Guide to Red Car Wines

Red Car Logo

Red Car's founders, Carroll Kemp and Mark Estrin, had no intention of starting a winery, but had an interest in wine and winemaking. The winery's inauspicious beginnings were in Carroll Kemp's Beverly Hills driveway. There, he and Mark filled two barrels with their fledgling vintage made from their first rudimentary harvest. That was in 2000 -- and in Carroll's modest words, "We were lucky that Syrah was our first wine type. It was surprisingly good."

And how good was it? Well, Mark took a barrel tasting from their inaugural driveway wine to a blind Syrah tasting with wine-loving friends. And while they were surrounded by other impressive and noteworthy Syrahs, the Red Car surpassed all others and was the first in the tasting.

That first release in 2000 was called The Window, and it was a 100% Syrah from grapes in Paso Robles and Santa Maria. There were only fifty cases produced, with most gone and relegated to memory before the end of the year. However, in late September, an avid Red Car mailing list member introduced a bottle of The Window to the wine director at Napa Valley's Martini House. He took a fancy to the wine and called Red Car to order some for the restaurant. Word about wine travels fast in Napa Valley and in short order, three other restaurants called up Red Car. The fourth call was from Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Yountville; fortunately there was enough of The Window left to share.

Red Car Wine Style

Carroll described Red Car wine as one that has "evolved over different vintages. At first the wines mirrored the extracted, rich reds that Robert Parker admires." This is evidenced by the numerous 90+ ratings that Robert Parker's Wine Advocate has awarded Red Car reds since their first 2000 vintage. Their early wines fit into this classic California mold of heavyweight Syrahs with deep and brooding fruit, and in many cases with a high alcohol level in the 14%-15% range. In 2007, Red Car introduced a cool-climate Syrah and in 2011, the very first bottles of Syrah made entirely from their Estate Vineyard will be release. Red Car focuses on crafting wines of balance and authenticity that fithfully express the cool climate personality of the West Sonoma Coast.


Red Car is an artisanal winery that crafts wines. At first, the neophyte wine company did not have a vineyard to call its own nor even a winery (Remember the driveway wine?). To make their wine, Carroll and Mark had to source their Syrah and Pinot Noir fruit from the best vineyards in California. In one sense, sourcing grapes from a third party removes one headache from winemaking, the farming migraine. But contracting to third party growers reduces the control a winemaker has in his wine production. Carroll Kemp explained the frustration this way: "It is important to control the vineyards. That can only be done if one owns the vineyard. When contracting with growers, they don't care as much about you what you want-you contract for grapes and that's what they give you." Red Car has since purchased and run a winery in Sebastopol.

Red Car Origins

Both Mark and Carroll struggled for more than three months in search of a name. One day Carroll was at the Los Angeles County Museum and looking at some old photographs of L.A.'s Red Car Trolley. He'd always loved trains and the pictures of the Red Car stuck with him. Right after that, Mark called him with an idea he had -- "Get the Blue Train." Carroll told him about his "Red Car" and that's what they decided to call the company. To them it conjured up a romanticized vision of a 1940's Los Angeles aesthetic. And the storytelling behind the wines? According to Carroll, "Ideas just come in places and times when you least expect it. Mark and I were driving down to the Santa Rita Hills. We stopped and parked to take a break. We sat on the hood of the car just looking at the vineyards. The idea just came to us that winemaking was storytelling. And that's what Red Car does. The great thing is every year there's a new story."

Red Car Wine Series

Red Car offers fine wines through three series:

  • Boxcar, featuring Chardonnay, Rose, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
  • Trolley, including Pinot Noir and Syrah. Trolley features Red Car's flagship Pinot Noir and Syrah.
  • Reserve, which includes the winery's finest single-vineyard wines. Reserve offers wonderful including Heaven & Earth Pinot Noir, dreamland Pinot Nor, The Aphorist Pino Noir, Twenty-Two Syrah, The Fight Syrah, and a beautiful Roussanne called The Pearl.

The company hasn't made Amour Fou in a few years now, but has plans to bring it back, so if you're a fan, you might want to connect with Red Car through their Facebook page to get the latest information on this and their other introductions. You can also follow Red Car wines on Twitter: @RedCarWine.

Note in Passing

Mark Estrin passed away on May 7, 2005 from brain cancer. Red Car has memorialized his spirit in their 2005 Twenty Two Syrah. The bottle's label shows a young twenty-two year old Estrin and the back label is inscribed with words from Mark:It is said that when we enter this world the soul shatters into twenty-two pieces. The quest to make it whole again is ours alone. Red Car is my twenty-second piece.

-Mark Estrin

Carroll Kemp Named President of West Sonoma Coast Vintners

Carroll Kemp was named the first president of the newly-formed West Sonoma Coast Vintners, a group dedicated to wineries and growers passionate about farming wine grapes in Sonoma County. You can join other wine lovers at the West of West Wine Festival, held in early August in Occidental, California.

Try Red Car Wine

Red Car's story fascinates and delights wine lovers everywhere. You can find Red Car wine at fine wine shops nationwide, or visit their website for more information.

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Guide to Red Car Wines