately fresh, and loaded with vivid flavors of citrus, fresh greens, and lemon zest. It’s clean, sharp, bone dry and bracing. 3030 cases; 13.2%; $20 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

J. Bookwalter 2023 Readers Chardonnay – Sourced from the Gamache vineyard, this is a juicy, fruit powered, vivid wine, buttressed with refreshing acid. Flavors run through citrus flesh and zest, crisp apple and a touch of white peach. Fermented in stainless steel and 30% neutral oak, it’s as clean as a spring breeze. 2642 cases; 13%; $20 (Columbia Valley) 90/100

J. Bookwalter NV Readers Red – This is two-thirds Cabernet and three quarters grapes from 2021. It’s a good, solid, all-purpose, hearty red wine. It benefits from the mix of vintages with extra smoothness, and the full-bodied style of the J. Bookwalter winery is here in spades. 6943 cases; 14.4%; $30 (Columbia Valley) 90/100

J. Bookwalter 2021 Readers Merlot – Forward, toasty and instantly appealing, this new vintage is smooth and flavorful with black cherry, black coffee, black tea and toast. Not too fancy for burgers, good enough for prime rib. 15%; $30 (Columbia Valley) 91/100

J. Bookwalter 2022 Readers Cabernet Sauvignon – Three quarters Cabernet, the rest a mix of Syrah, Malbec and Merlot, this supple, balanced red is front-loaded with blackberry fruits and firmed up with juicy acids. The tannins are ripe and bring a touch of toast to the finish. 12,500 cases; 14.5%; $30 (Columbia Valley) 90/100

J. Bookwalter 2022 Readers Syrah – This pairs 75% Syrah with 20% Malbec and 5% co-fermented Viognier. It drinks lighter than the 15% abv might suggest, while still clearly expressive of classic Washington Syrah. 1544 cases; 15%; $30 (Columbia Valley) 90/100

Also Recommended

J. Bookwalter 2022 Double Plot Conner-Lee Vineyard Chardonnay – From the winery’s ‘Signature Tier’ this is a mouthwatering, immaculate, zesty wine, highlighted with refreshing minerality. Some of these vines go back to 1988, others from the early ‘90s. Conner-Lee starts at 1100 foot elevation and goes up from there; hence it’s a cool site, with a gentle slope and consistent, sandy soils. Sustainable WA as of ’22; Salmon Safe as of ’24. This wine is fermented in a mix of concrete and oak and aged on the lees to enhance the texture. The natural acidity has been retained yielding a complex, refreshing style with tree fruits, mineral highlights, fresh herbal notes and a kiss of new oak toast. 812 6-packs; 13%; $45 (Columbia Valley) 91/100

J. Bookwalter 2021 5th Edition White – All Conner-Lee vineyard fruit, this top tier wine is inspired by Bordeaux blanc. John Bookwalter sought out Muscadelle cuttings to complement the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, in order to fashion a more accurate and complete wine. Fermentation was done in a mix of stainless, concrete and barrels. Firm, toasty, young and full-bodied, this is a very fine take on a Washington version of a Bordeaux blanc. The similar wines of DeLille come to mind. Along with great concentration and length this protects the fresh flavors of crisp tree fruits and zesty herbs. 306 cases; 13.5%; $38 (Columbia Valley) 93/100

J. Bookwalter 2021 Antagonist Syrah – Pure Syrah from the Conner-Lee vineyard, this deep, dark, flavorful wine recalls the marvelous Syrahs from the Boushey vineyard. It’s streaked with dark chocolate, espresso and licorice, with a solid core of cassis and black cherry fruit. Polished tannins with a base of graphite hold down a full, firm finish. 810 6-packs; 15%; $68 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

J. Bookwalter 2020 Protagonist Cabernet Sauvignon – This dives into the heart of the portfolio, a deeply flavored Cabernet accented with small amounts of Syrah and Petit Verdot. The balance is spot on, with dark fruits, ripe tannins, supporting acids and pleasing hints of sandalwood and tobacco. 4044 6-packs; 15%; $70 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

J. Bookwalter 2021 Protagonist Cabernet Sauvignon – This vintage mixes Dionysus and Conner-Lee vineyard grapes; well-ripened and compacted into a full-bodied, full-flavored red. The black fruits – cassis and berry and cherry – are concentrated and deep. The tannins are ripe and polished, and the barrel notes are proportionate and contribute hints of baking spices and sandalwood. From the opening aromatics to the finishing flavors this wine brings a lot of pleasure. 2777 6-packs; 15%; $70 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

J. Bookwalter 2022 Suspense Conner-Lee Vineyard Cabernet Franc – This makes the case for Conner-Lee Cab Franc, which perfectly captures the essence of the variety, bringing accents of green coffee beans around the core of black fruits. The tannins are amply ripened, and there is an underlying hint of citrus that adds depth and length to the finish. Roughly one fifth of the blend included Cabernet Sauvignon, but as an almost-pure Cab Franc this hits the mark. 1732 6-packs; 15%; $70 (Columbia Valley) 93/100

J. Bookwalter 2020 Chapter 11 Cabernet Sauvignon – A single vineyard (Conner-Lee) companion to the Volume Ten Cab, but here there are small amounts of Syrah and Cab Franc in the blend. Well-built, full-bodied, and expressive of the site, this marries savory herbs to red and black fruits. Barrel aging in 80% new oak adds toast and coffee ground flavors, set against ripe tannins and a thread of graphite. This may already be sold out – the website now lists Chapter 12 as the current vintage. 597 6-packs; 15%; $120  (Columbia Valley) 93/100

J. Bookwalter 2020 Volume Ten Cabernet Sauvignon – Sourced entirely from the Dionysus vineyard, this pure varietal represents the apex of the J. Bookwalter portfolio. Where most of their red wines are built upon blends, this pure varietal creates a focused picture of both place and grape as painted by the winemaker. It’s aromatic and rich, bursting with black cherry and cassis, adorned with barrel spices from 20 months in 80% new French oak. The finish lingers gracefully, adding touches of tobacco. This may already be sold out – the website now lists Volume 11 (hello Nigel Tufnel!) 597 6-packs; 14.9%; $120  (Columbia Valley) 94/100

Events & Tastings Coming Up

Women in Wine Oregon

Plans for the sixth annual conference have been announced, and tickets for the July 16th event are on sale now

Founded in 2019, Women in Wine Oregon amplifies female voices and promotes female leadership in the wine and beverage industry. This year’s theme is ‘RISE’ and will offer insights from leading female wine professionals, business leaders, journalists, entrepreneurs, and industry trailblazers. Guided by the principles of Regeneration, Investing, Supporting, and Empowering, the conference aims to inspire and empower participants on their personal and professional journeys.

Summertime ¡Salud! E-Auction

The preview lots for the three-day E-Auction (July 16 – 18) have been posted on the link above. Click the “Get Started” button on the auction site to register. Wineries create one-of-a-kind ¡Salud! Cuvée Pinot Noirs from their very best barrels. Only five cases of each wine is released. ¡Salud! is a benefit for the Hillsboro Medical Center Foundation.

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 ( Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine,, and in the Waitsburg Times.


  1. I am so thankful for Paul’s simple and spot on wine commentary.
    We learn what the wine tastes like, and then a little more on the
    winemaking and the site .Perfect!


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