Where It all Began
Mike and Brooke were born in Pasadena, but Mike essentially moved up to Rancho Santa Ynez full time in the early 1960’s, several years after his father purchased what was then a 2500-acre property. Mike loved it so much that he refused to go back to Pasadena with his dad during the week. Because of this decision, the ranch foremen at the time, Bob Cardoza and Cotton Gray, ended up raising him for the majority of his youth.
In the 1940’s and 50’s, the ranch used to be the headquarters for a 2500-acre dairy/swine operation. When Chase’s grandfather took the property over, that part of the facility phased out, but the general ranching and cowboy culture continued. “I was a full-blown cowboy,” Mike says, seeming to marvel at the memory. “There was a roping arena and people would bring horse trailers on Saturday to do jackpot roping. The place was famous.”
While going to school, Mike worked cattle, and more importantly helped with the custom farming of the ranch as well as others all over the Santa Ynez Valley. Mike and Chase both went to Ballard School and Santa Ynez High School. In fact, Chase’s tennis coach for his high school years was the football coach when Mike went there! After working a variety of jobs post high school, and taking classes at Allan Hancock College, Big Mike eventually found himself working up the ranks in the insurance business. Although it was technically AG insurance, he would tell you that those twenty years were in some ways the worst years of his life, but also the best, because they provided him with the opportunity to buy the ranch and be self-employed. Chase feels extremely lucky to work under someone who had the courage to leave an industry that did not fulfill him, and return to a lifestyle that makes him smile each day with the rising sun.
Planting The Seed
Mike and Brooke got married in 1982, and moved to the ranch with Chase in 1993. “It was falling apart,” Brooke remembers. “We re-built every fence, every road. But Mike loved the place. He was raised here and has a real connection with the land.” A couple years later, after conversing with many grape growers in the area, they planted their own 10-acre vineyard. The hilltop location was spotted by famed viticulturalist Dale Hampton, who scouted the ranch for a site with good soil structure and maximum sun exposure.
In 1996, the Carhartts planted seven acres of Merlot, which was the hot grape in those days, and three acres of Syrah (a little-known variety in ’96). Who could have thought fast forwarding almost 20 years would show Merlot on the lower end of plantings, with Syrah rising to one of the most planted varieties in the Santa Barbara County.
At some point, they realized that selling 10 acres worth of fruit was not going to cover the cost of farming. So much for planning! And so was born the idea to make some wine to offset costs. Mike always says that Brooke knew enough chemistry to be dangerous, and in 1998, they made a barrel of Merlot and a barrel of Syrah, not realizing the incredible journey that lay ahead. The wine was made in what is now the main winery, a converted hay barn that was built in 1901.
The small size of the family business is crucial to preserving the hands-on, do-it-yourself approach.
In fact, the inside of the other two barns circling the winery have now been converted to temperature controlled barrel storage; on the outside however, it assumes the role of an old redwood building to maintain its historical, rustic allure. Since 1998, Carhartt Vineyard and Winery has increased its size to an average of 5,000 cases per year. The small size of the family business is crucial to preserving the hands-on, do-it-yourself approach. Although the property is built around the wine business, it is still a working ranch with a workshop, tack room, a variety of animals, and a sizeable homegrown garden. The Carhartts are proud to say that in 2012 they converted the entire operation to solar power, continuing the sustainable tradition. If you were to ask Mike about the ranch, he would tell you “I’ve been here all my life. It’s home. Every day I thank my lucky stars. I’ve always maintained I’m not sentimental, that even if this place went away, I’d be all right. But as I get older, I don’t think I would be.”
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