Stewart Vineyard is in Carneros, Napa’s cooler, southern section, and that’s my source for Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño, Chardonnay and Merlot. My Cabernet Franc grapes come from Truchard Vineyards, which is also in Carneros, the region that is ideal for all those varieties.
Stewart Vineyard in Carneros is the source of some of my finest grapes. The consistent quality that emerges each year is stunning. The Merlot, Albariño, and Sauvignon Blanc are topnotch. All the variables that influence grape quality—clone, soil, temperature, cultural practices, have combined to make it a unique and special property. When I was offered the first tiny crop of Chardonnay in 2009, I had no idea of the style of wine that would emerge, but given my experience with Stewart, I was optimistic. I was not let down!
When it realizes its potential, Merlot offers one of the most pleasurable of all red wine experiences, and so many seem to forget that some of the most highly regarded and sought after wines in the world come from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, the land of Merlot. Our crusade has been made easier with the magnificent grapes coming off the Stewart Vineyard in Carneros. Thirty-five years of winemaking experience has provided me with this insight: you know you are growing the right grape in the right location when it performs year after year. I can say this unequivocally about Stewart Vineyard Merlot. Even in the most difficult vintages it has consistently delivered, and it is typically the “go-to” wine in the barrel room because it tastes so good right from the start.
Cabernet Franc is a finicky grape. But after all my years of winemaking, I think it is precisely those challenging varieties that have the potential to produce some of the most exciting wines in the marketplace There is a buzz these days about Cabernet Franc as more people tune into this variety that can display a spectrum of flavors and profiles. I firmly believe that Cabernet Franc and Merlot need the coolest parts of Napa Valley to capture the aromatics and varietal characteristics that define these varieties. Northern Carneros is perfect, and even though the risks are high in vintages that are late-ripening, they are worth it. Cabernet Franc is extensively planted in the Loire Valley in France as well as in the right bank vineyards of Bordeaux. Lighter and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, it is more approachable in its youth, a virtue for sure in California. Its great attraction for me is its wild and complex nose of cedar, lavender, and herb. I am easily taken in by its exotic aromas.
I produced my first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1981 as winemaker for Mount Veeder Winery, which at the time was one of the cutting-edge wineries elevating Cabernet production to a new level. Needless to say, Cabernet is now king in Napa Valley, due largely to the passionate innovators from decades past. In the years that followed, we had the luxury to observe and work with Cabernet from numerous regions. In 2011 we connected with two outstanding vineyards—both certified organic—that we believed had amazing potential to create a wine in our “signature” style. Howell Mountain needs little introduction. Located in the northeast corner of Napa Valley, the resulting red wines from the region are typically powerful, muscular, and intense. Although many choose to bottle 100% Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon on its own, I think it best serves as the backbone of a wine and needs to be finessed a bit. Let me introduce Taplin Road, southeast of St. Helena, just off the Silverado Trail. Joseph Phelps and Heitz are legends in Napa Valley. They are on Taplin Road. Nestled between them is my eastern hillside vineyard—clone 341—offering grapes with wonderful charm, elegance, and volume, the perfect foil to Howell Mountain.
I am attracted to wines that are elusive, the ones that keep drawing you back to discover something new. You could say that is my inspiration for our Napa Valley Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Powerful Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively easy wine to make in Napa Valley, but in our quest for nuance and complexity, we present our Napa Valley Red. This is the wine where the winemaker’s intuition and 35+ years of blending experience come into full play. One of the regions of Bordeaux that attracts me the most is St. Julien. I find the wines typically graceful and elegant. Although Cabernet Sauvignon typically provides the backbone, a third or more is usually made up of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. My sources for Cabernet Sauvignon are two outstanding organic vineyards, one on Howell Mountain and the other in St. Helena. For our Merlot and Cabernet Franc we head south to Carneros. The cool region beautifully elevates the personality of each of those varieties. When Merlot is “correct,” it offers one of the most pure and satisfying wine drinking experiences. No wonder it has crept up as a higher percentage of the blend. All cases = 6 x 750mL.
