Backyard winemaker Dave Carlson grows Fresno winery
While local Fresno area residents often travel to Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles to wine taste, many do not know a local resident has a boutique winery within the city limits.
Nestled in the Westerlies of Fresno’s Old Fig Garden, this urban winery produces grapes on a county island on Dave Carlson’s one-acre plot in the center of the city.
“I was looking for a plot of open land in late 1999 in order to build a bigger house for my wife, Susan, who was about to have a second set of twins,” Carlson said. “I bought the property and its almond trees from a former Fresno State professor’s estate.”
Carlson actually grew up about six blocks from his new property but had no clue that there was 15 acres of open land just sitting here, ready to be developed.
“So I built the house, bought a new, bigger van, and became the first person in Fresno County with solar electric in May 2000,” Carlson said. “But after I was sitting in the backyard with a new mortgage, a new pool being dug, new mouths to feed, I thought, ‘I can’t afford a $25 bottle of wine.'”
After a couple of months with his feet in the backyard dirt, enjoying a glass of cheap red wine, Carlson mussed how big his backyard really was. And the longer he sat with his feet in the sandy soil, the more he believed he could “best Two-Buck Chuck and give Silver Oak a run for their money.”
By 2002 Carlson had planted Zinfandel and Petit Syrah. Two years later Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cab Franc rows were added.
He created his first vintage as an amateur winemaker in 2004. And from that point on, according to Carlson himself, “it’s been a rollercoaster ride of the highest highs and the lowest lows.”
Today Carlson, while not an enologist or viticulturist, creates wines not only from his backyard vineyard, but sources grapes from other central Valley locations.
“I decided that at the outset, that if I was going to make wine from my limited studies,” Carlson said, “I wasn’t going to buy grapes or juice just from anybody. I wanted to go the whole nine yards because I figured to really understand the entire experience, I needed to have a feel of what goes on in vineyards close to home. So why not start on my one-acre plot?”
Old Fig Wine Cellars field of dreams really began as a way for Carlson to grow his personal wine journey, but today it has become his passion: Create a premium wine and build a brand name. Today his Chardonnays, Petit Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet are all sold locally in Fresno.
Growing grapes is by far much more difficult than making wine
Carlson said the first couple years were like a honeymoon. Trying to get the perfect combination of sugar, PH, and acidity in a wine seemed next to impossible in the opening few years. Living and growing grapes in Fresno also has its challenges, including the heat, bugs and city water bills.
On a whim he planted two rows of Zinfandel and another Petit Syrah in 2006 and by 2009 earned a Double Gold at the California State Home Winemakers competition at Cal-Expo. His 2008 Petit Syrah earned the top prize but he only had 12 cases to share with his followers.
“Of course I was dumbfounded–no dumbstruck,” Carlson said. “However, that was either going to be great news or the kiss of death because now all my friends and followers said, ‘Hey Dave, you now need to be in the wine business. You are no longer an amateur.’ And, at that time, I really didn’t know whether I was really ready for all this. I most certainly don’t have the formal education.”
Carlson, who is a professional photographer by trade, knew the next level would be a big challenge.
“I’ve owned Sports Point Photography for almost 30 years,” Carlson said. “I started the business in 1990 when I moved back to Fresno from Sacramento and photographed team and individuals in baseball and soccer for a living. I started doing the grape thing with a ‘let’s see what happens’ attitude and now it could easily become a full-time gig.
“It was then that I bought grape stock cloned to root stock which was suitable for the types of soil on my property,” Carlson said. “Soils range from concrete in some places other areas that have the most white sandy beach you’ve ever seen. And when I planted more Petit Verdot and Cab Franc, I used VSP trellising. This proved to help me get to the fruit zone easier where I wasn’t crawling in between canes.”
Farming has pretty much been trial by fire for Carlson. He’s had some help by a couple of viticulturists and a little advice from a couple winemakers, but this urban winery owner has learned via his mistakes since he first planted in 2002. And, of course a lot of that has to do with transitioning from an amateur winemaker to a commercial winemaker.
Carlson recalled a couple of rookie mistakes early in his winemaking career that nearly ended it before he gave away or sold a bottle.
“As a newbie with one of my first batches, I stuck my face in the tank to check if fermentation was taking place,” Carlson said. “After trying to take a deep breath to see or smell if the juice was rotting or doing anything, all I got was CO2. I pulled my head out of the vat even as I already was turning blue. My young daughters screamed and freaked out as they were watching dad do his work. But I learned. Oh, I learned that the process was working. It was working even if I could not see it.”
But this was not the first time the novice learned a lesson the hard way.
“I nearly lost my little finger one year in the beginning when I was trying to do my own barrel shaving with a router,” Carlson mused. “Community Medical Center staff reattached part of my finger with over 30 stitches. The doc said I was lucky to still have it.”
The sports photographer and winemaker says he looks at winemaking today as being light years ahead of what winemaking was 50 years ago. Carlson also says he can’t even keep up with all the technology involved in making wine.
“People can get into the weeds on micro oxigenation of wines and oak alternatives,” he said. “While years ago you would put wine in barrels, now it can be made 50 different ways.
“The winemaking aspect has radically changed and coming from a place without formal experience, left me to sort out by trial and error,” Carlson continued. “The hard part is waiting six to nine months and up to two years before I understand what happened. And now I have to try and figure out why did that turn out so good.”
Carlson likes to be somewhat of a purist at heart. While he may sometimes use oak chips to flavor wine, he would rather the grapes speak for themselves.
“One of my biggest mistakes in winemaking as a new commercial winemaker was making wine that I wanted to drink instead of what people were willing to buy,” he said. “I had a rude awakening a couple years back when it really just came to a head.
Carlson was pouring wine at a local event three years ago and everyone walking up to his table said ‘give me your sweetest wine.’ All he had was dry red wine. And when the next person who came up asked the same question, and seven people after that asked the same question, reality set in.
“I can’t do that,” Carlson said. “So there was a shift in my thinking about how I had to approach the market. And when local wine shops initially did not want to sell my reds because I didn’t have white wines, that also changed how I approach winemaking.”
Old Fig Wine Cellars now sells five reds, two whites, a Rose that is poised to be released in time for the FC Wine Journey’s Wine & Chocolate Lovers Weekend, Feb. 13-14, and, for the first time, will have a Petit Verdot and a Cab Franc by March 2017. Currently Old Fig Wine Cellars wines can be purchased locally at the Sierra Nut House, Fig Tree Liquors, The Meat Market in Fresno and Clovis, ApCal, Monet’s in Exeter, Cafe 225 in Visalia and at Harris Ranch. The Grape Tray also places orders.
Tim Ferris, an young apprentice winemaker and Fresno Pacific University MBA student has been proactive in the Fresno area helping Carlson create the Old Fig Wine Cellars brand since January 2016. In the podcast to follow, Young Fig (Tim) shares how the original Fig (Dave) has influenced him and the Old Fig Wine Cellars brand.
Ferris also shared part of the Old Fig Wine Cellars story on Central Valley TV.
Carlson is poised to create a premium local wines on a limited basis all from a plot of land within the confines of a 100 year-old neighborhood. While he makes all his wine in the vineyard he will continue to put them together Old Fig Wine Cellars in the garage.
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