Tucked away in a modest warehouse facility just outside of Santa Rosa, Carol Shelton Wines is known for its four bodacious Zinfandels – Rocky Reserve, Karma Zin, Wild Thing and Monga Zin – plus Black Magic, a Late Harvest Zin. Each wine has its own personality distinct from the rest, receiving whimsical names echoing Carol’s love for words and wine.
Before studying enology at UC Davis, Carol was a Poetry major. Needless to say, her favorite wine quote is “Wine is bottled poetry,” by Robert Lewis Stevenson. Carol fell in love with wine at first smell, literally. After experiencing the aroma of wine aging in oak barrels while touring Sebastiani winery with her parents, it was so enticing that it drew Carol to her life’s work as a winemaker.
As a female during the 1970’s in a male-dominated industry, Carol’s path wasn’t always easy.
“As a short, blonde, busty woman, I had to prove myself over and over again to make decisions that would bring money in,” she says. “I am not a super aggressive or competitive person and a lot of CEO’s want to push your buttons and see how far you go. I have managed to overcome that, with the help of my husband.”
Carol attributes much of her success to her mentors over the years. She had the pleasure of working under Lisa Van der Water in the first (of its kind in the country) independent wine analysis lab called The Wine Lab, which inspired Carol to get into microbiology and work extensively with yeast strains.
While working for Robert Mondavi Winery in 1978, she worked under Zelma Long in her last year there as Chief Enologist. Carol was inspired by Zelma’s constant thirst for knowledge. “She inspired me to keep an open mind,” says Carol. “Unlike Zelma, a lot of people have a formula that they stick by that they learned from their boss before them. You have to adapt, be flexible and try the newest technology that is coming out.”
Under one of California’s most influential winemakers, Andre Tchelistcheff, Carol learned to have a high expectation for details. “He was so obsessed about the details,” says Carol. “And I was so nonchalant at the time, but I realized he was right. That is what distinguishes a truly great wine from just good. People just think the wine makes itself. That’s BS!”
Over the years, Carol has developed her own style. “I am striving for a quality of deliciousness,” she says. “I love seeing the looks on people’s faces when they ‘get it’ and taste the difference of the quality of my wine compared to what they’re used to.”
Carol Shelton Wines produces 5000 cases a year, with distribution throughout the U.S. and internationally. With an eye to the future, Carol has added a few other non-Zin varietals-a seductive white Rhone blend called Coquille Blanc, the dry Rendezvous Rosé, a Pinot Noir, and a few Petite Sirahs and Cabernet Sauvignons-and is slowly increasing production to meet the demands for her wines.
Yet Carol maintains her role as the “Queen of Zin.” She says her favorite thing about Zin is that is doesn’t have a funky European standard to live up to. “California sets the standard,” she says. “It’s direct and fruit forward.”
We’ll cheers to that!