Hot brand Josh Cellars propels Napa Valley's Joseph Carr Wines from near bankruptcy to success
With a wine brand selling millions of cases a year, it could be hard to imagine that two decades ago Joseph Carr was couch surfing at a Napa Valley winery, looking for help with his dream to be a vintner as his finances were stretched nearly to the breaking point.
Napa Valley-based Joseph Carr Wines has rocketed to production of nearly 3 million cases this year, and plans call for that to grow to 5 million in coming years. The company produces an eponymous luxury-tier brand ($20–$40 a bottle), but much of that rapid rise has come in the past several years from Josh Cellars, an ultrapremium brand ($12–$15, $20–$22 for reserve labels) dedicated to his late father, also named Joseph but usually called Josh.
“I’m not a complicated person, and I just did something I always dreamed about doing,” Carr said. “It’s an American dream concept. And I’ve been very fortunate.”
From his first taste of the wine business while in college four decades ago to the launch of his wine company, Carr has been driven to succeed. Born in upstate New York to a Vermont lumberjack father and general store bookkeeper mother, he hitchhiked to California at age 18 and literally got a taste of the Napa Valley wine business and was attracted to the mixture of cultures from Spain, France and Italy.
On returning home and starting college in the late 1970s, he landed a job as a busboy at Big Tree Inn, an exclusive French restaurant. The owner challenged him to read up on fine wine to become a wine steward, and he passed muster at age 18. By age 22, he became a sommelier. That positioned him for jobs in the 1980s as a sommelier at Hyatt Regency Tampa and wine director at The Sagamore Hotel on Lake George back in upstate New York, where he won acclaim for his list design.
The hospitality world spring-boarded Carr into the production side of the business, with Australia-based Mildara Blass, which eventually became Treasury Wine Estates. He rose through the ranks in the 1990s to eventually lead U.S. operations for the Beringer unit.
The dramatic shift in priorities for many after 9/11 also persuaded Carr to take his early adulthood passion for wine to an entrepreneurial level. After a “long, long talk” with his wife, Deidre, they decided to start Joseph Carr Wines in 2002. They dipped into the equity of their rural New York home, and he shuttled to Napa Valley and back on trips to supervise winemaking. Deidre Carr died in April 2018 at age 70.
The venture is based on the negociant model, a French term for a vintner that buys grapes or wine. That’s opposed to the domaine model, where the vintner is also the grower.
The first help he sought was from Ted Edwards, the legendary winemaker of Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley.
“I showed up at his door one day and told him I quit my job and was wanting to start making wine,” Carr said, a pitch that seemed incredible. “And then he realized I was serious when I told him I refinanced my house, so he let me sleep on a sofa.”
While there, Carr learned about winemaking and blending. The first cabernet sauvignon wine under the Joseph Carr label was released in 2005.