June 6, 2008
Cabernet Franc the Next Star in the Foothills?

Vintners in Nevada County often talk up cabernet franc as the grape and the wine that ultimately will set them apart from their brethern in the Sierra foothills. Rarely, however, do other grape growers and winemakers in the Mother Lode sing the praises of cabernet franc, a black grape commonly used to add complexity to cabernet sauvignon and merlot in Bordeaux and California, but developing a following in California as a varietal.

At yesterday's annual Foothill Grape Day at Sogno Winery of Shingle Springs, however, speaker Bill Easton of Terre Rouge/Easton Wines in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley said he sees a promising future for cabernet franc in the region, even though he doesn't grow any and only occasionally makes wine from the grape.

Easton noted that the Sierra foothills appellation not only is large but is characterized by an array of elevations, exposures and micro-climates that still have to be explored for their grape-growing potential. What's more, cabernet franc looks to be a versatile grape that can adapt well to a wide range of growing conditions, though he thinks its best potential is in cooler reaches of the foothills, 2000 feet and higher. Already, says Easton, he's tasted some "incredibly great" cabernet francs from the region.

Coincidental with Easton's remarks, I'd been reviewing the showing of foothill wines in several competitions over the past year, and have been struck by how often cabernet franc has performed well. Here's gold-medal foothill cabernet francs from six competitions I've tracked so far:

Conti Estate/Charles B. Mitchell Vineyard & Winery 2005 El Dorado Reserve Cabernet Franc ($25), which got a gold medal at the Calaveras County Fair and a gold medal and best of class at the El Dorado County Fair.

Crystal Basin Cellars 2006 El Dorado County Reserve Cabernet Franc ($25), gold at El Dorado, expected to be released in about two months.

Latcham Vineyards 2005 Fair Play Special RSV Cabernet Franc ($20), a unanimous gold-medal wine and winner of a chairman's award at the Riverside International Wine Competition.

Mt. Vernon Winery 2004 Placer County Cabernet Franc ($24), gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Nevada City Winery 2005 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($24), gold at the Chronicle.

Pilot Peak Winery 2006 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($25), gold at El Dorado.

Murphy Vineyards 2005 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($16.50), gold at the Chronicle.

Two other gold-medal winners from the Sacramento region, though not from the foothills, are the Cinnabar Vineyards 2004 Lodi Cabernet Franc ($35), best of class at the Chronicle, and the Jeff Runquist Wines 2006 Clarksburg Salmon Vineyard Cabernet Franc ($18), gold at the Chronicle.

In looking back over this list, one concern comes to mind. Vintners of the more expensive wines may want to review their pricing strategy. Cabernet franc is a relatively new grape and wine in the local area. Consumers aren't likely to spend big bucks for a varietal with which they aren't familiar. I've seen this kind of high pricing with sangiovese, viognier and syrah, all of which have struggled to develop a following. High prices could be one reason for their difficulties. If cabernet franc has a chance to establish itself as a distinguished member of the region's wine lineup, it would be more encouraging to see more releases made more accessible with lower prices.

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