Santa Ynez Valley Hosts Franc Fest

Bordeaux specialists in Pinot country describe the challenges of making Cabernet Franc

by Kathy Marcks Hardesty
Cabernet Franc
Jenny Williamson of Foxen Vineyard and Fred Brander of Brander Vineyard
Santa Ynez Valley, Calif. -- Speaking during the fifth annual Franc Fest, Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs called Cabernet Franc "the Pinot Noir of the Bordeaux world," as she poured a library selection of three vintages--2001, 2002 and 2003--of Buttonwood Cabernet Franc. "It's thin- skinned, cranky and pretty much needs more care."

Located 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara, Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard hosted the event beside its estate pond and its vineyard, attracting 120 wine aficionados for a tasting to benefit Arts Outreach of Los Olivos. Buttonwood was joined by 15 other Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet Franc specialists, some of whom offer the varietal exclusively, and others who make Cabernet Franc-dominated Bordeaux blends, including well-known brands like Brander, Foxen, Daniel Gehrs and Longoria.

Steinwachs noted her current issues: "Our Cabernet Franc crop is pretty tiny this year, and this thin-skinned variety always ripens late, so we have to worry about sunburn, gophers, even the neighborhood dog that I caught jumping up the vines to chomp off clusters." Winemaker since March 2007, Steinwachs joined Buttonwood when its original winemaker Mike Brown, an Australia native, left after 17 years to focus on his label, Kalyra. Steinwachs was previously with Pinot Noir specialists Foley and then Fiddlehead Cellars in the Santa Rita Hills appellation.

She noted the difficulties in the cellar: "Cab Franc is more like Pinot Noir than it is like Cabernet Sauvignon. We're experimenting with it: pump-overs with lots of air, open-top fermenters and punching down, and special coopers. Cabernet Franc is also more expressive of vintage than Cabernet Sauvignon."

Winemaker Richard "Rick" Longoria has been producing Cabernet Franc since 1987, when he was Gainey Vineyard's winemaker. He said his intent was to see what kind of wine it would make, and he was always trying to improve his blends to result in more interesting, layered wine. "In 1990 the Buttonwood Cabernet Franc was really, really good, so I decided it was worthwhile bottling alone, but it was a tough sell. It didn't get much respect," Longoria recalled. Retailers and restaurateurs told him they didn't know what category to place it in. Three years later he created a proprietary name, Blue's Cuvée, with an artist's series of labels commemorating the blues, and sales took off. "It worked like I expected, people really took notice of it."

Cabernet Franc
Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs and Dick Doré, co-owner of Foxen
Admitting that consumers still don't take Cab Franc seriously, Longoria said he's kept it fun and now adds Syrah to the Blues Cuvée blend. His Bordeaux-style blend, dubbed "Evidence," is his offer of proof that Santa Barbara County -- normally perceived as a Burgundy/Rhone style region -- can produce world-class Bordeaux-style wines. Cabernet Franc and Merlot dominate the blend in Evidence.

One thing most of the winemakers agreed upon is that Cabernet Franc is site-specific. Among the younger generation of winemakers, Ryan Carr, of Carr Vineyards and Winery in downtown Santa Barbara, noted that Cabernet Franc doesn't grow well in central Santa Ynez Valley.

"It's last to get ripe, and early October rains can destroy it," Carr pointed out. "It's a special variety to work with; in warm areas you don't want too much exposure." He noted that most of the new Cabernet Franc plantings are in eastern Santa Ynez Valley in a new region, not yet an AVA, known as "Happy Canyon," where Carr grows his grapes. "The American palate is used to Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, but I think our Cabernet Franc is better than any I've had from Napa."

Foxen's dry-farmed Cabernet Franc is quite successful in the region's northernmost appellation, Santa Maria Valley. Although it's typically cooler than the Santa Ynez Valley, Foxen is at the eastern border. Dick Doré, who co-owns Foxen with his partner, winemaker Bill Wathen, said they started out with just two acres planted at their Tinaquaic Vineyard in 1989. Because their Cabernet Franc has been so popular, they added 2.5 more acres from which they expect a first harvest in 2009.

"We have a really unique spot for Cabernet Franc, and I think it really likes a cooler spot," Doré said. "Basically it's a selective pick. We go through a lot of work with that wine. Bill drives around the vineyard tasting the grapes, and if anything tastes too vegetal he won't pick it." Noting that writer Matt Kramer has called Foxen's Cabernet Franc "the best in America," Doré added with a chuckle, "But he seems to think it's the only wine we make. It's only 10% of our total production, but it seems to thrive in that little bridge between Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley."

Longoria discussed the issues of growing Cabernet Franc, which he described as delicate, lacking the power of Cabernet Sauvignon. "The vines have a tendency to over-produce. It's important not to exceed 3 tons per acre or they become herbaceous. It does a little better in modestly fertile soils that result in a more generous wine as opposed to a rocky hilltop vineyard," Longoria cautioned. "You should strive to get the cleanest certified materials, that's very important."
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