Twelve years ago, well before many were seriously considering the potential of Lake County, one of my best growers, Jim Fore, took a gamble and purchased property on the top of Cobb Mountain. The vineyard site is located a few miles east of Sonoma County and a dozen miles north of Napa Valley's Calistoga. This is a spectacular property, situated at 3000 feet elevation. Soils are thin in the Red Hills and drain instantly. The elevation places vines well above the hot summer heat trapped in the valleys below, and aligns them in the path of cool westerly Pacific breezes. Because of the high elevation, the differential between day and night time temperatures is dramatic. This results in grapes with intense flavor and color development. As time went on, I gained a finer insight into the growing conditions of the region and began to compare it to those of the Napa Valley. Perhaps most similar is Mount Veeder, located in the western mountain range dividing Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Of particular note, Mount Veeder is home to arguably our flagship wine, Brandlin Vineyard Zinfandel. So we gambled again and planted two old clones of Zinfandel, River One and Mead Ranch, and harvested our first crop in 2012. Our intuition proved to be correct! Red Hills is clearly destined to become one of the premier Zinfandel regions in California—we offer this wine as testament!
The vineyard I think I treasure most is also a source for zinfandel. It’s the acclaimed Brandlin Vineyard high above the valley on the slopes of Mount Veeder, and it has some vines approaching 90 years old. They continue to produce intensely flavored grapes, growing for all these years without any irrigation other than the winter and spring rains. The vines are headtrained, independent of any trellis, and without lots of vineyard manipulation. It is arguably my flagship, and I’ve had the privilege to work with this special vineyard since 1991. The fruit there is roughly 90 percent Zinfandel, and the rest is Mourvèdre, Charbono and Carignane. When the fruit is picked together then fermented together, it’s called a field blend and that mix adds complexity to the wines we make from there.
I began producing our “Peter Franus Napa Valley Zinfandel” in 2002 to allow me more blending flexibility in the creation of this wine. Rather than highlight a particular vineyard identity, the plan was to create a style of wine that was more immediately approachable and easy going. The vineyard sources have varied somewhat from year to year, but the goal is always the same--to provide a good value, balanced, and delicious wine in a world of Zinfandel that often delivers the opposite. Several years ago I was fortunate to get to know, Mark Neal. Jack Neal and Son has been farming some of the top vineyards in Napa Valley for decades, and is one of the oldest and most respected vineyard management companies in the valley. And the Neals also just happen to own a Zinfandel vineyard in the prime growing area of Rutherford known for some of the most highly touted Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. Would I be interested? And by the way the Zinfandel is certified organic. The answer was obvious. A splash of Mourvèdre and Syrah from Jim Fore’s fabulous vineyard on Cobb Mountain, add a bit of spice and complexity to complement the blend.
Mourvèdre. There’s nothing quite like it, and if you’re looking for a different wine experience, here it is! The inspiration began many years ago with Brandlin Vineyard—home to my flagship Zinfandel, as well as a handful of Mourvèdre vines, or as they referred to it in the old days, “Mataro.” Over the years I produced two vintages from Brandlin, and they became some of my most sought after wines. Enter Red Hills Lake County, a site I always thought had much in common with Mount Veeder, at an even higher elevation. A tiny crop—too small to bottle on its own--in 2012 made us optimistic, and we were rewarded with both the 2013 and 2014 vintages. For those not all that familiar with variety, Mourvèdre is widely planted in Spain—thought to have originated there in fact—as well as in southern France. Unless planted in the proper areas it can be prolific, hard, and not terribly appealing. When planted in the right location, it is magically transformed. If you’re tired of seeing the same wines over and over again in the marketplace, here’s your chance to take an adventure and explore this unique and exotic varietal!
Lake County lies just north of Napa Valley, and in that region there’s a unique sub-appellation called Red Hills. The Fore Family Vineyard there is 3,000 feet up on Cobb Mountain, and the Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache it produces rivals the best of any region in California. This is the source for our Red Hills Red. This is a spectacular property, situated at 3000 feet elevation. Soils are thin in the Red Hills and drain instantly. The elevation places vines well above the hot summer heat trapped in the valleys below, and aligns them in the path of cool westerly Pacific breezes. At the same time, there is paradoxically greater solar intensity that has some magical and perhaps inexplicable effect on the grapes. Because of the high elevation, the differential between day and night time temperatures is dramatic. This results in grapes with intense flavor and color development.
Albariño has grown on the northwest coast of Spain and Portugal for centuries, resulting in wonderful foodfriendly wines known for their enticing aromatics, vivacious crispness, and intriguing complexity. If ever a wine begs for food, this is it. It has gained in popularity in the States in the last few years, and for us to have one of the few domestic versions produced in this country is both exciting and noteworthy. As a result of unanticipated developments at harvest in 2009, there was no home for the Albariño grown on the property, and suddenly it was being offered to me. Considering that aromatic whites are among my most favorite wines, I could hardly say no. Although not the first Albariño planting in the United States, Stewart was the source of the first commercial release of the variety in 1999.