Sonoma County Winemaker Wins Top Award at Prestigious Wine Competition

Learn more about local gold medal-winning winemaker Dennis McCarter — and check out four of his wines to try.

Dennis McCarter cried when he learned that his 2022 Forchini Pinot Noir won a double-gold medal at the 2024 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. It’s not that he didn’t believe it was a well-made wine; he just didn’t expect to land a top award so soon after releasing his first McCarter Cellars wines in 2023.

“It was a shocker,” says McCarter. “You kind of have impostor syndrome, where you wonder, ‘Am I doing the right things? Do I even belong in this industry?’ But when I got the news about the award, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I think this solidifies it. I belong here.’”

While McCarter’s eponymous label is new to the scene, the Santa Rosa native has been making wine for more than a decade. When he was just 21 years old, a food-pairing class at Santa Rosa Junior College turned him on to wine. He got his first taste of the production side at Sunce Winery in the Russian River Valley, where he volunteered to help with everything from harvest to bottling.

McCarter purchased grapes and made his first garage wines in 2010 while working in the insurance business. 

“When I introduced the wines to my friends, they went crazy,” he recalls. “Normally, when people hear ‘garage wine’ they head for the hills.”

He began entering his wines in the amateur category at the Sonoma County Harvest

Fair—and started winning awards.

He finally decided to go pro in the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires. McCarter sold his insurance agency and signed on for an internship at Vinify Wine Services in Santa Rosa, where he found a mentor in Matt Duffy of Vaughn Duffy winery.

After taking a break to study enology at SRJC, he returned to Vinify as an assistant winemaker and launched McCarter Cellars with the the double-gold-winning Forchini Pinot Noir and a Sauvignon Blanc. This year, he’ll release his first dry Gewürztraminer and the 2023 Pink*ish rosé. His wines are now carried at Bottle Barn and at several top Santa Rosa restaurants, including Grossman’s and Jackson’s Bar and Oven.

McCarter is involved in organizing events to lift up the work of other Black winemakers. He’s organizing a Juneteenth event to celebrate trailblazer Mac McDonald of Windsor’s Vision Cellars, who is now in his 80s. And when McCarter’s not talking wine, he teaches judo to underserved youth and serves on the board of the Rohnert Park Community Round Table, which helps improve relationships between law enforcement and communities of color.

Four McCarter Cellars' wines to try
The Wines of McCarter Cellars: 2022 Pinot Noir, 2023 Rose of Pinot Noir, 2022 Sauvignon Blanc and 2023 Gewurztraminer, Tuesday April 2, 2024. (Chad Surmick /The Press Democrat)

McCarter Cellars 2022 Forchini Pinot Noir, $48 

A 98-point Best of Class double-gold winner at The Press Democrat’s 2024 North Coast Wine Challenge. “The compliment I get is that this is an Old World approach,” says McCarter. “It’s a bit lighter in color but with a rich mouthfeel—definitely exceeding expectations. I love it with pork chops, grilled chicken, couscous with raisins and dried cherries.”

McCarter Cellars 2023 Gewürztraminer, $29 

This is McCarter’s first time working with this variety, which arrived in the winery relatively early and was foot stomped, then given 24 hours of skin contact. “It’s got a rose petal aroma, lychee, and a nice little bit of pineapple on the palate. I love it with Thai food and al pastor tacos.”

McCarter Cellars 2023 Pink*ish Rosé of Pinot Noir, $25 

McCarter has almost sold out of his 2022 rosé and will release the 2023 soon. It’s made using the saignée method, with lovely strawberry and floral notes. “It’s a wine I’d want to enjoy at the beach or out by the pool,” he says.

McCarter Cellars 2022 Sauvignon Blanc, $38 

McCarter got only a ton of this fruit, and it’s special, he says, with flavors of lime, Asian pear, and gooseberry, and lovely acidity. “I think of being out at Bodega Bay, enjoying it at the beach with a plate of oysters—or fish tacos or ceviche.”