A Saturday in late September marks the highlight of the Santa Barbara County Cabernet Franc calendar. That day is Franc Fest, a tasting at Buttonwood Farm Winery featuring Cabernet Franc from a dozen or more local vintners. I attended the 2008 edition, but missed the 2009 tasting. Fortunately, I was able to attend the 2010 Franc Fest, and having a better sense of the producers I like, selectively tasted producers of interest.
I'll be honest. I took notes, but I wasn't dumping or spitting. So take everything with a large grain of salt. Looking in chronological order, the notes go from detailed, to sparse, to non-existent. Take what you will from that little nugget of info. Additionally, it was about 100 degrees out, and not every winery did a good job keeping the wines chilled. Only Longoria had ice buckets and others seemed to be swapping bottles in and out of coolers.
Going from memory, the following producers were present: Sforzando, Longoria, Foxen, Buttonwood, Happy Canyon, Silver, Sunstone, McKeon-Phillips, Lucas & Lewellen, Brander, Daniel Gehrs and Alexander & Wayne. I suppose we did pretty well in retrospect, though Sunstone and Alexander & Wayne we missed completely, while Lucas & Lewellen we caught only in passing. On top of that, we also tasted a couple of old wines made by Antonio Gardella under the Companeros label from Buttonwood fruit in the mid-1990s. Comments and notes by producer--when available--are below. A key distinction to keep in mind is the location of vineyard sources. In principle Santa Barbara County is quite diverse and complexity can be achieved by blending different vineyard sources. Here's a quick run down of the climates for different zones.
Los Alamos-cooler, but not really cool climate like Santa Rita Hills
Santa Maria Valley-also cooler, but not truly cold, though this does vary a fair amount depending on micro-climate
Santa Ynez-warmer, though again it varies from west to east, south to north from cooler to hotter due to the faster burn-off of the marine layer as you move inland
Happy Canyon-this is the hottest zone and makes riper, bigger, jammier wines
Foxen had two Cabernet Francs, one from the historic, dry-farmer Tinaquaic Vineyard of the Santa Maria AVA, the other from Rock Hollow Vineyard in Santa Ynez. Tasting these side by side, there was little doubt which was the old vine, terroir driven wine and which came from sourced grapes. Foxen is apparently increasing production, and while the Rock Hollow Cab Franc is a nice varietal wine, hopefully it's priced significantly less than the justifiable $40 tag of the Tinaquaic. The Tinaquaic Cab Franc really has that essence of the grape and the earth, like a serious Chinon. It's earthy and somewhat vegetative on the nose, yet concentrated with intense dark fruit on the palate. It has that California cool-climate complexity as well as the body and fruit. But it's not nearly as acidic (think pomegranite or cranberry) as a Chinon. One of the best wines there without a doubt, and I'm glad I have a 2006 in my cellar that I purchased on faith.
2008 Rock Hollow Cabernet Franc: Santa Ynez Valley, earthy, tobacco, vanilla, medium acid, medium body
2008 Tinaquaic Cabernet Franc: Santa Maria Valley, earthy, raspberry, more tobacco and herbs, tannic, concentrated with a core of fruit
OK, this is a personal favorite, so it's hard to be objective. They poured an older Cab Franc as well as their current releases of two Cab Franc-based blends. For my palate, the 2002 Cab Franc, a blend of fruit from Vogelzang, Gainey and Alisos Vineyards, was the real winner. These vineyards span the county from the hot Happy Canyon, to the warm Santa Ynez, to the cooler Los Alamos, respectively. Add in some bottle age, and that's a recipe for complexity. Interestingly the higher-end bottling, Evidence, was least interesting. It just seemed riper, oakier and more tannic without the complexing earthiness I like. I suspect the larger dose of Happy Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon might be to blame here.
2002 Cabernet Franc: Santa Barbara County, evolved slightly sweet roaster fruit aromas w/ dried herbs, mellowed fruit with firm tannins on the palate, very nice
2007 Blues Cuvee: Santa Barbara County, 31% Cab Franc (Alisos in Los Alamos), 27% Merlot (Alisos), 24% Syrah (Clover Creek in Santa Ynez), 18% Cab Sauv (Estelle in Happy Canyon), herbs and dark fruit, tannic, sweeter fruit but with fresh acids
2007 Evidence: Santa Barbara County, 40% Cab Franc (Alisos in Los Alamos), 35% Cab Sauv (Estelle in Happy Canyon), 19% Merlot (Alisos), 6% Malbec (Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Maria), richer, oakier, less herbs, more tannins
This producer operates out of an industrial park in Santa Maria, sourcing their Franc primarily from Los Alamos, though they also mentioned they have a source in Santa Ynez. Whatever the difference, be it vintage or vineyard, their 2006 and 2007 Cab Francs were wildly different. The 2006 is a simple fruit and oak bomb. Good, but simple. The 2007, however, takes those ingredients, dials them back a bit, and adds a layer of depth and complexity. This was one of my favorites of the day.
2006 Cabernet Franc: Santa Barbara County, vanilla, dark fruit, fat, oaky, simple, a bomber
2007 Cabernet Franc: Santa Barbara County, more complex, earthy, spicy, vanilla, full bodied, dark fruit, mild tannin, very good
Benjamin Silver tells it like it is. In fact, he's a "straight shooter with upper management written all over him." Except he already runs his own wine label, so I guess he is upper management. While tasting his 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2008 Cab Francs, Silver lamented the impossibility of Cab Franc fetching Cab Sauv prices, even when just as good. Silver also discussed his preference for larger framed Cab Franc, which is why he blended Cab Sauv into his older bottlings, which incidentally were holding up quite well. Other topics covered included aged Loire Cab Franc--he says they age really well--and creating a great Santa Barbara Cab Franc--he says the way to go is blending from a variety of vineyards.
2000 Cabernet Franc: concentrated, still tannic, mildly earthy, has aged well
2001 Cabernet Franc: under 'Ojo Rojo' label, VA, w/ bell pepper, similar to Bedford's 2001 CF, also from Thompson vineyard
2008 Cabernet Franc: Tierra Alta Vineyard in Ballard Canyon (Santa Ynez), light, fresh, mouthwatering, pepper and floral aromas, like a Pinot Noir with Cab Franc flavor profile
Other Wines and Wineries
The rest of the producers I didn't follow up on as closely, but there are still a few comments and tasting notes to be added.
Buttonwood 2007 Cabernet Franc: A complete Cab Franc with plenty of structure, fruit and earth. I tasted this a few months ago and didn't get much from it, but this is a very good wine that seems much cleaner than older Buttonwood releases.
Happy Canyon 2007 (?) Piocho: I'm not 100% certain on the vintage, though 2007 is their current release. This was one I didn't get. Seemed rather flabby with both earthy and jammy aromas. Just not a fan of the Happy Canyon area, it seems.
Daniel Gehrs 2005 Cabernet Franc: Plum jam, low acid, not much earth, light tannin, a fruit bomb.
Sforzando 2005 Cabernet Franc: Plummy, band aid/horse sweat, medicinal, full bodied, spicy pepper finish. They also had 2009 barrel samples from a neutral and a new oak barrel. The new oak sample seemed attenuated, but more structured, while the neutral oak sample seemed more direct in its peppery, fruity expression. I liked mixing the two together to get a nice blend.
In sum, I tended to prefer the cooler climate versions, though the blended Cab Francs utilizing multiple climates also fared very well. Then again, it was hot as hell there, and the serving temperature didn't exactly flatter many of the wines. So that's a huge grain of salt to take with these comments.