A Carol Shelton Interview – 30 Years of Innovation and Excellence

A honeysuckle aroma lingers in the air as we approach the relatively new Rockpile appellation. It’s that exciting time of year where the fruit of the year’s labor are realized – it’s harvest.

“I always know it’s time to pick Rockpile when I get this smell here,” says Sonoma winemaker Carol Shelton.  Shelton, a petite blond with a lively passion for winemaking is visiting one of the many vineyards she sources from to test the ripeness of its zinfandel. After tasting through several grape clusters Shelton’s instincts tell her the zinfandel needs two more weeks of hang time – the 2010 season has brought cooler weather causing a later harvest.

This is by no means Shelton’s first harvest. In fact, she’s been involved in Northern California’s wine industry since the late 1970’s. Shelton’s career began at an exciting era of innovation and she’s since been part of the wine industry’s cutting edge.

UC Davis in the 1970’s

The 60’s and 70’s ushered in an era of talented women who broke into the wine industry at UC Davis and Shelton was at its epicenter. Shelton originally majored in poetry, however with the insistence of her parents to choose a different major – and a fateful visit to a Sonoma winery – she decided to go into winemaking.

“I graduated Davis in 1978 and was one of the first dozen or so women to get through. When I got out, the basic jobs available to women were lab or sales jobs. I had a degree in winemaking and wanted to be a winemaker. I got started with a lab job but did it in a neat way in that I was able to do small lot winemaking for Mondavi. I was out picking the grapes and hand crushing just like a home winemaker with 200 lots of wine. I would get the wine all the way through to the bottling stage and actually run the chemical analysis. At that time, it was believed that women didn’t have enough muscular strength to work in the winery, but I’ve learned that you can use your body and the resources you have- tools and other things- to make it work. You don’t have to just use brut force.”

In fact, Shelton went on to overseeing a 200,000 case production with 40 different wine styles at Windsor Vineyards in Sonoma. She spent nearly 20 years at Windsor and now operates her own winery with her husband Mitch MacKenzie at Carol Shelton Wines.

Today, Shelton is widely cited as one of the most awarded winemakers in the United States.

The Aroma Wheel

During her time at UC Davis, Shelton worked with Professor Emeritus Ann C. Noble to create the Aroma Wheel.  The Aroma Wheel solidified a language to describe wine at at time when wine description was rather esoteric. Instead of using words such as whimsical, exuberant or heavenly, the Aroma Wheel introduced more concrete descriptors. For example, ‘This wine shows hints of lemon, asparagus and stone minerality.’ The Aroma Wheel is now used in wine education around the world and is available in seven languages.

Yeast Research

Early in her studies at UC Davis, Shelton was hired as the first employee at The Wine Lab, California’s first independent wine analysis lab in Napa Valley. She worked under Dr. Lisa Van de Water who was developing a yeast nutrient called Super Food. Shelton’s work with Super Food translated into her career as a winemaker where she has greatly contributed to the understanding of how different yeast strains affect the flavor of wine.

During the late 70’s it was widely understood that yeast strains had performance characteristics like foaming, cold tolerance and alcohol tolerance. However, in regards to flavor, it was believed that yeast simply turned sugar into alcohol and lacked flavor impact.

“I kept saying this belief just couldn’t be right and so I ran trials on one particular lot of chardonnay that I tried about a dozen different yeasts on. I found a range of different tastes from one juice tank broken out over several different barrels. One yeast made the chardonnay taste like fresh baked French bread, one tasted like pineapple, and another one was just creamy and buttery without malo-lactic, then another tasted like green apple. The mouth-feel differences were also dramatic.”

Shelton was able to follow this particular lot of chardonnay in the bottle. “I figured that each individual bottling would continue to taste different, and after six months in bottle they all continued to have their own unique characteristics. Then after one year their unique characteristics were still in tact.”

Shelton then ran an experiment with merlot.

“I had questions of whether red wine yeasts would make a difference because red wine doesn’t spend much time in fermentation. It’s over and done with in about a week, 10 days maybe. White wines are usually three weeks to four weeks or even longer, so it’s a long time to be into it with your yeast friends. But with red wines they are basically removed from the equation quickly. I got this one merlot from Russian River Valley that was always very acidic. I tried two different yeast strains- our standard house strain and the new one being offered to me that was supposed to reduce acidity. And the people offering this yeast strain were right. Theirs made a little poly-saccharide, which filled out the mouth-feel and took away the bite of the acidity. It was a real eye-opener to me. I then started exploring all the other yeast strains and now I have an open mind with every yeast strain that comes through my hands.”

When Shelton started in the wine industry only one major company made yeast. Today, there are 50 to 60 designer strains of yeasts available on the market from companies all over the world.

“The fact that these companies had a very enthusiastic supporter they could send people to that gave rabid testimonials, I think it really encouraged people to open their minds and realize that one strain of yeast was not one size fits all.”

Rockpile AVA

The Rockpile appellation is one of the newest American Viticultural Areas in California. It sits on the steep, red-soiled hills above Lake Sonoma and is capable of turning out elegantly balanced red fruit. It takes a bold spirit to source from Rockpile in that it’s often quite difficult to ensure water in this dry area.

It was only in 2002 that Rockpile gained AVA status and Shelton was one of its founding winemakers. Watch this video to learn the history of Rockpile, how Lake Sonoma helped create this AVA, as well as how its soil types and climate support the growth of world-class zinfandel.

A Wine Maker’s Passion

What you look for in a wine is that infinitely fine balance of the earth, great fruit and the winemaker’s poetic touch. Shelton’s wines have a finesse that exemplify this balance; her passion for winemaking is unmistakable.

“I went with my parents on a tour of a Sonoma winery when I had just started college,” Shelton said during our time together at her winery. “I grew up in the Finger Lakes and had toured wineries all my life. But at this Sonoma winery there were big, wooden casks. I walked into the cellar and the smell of the red wine saturated into the oak hit me like a wave and I just said, ‘Oh my God’. I’ve always followed my nose. I’ve always loved intriguing smells and that just hit me and I said I want to smell this for the rest of my life.”

Carol and husband Mitch at Florence Vineyard, Rockpile with their Rocky Reserve grapes.


  • Photo of ‘Rockpile Viticultural Area’ by dwolfgra through Creative Commons
  • Lead and final images courtesy of CarolShelton.com.

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