Cabernet Franc's Fight for Respect

    Speaking during the 5th 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 adjacent to its estate pond and vineyard, attracting 120 wine aficionados for a tasting to benefit Arts Outreach of Los Olivos.

     According to Wines & Vines, 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.

     “Our Cabernet Franc crop is pretty tiny this year,” said Steinwachs, “and this 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, left after 17 years to focus on his own label, Kalyra. Steinwachs previously was with Pinot Noir specialists Foley and then Fiddlehead Cellars in the Santa Rita Hills appellation.

     She described 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 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 a 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, “Blues Cuvee,” with an artists’ series of labels commemorating the blues. Sales took off.

     “It worked like I expected,” he said. “People really took notice of it.”


Posted in Wine in the Glass
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