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Natural Vino
Andrew and Shawnee Carini are self-taught winemakers whose brand is now nationally known

December 2015

For 39-year-old Andrew Carini, wine is in his blood. Four years after relocating to California to work in the restaurant industry, the Port Washington native started Carini Wine in 2000. Today, the self-taught winemaker sells his wines for $50 to $75 per bottle.

But Carini says that winemaking has been a family affair for generations. His Sicilian ancestors brought the craft with them when they immigrated to the United States. His great-grandfather, Giacomo Castiglone, was one of the first importers of fine wines in Milwaukee in the 1940s. And both his grandfather, Joseph Carini, and father, Steve Carini, dabbled in home winemaking.

Before heading west, Carini worked as a chef at the Port Hotel and Smith Brothers Seafood Restaurant. It was while working at Folie Douce in Arcata, Calif., that Carini became serious about wine.

"Working in the hospitality industry, I developed an appreciation for wine," says Carini.

Influential advisers

A year after he began working at Folie Douce, owners Les and Lisa Behrens sold the restaurant to focus on their winery, Behrens & Hitchcock. Soon after, Carini began studying under his former boss.

From there, the self-trained Carini went on to study under other California winemakers, often for no pay and up to 90 hours per week.

"People were very willing to mentor me and take me under their wing," says Carini. When he wasnít working, Carini devoured books about famous winemakers.

Cariniís father, Steve, says that his son also was heavily influenced by Martin Ray, a legendary California winemaker from the 1930s to the early 1970s. So taken with the famous vintner, Carini even named his first son Martin in the manís honor.

"Rayís style was to add as little as possible to his wines," says Steve Carini. Carini Wine adopted the Old World tradition as part of its own winemaking process.

"Our operation is about as low tech as they come," says Carini. "Everything is done by hand by me or my wife."

For this two-person operation, that means everything from picking up the grapes from area vineyards after theyíve been harvested, to crushing the grapes and punching them down, to bottling and labeling the wine, to office work, fulfilling orders and maintaining the wineryís website.

Off the grid

Carini first started making wine in Napa Valley, but in 2004 he moved the winery 5 miles north to a former logging community near Hayfork, Calif.

"We like being away from the hustle and bustle," says Carini, who lives with his wife, Shawnee, and their five children in a small house just steps away from the 30-by-40-foot stone building that serves as the Carini Wine cellar. Inside are the French oak barrels filled with fermenting varietal wines made from merlot, cabernet and pinot noir grapes.

Freedom to experiment

Although he once aspired to own his own vineyard, Carini ultimately decided to leave the business of grape growing to others. He has long-term contracts with several vineyards, including Alder Springs Ranch in Mendocino County, Kenefick Ranch in Calistoga, Fortuna Vineyard and Skellinger Vineyard in Oakfield, and St. Helena Cabernet Vineyard in St. Helena.

"Not owning my own grapes gives me the freedom to experiment," Carini explains. "It gives me a lot more flexibility."

Hands-off style

With an intent to craft wine that is completely distinct from other wines, Cariniís winemaking style is hands-off. Adhering to an Old World process, Carini makes his wines as the fruit comes to him. "Other than yeast and minimal sulfur dioxide, Carini says nothing is added. That means no watering down, acidification, enzymes or color enhancers. Nor is anything taken away in the form of centrifuging, fining or filtration.

Carini explains that once the grapes arrive at the winery, theyíre destemmed and sorted into 300-gallon fermenters where they soak as part of a cold maceration process for several days. After the inoculation, fermentation lasts 10 to 14 days. The grapes are punched down by hand two to six times per day depending on the wine variety. When the wine approaches dryness, itís pressed from its skins and seeds straight into the French oak barrels. There, the wine ages from six to 100 months, again depending on the wine variety.

"All of our wines are bottled unfiltered and unfined and are typically aged in the bottle for a year before theyíre released," Carini explains.

With no formal training, Carini says that most of his winemaking decisions are based on sensory evaluation and intuition as opposed to laboratory analysis and recipes.

"I donít have a degree in oenology or viticulture," says Carini. "I spend endless hours evaluating wines, and I admit sometimes there have been absurd amounts of trial and error."

Carini Wine primarily makes cabernet, merlot and pinot noir. Made from high-end grapes, these wines are available at upscale restaurants in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Carini Wine also does a steady mail order business.

Of all its wines, Carini Wine has probably received the most attention for its Dubakella pinot noir. The Dubakella label is derived from the tallest mountain visible from the Carinisí winery. Dubakella is a Wintu (a local Native American tribe) word for "black rock."

He says the little-known wine-growing region has been largely overlooked by large-scale grape growers due to the areaís rugged terrain and remoteness. As a result, pinotphiles have dubbed it a "great pinot noir from an unexpected place."

Carini himself is reluctant to choose a favorite wine. "Itís hard for me to choose one over the other," he says. "Theyíre all my favorites."

He explains that if he didnít like a wine himself, he wouldnít sell it under his label. "Ultimately, we strive to make wines that we love to drink and share with others," says Carini.

Hometown welcome

Hoping to introduce his wines to his hometown, Carini hooked up with family friend Mark McCormick in 2012. With an extensive background in the food and beverage distribution industry, McCormick suggested that Carini develop an entry-level wine that supermarkets and liquor stores would carry. As a result, Carini Wine introduced its Alicante Bouschet A2B wine in 2013. Unlike Cariniís other wines, A2B is produced with zero wood (no oak and no cork).

"Itís fermented and aged for nine months in stainless steel to allow the Alicante Bouschet to shine through unobstructed," explains Carini.

He says he chose Alicante Bouschet for several reasons. "Grenache is its dad, and I love Grenache," he explains.

But Carini also loves Alicante Bouschetís backstory. Until the 1960s, Alicante was the workhorse of the California grape industry. The thick-skinned grapes traveled well, and every fall thousands of railcars were loaded up with the varietal and shipped to the East Coast (from point A to point B, which is how Carini derived the name A2B). In recent years though, most vineyards have replaced Alicante Bouschet in favor of chardonnay and cabernet.

"Its acreage is declining every year and the majority of what remains is blended into anonymity, but I think itís a worthwhile fruit."

Today, A2B wine is available at Ottoís Wine & Spirits stores throughout the Milwaukee area and Trigís, a grocery store chain in northern Wisconsin. In addition, several notable Milwaukee restaurants such as c.1880, Bacchus and BKC Story Hill have begun featuring Carini Wine.

With Carini Wineís presence firmly grounded in Wisconsin, Carini and McCormick are now looking to expand south into the Illinois market.

Carini admits that making a great wine is easier for him than marketing it. Although he once preferred to rely on mail order sales, Carini understands the need to work with distributors to help continue building the Carini Wine brand. "Iíve had to transform from the guy behind the label to the person selling it," says Carini. "Itís been a learning experience, to say the least."


This story ran in the December 2015 issue of: