Wine Watch

A Local’s Journey From Empty Nester to Wine-Preneur

A fateful pour in Naples set Diane Carpenter on a new path, leading up to 2017, when she planted the Ross Knoll vineyards in Sonoma.

BY February 1, 2024
Diane Carpenter of Ross Knoll Vineyard
Diane Carpenter credits her husband, David, for supporting her second act as a vintner. A few years ago, Diane also co-launched SOMM Films, which produces wine-centric documentaries. (Photo by Carlos Bradley)

In the wine world, most people have a story about a bottle that represents their ‘aha’ moment—a wine so revelatory that it becomes the cornerstone of their career. Diane Carpenter’s moment came in 2004, when she was 39.  Back then, the founder of California’s Ross Knoll Vineyard was flying from Naples to the U.K. every six weeks, leaving her husband, David, and two daughters behind to care for her ailing mother. Meanwhile, her girls were getting older and the prospect of a household without her children weighed heavily on the stay-at-home mom. She pondered her next steps. “Suddenly, you’re an empty-nester, and you’ve been left behind,” she says.

One day, sitting on the patio of Naples’ Zoe’s Restaurant (now Hob Nob), her friend insisted Diane try “this red from California”—a Paul Hobbs cabernet sauvignon. Diane was hesitant; she always liked white wine, loathe to reject a glass of Sancerre or white Burgundy. But nothing ever stood out, especially with reds. Still, she acquiesced. “It took my life full circle,” Diane reflects. She didn’t know the winemaker would become a mentor and friend.

In that moment, she knew she would build a career around wine. Her mother encouraged her, and Diane welcomed the distraction. “It helped me through the process of losing my mom,” she says. Diane threw herself into her studies. After becoming a certified wine specialist, she launched a boutique wine service to help private clients build out their cellars.

The burgeoning wine aficionado met Paul’s wife, Christina, at one of his winemaker dinners in New York City in 2011. They became instant friends, and Paul—an award-winning vintner whom Forbes once dubbed ‘The Steve Jobs of Wine’—invited Diane to a harvest that night. Two weeks later, Diane was on a plane to Sonoma. “The first year, I stayed in the intern house, and the second year, I rented a little house and was the intern with the hot tub,” she says with a laugh.

Working with Paul, Diane developed the techniques that would inform her in her 1.5-acre Sonoma plot, which she planted with David in 2017, at the age of 52. Diane would walk the Ross Knoll rows daily, adjusting drips as she watered the plantings and scouting out the groundhogs that would annihilate her crops, given the chance. She called the largest vine Mary, in honor of her late mother.

After planting 3,000 pinot noir vines six years ago at the organically farmed plot, each vintage brought a new challenge for Diane and Ross Knoll’s winemaker, Justin Seidenfeld. The first year, blazes ripped through the area just four months after the team planted. “It was our first experience with the fires,” she says. In 2020, smoke forced them to pick early, when the grapes weren’t ripe enough, so they pivoted to craft a white pinot and a rosé. Those first wines scored 90 and 93 points, respectively, from Wine Enthusiast—a notable achievement so early in a vineyard’s lifespan. In 2021, frost destroyed Diane’s entire harvest. “There was no coming back from it,” she says. Her first call was to Paul—now a mentor and friend—who sold her grapes to blend with fruit from the neighboring Lynmar Estate.

Ross Knoll’s 2022 pinot noir embodies the kind of wine the vineyard can produce when nothing goes wrong: no fires, no smoke, no frost. Diane’s single-vineyard bottling from her own estate is aged in 100 percent new oak, yielding an elegant and feminine wine, floral with black cherry notes and subtle, woody spices.

Ross Knoll Wine
Diane dubbed the largest vine Mary, after her late mom, who encouraged her oenophile endeavor. Though Diane has since sold the land, she still draws from the organically farmed vineyard for her Ross Knoll wines. Diane’s first bottles have received high praise—nearly every vintage has earned 90 points or higher from Wine Spectator, including 92 points for the 2021 pinot noir. (Photo by Carlos Bradley)

The pinot noir is the kind of wine you sip and wonder what it’ll taste like 10 years from now. Diane and Justin designed the wines to continue evolving as they capture the vineyard in the bottle. The 2022 pinot calls her right back to the days of walking every row, nurturing every vine. 

The vintage also represents decades of love between her and her husband. The couple met at a boarding school as teenagers. When they married, they decided to focus on David’s career while Diane focused on their daughters. They knew that once the girls went to college, they could focus on Diane’s career—together. They’ve since sold the Ross Knoll property but have an evergreen contract to purchase the fruit, so she’ll continue making bottles under the Ross Knoll label.

The SOMM TV Behind the Glass documentary on the winery, released last year, filmed Diane over seven years, capturing the challenges and turning points of planting a vineyard and becoming a winemaker. She went on to co-launch SOMM Films, the documentary arm of the online, wine-centric network SOMM TV, which launched as an offshoot of the uber-popular, namesake 2012 film. “I didn’t think I could ever accomplish [such a dream],” Diane says. 



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