In Grape Demand
Gary Franscioni’s small output burnishes Santa Lucia’s name in a big way.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Just because you have the cash to shell out $4,000 for a ton of them – about $1,500 more than grapes from nearby vineyards – doesn’t mean you can get Pinot Noir grapes from Gary Franscioni’s small Santa Lucia vineyard. First, you need to be friends with him: The delicate fruit is Gary’s baby, and like most, he doesn’t let just anyone care for his loved ones. Second, you need to have serious winemaking skills.
“I literally have to turn people away,” says Franscioni, who owns Rosella’s vineyard, named after his wife, and co-owns Gary’s Vineyard with long time buddy Gary Pisoni. Only world-class winemakers need apply, but the screening process doesn’t stop there. Franscioni tastes barrel samples from each client. If the wine doesn’t reflect the true flavors of his vineyard, he won’t allow them to put “Gary’s” or “Rosella’s” on their label.
There are other ways he defends a name that fetches twice as much on the shelves as comparable Pinots. He expects winemakers to use French oak barrels, which, while expensive ($1,000), he considers well worth the investment since American oak ($500) can mute his Pinot’s personality. Those that add Syrah to his Pinot aren’t considered. If his own wines aren’t up to his standards, he bites the bullet, as he did in 2006.
“I took a loss financially,” he says, “but I’ve got to protect my brand.”
The fact that 14 different wineries put up with these particulars speaks to how good the grapes are and how much they trust Franscioni’s methods. In that crew of wineries are some of the best Pinot makers in the game: Kosta Brown, Testarossa, Siduri, Tantara, Miura, Lucia Novy, August West and Bernardus. Many of the wines sell out before even being bottled. Same goes for his own label, Roar Wines.
Dean De Korth, winemaker at Bernardus, knows a thing or two about Pinot, having worked at Olivier Leflaive, Comte LaFon, and Pierre Morey. “I love making Pinot with the best grapes I can get,” he says. “The Rosella’s grapes are perfumey and concentrated, but also very feminine.”
According to Adam Lee, winemaker at Siduri, “You can taste how good the grapes are even before it becomes wine. When you pick the grapes off the vines, they actually taste richer and thicker.”
“Once the grapes reach the winery, you can’t add flavor,” Franscioni says. “That comes from the vineyard.”
It’s there, in his construction boots with his pug Tiger at his side, where Franscioni logs countless hours and has earned the deep tan that accompany it.
“Since I live on the vineyard,” he says, “I know every inch of it.”
His solidarity with the soil is part nature and part nurture: His family has farmed the area for over 100 years (before he planted the Gary’s Vineyard in ’96, his main focus was growing broccoli and asparagus) and he holds a degree in agribusiness from Cal Poly.
Each vine gets individualized attention every 12 days and he checks the weather at least three times a day. Along the way, he gives his winemakers constant updates. “If anything bad pops up in the vineyard,” De Korth says. “He’ll fix the problem immediately. He’s the most meticulous grape grower I know.”
The careful attention continues at harvest, which happens only at night, and beyond: The grapes are immediately placed into temperature controlled bins for the trips to the bottling facilities.
His vines were strategically planted at a 500-foot elevation on a southeast-facing incline in sandy-loam soil for two reasons. One: when it rains, it drains. Two: by staying off of the valley floor, the vines don’t have to vie with one of their worst enemies, frost. And the late afternoon fog that makes the 15-minute commute from the Pacific allows for a longer growing season, part of what the fussy Pinot Noir varietal adores.
Pisoni, who put the Santa Lucia Highlands on the map, was the one who inspired Franscioni to start growing grapes. Pisoni’s warmer 1,400-foot elevation vineyard is a gold maker that’s in high demand itself, but Pisoni approached Franscioni because he wanted a cooler sight, a powerful vote of confidence that immediately gave the industry notice of Franscioni’s potential.
The awards have accumulated since. When the San Francisco Chronicle selected its top 100 wines of the year in ‘06, eight of them were Pinots from the Rosella’s vineyard. In October of that year, esteemed wine critic Robert Parker conducted a blind tasting of 12 of the world’s best Pinot Noirs at The Culinary Institute in Napa Valley. From a group that included world-class Burgundy producers Domaine de la Romaneé-Conti, Dujac, and Mommessin, which command prices upwards of $500, Parker deemed Roar’s ’04 Gary’s Vineyard ($45) supreme.
“For a day, I was on top of the world!” Franscioni says.
Those who taste his grapes know the feeling.