Friday, January 7, 2011

Franciscan Estate Winery

Today was my first day back at work after the winter break, which felt strange because it's a Friday but coming back to work like this made it feel like a Monday.

Whether it was the "Monday blahs" or "TGIF", it seemed like a good time to hit a new winery on the way home along St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29), so I decided to stop into Franciscan Estate (located in St. Helena, sort of at the border of Oakville).

Franciscan is a fairly well-known name in Napa; they've been around for a while (over three decades) and I believe they are currently owned by the same group as Mondavi <-- a lot of wineries in Napa are either consolidating into larger groups or getting bought up by huge distributors, sometimes based overseas such as in Italy. I guess this is the way America is going... a trend toward mega-huge oligopolies. The same thing is currently happening with ski resorts in Tahoe (being swallowed up by chains that also own slopes in Colorado)... but I digress. It is still refreshing to see that, as well-known as Napa has become, and for as much of a business/industry it definitely is, there are still mom-and-pop family-owned wineries, and there are still artisans who are in it more for the craft and the art than for money.

After visiting Franciscan, I feel they are one of the establishments that have found a happy medium between the two: they may be large, established, and well-known... but they still seem to take pride in their product and their image. I had never visited this tasting room before and, to the best of my knowledge, I had never even tried any wines from Franciscan, despite seeing it on several occasions at stores and restaurants.

I had their "classic" tasting flight, which consisted of one white (2009 Chardonnay) and three reds: 2007 cabernet sauvignon, 2006 merlot, and 2007 magnificat, which is a blend of cab, merlot, with a little malbec and petit verdot. Before I go any further, I have to explain why I went with this particular tasting, and indeed why Franciscan was the winery I chose for today. The bottom line is that I think Napa valley prices have gotten out of hand... especially their tasting fees. I first visited Napa nearly 10 years ago, and even then people would gripe about the "expensive" tasting rooms -- which ranged from $5 to $10 tasting fee, on average; this was pretty expensive compared to Sonoma, whose tasting rooms didn't exceed $5 and were often free. Five years later, the average tasting fees were still often $10, but sometimes $15 and even as high as $20.

Currently, the average tasting fee seems to be $20-$25. This is ridiculous, for multiple reasons:
  1. The average salary of people has not gone up 100% in the past few years. The COLA (cost of living) adjustment hasn't gone up 100%, and in fact has gone down the past couple of years while salaries have stagnated. So how can you justify raising costs of something 100%? It's absurd. Maybe it reflects the fact that Napa caters to the rich.. and the rich are getting richer. But nobody else is.
  2. I understand the reason for charging a fee -- for one, it discourages people from treating Napa Valley like an open bar and just hopping from free tasting to free tasting like a total hobo, meanwhile just getting trashed and not spending a penny. I don't blame the wineries from wanting to discourage this and make sure they don't lose money by pouring free wine for everybody. However, $5 -- or $10 max -- seems quite sufficient for this purpose.
  3. Additionally, what is the purpose of having the tasting rooms? Ostensibly, it is not to serve as wine bars, but to serve as wine education and to allow people to try the wines to see which ones they would want to buy. For that reason, it seems to me that any tasting fee should be applicable/refundable upon purchase of bottles of wine... after all, they claim that is the purpose. So I find it really irresponsible, disrespectful, and greedy to charge a $20 and then not even allow that to be refunded or applicable to a purchase. Just as it would be disrespectful for customers to be slovenly winos and treat the valley like a sorority party, it is just as disrespectful to expect potential customers to spend such high funds when they don't have any idea whether your wines are any good. The way I see it is that if you have any faith in your product, you will realize that people will just have to buy it once they taste it.

Having said all this, many wineries do comp the tasting with purchase, but often the purchase requirement is pretty large (half a case or hundreds of dollars). There are, surprisingly, still some wineries in Napa Valley that don't charge tasting fees, though they are scarce. If I recall, Heitz Cellar and GustavoThrace (co-owned by Gustavo Brambila, who was represented in the movie "Bottleshock") are two that didn't have a tasting fee last I checked. Frank Family was another free one with pretty good wines, but I notice they recently started charging $5. I believe that's the same story at V. Sattui. As for Franciscan, they currently charge $15 tasting fee, but they are one of many wineries that are part of the Napa Neighbors program, which often means complimentary wine tasting for locals. It's a great program and it ensures that I visit those wineries first and foremost on my list -- and often end up buying their wines, so they are making out better than the people who refuse to be part of the Napa Neighbors. Still, this doesn't make me any less peeved about the excessive tasting fees, on principle alone.

I went in with no expectations, though I think I had heard through word of mouth that some people liked the cabs, so I figured the reds would be better. All of the wines were decent... I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed the Chardonnay. I have to preface this by saying I am one of the people who does like oaky, buttery (generally caused by malolactic fermentation) chardonnays. A lot of people complain about this style in Napa Valley, but I think that's mostly because it is often simply done poorly. With a heavy-handed approach, it ends up tasting like rancid apple cider with a heavy dose of smoky wood mulch thrown in. In other words, this style can be pretty disgusting. However, with finesse and balance (as rare as that may be), I love it -- and I would say this equally applies to the crisp unoaked or Chablis-style wines, which can be just as bad (or good).

Franciscan got the balance right... a decent amount of fruit up front, opening up to a little bit of mushroomy minerality, with noticeable but not overbearing oak, and a wonderful, round and creamy mouthfeel. As for the reds... they were definitely representative of the Napa Valley reds (cabs and merlot) big, deep, rich, slightly tannic though the tannins were a little more mellow and the wines a little more balanced than many are. I'm not a fan of "big, huge cabs" or chewy tannins, and fortunately these wines were drinkable, but not as smooth as some local cabs I've had. Then again, I was tasting the low-end ones, and their price-point was 1/2 or 1/3 the cost of those other superior cabs I've tried (such as Chimney Rock and Caymus). They also poured a "Mt. Veeder" 2007 cab -- this was a smaller production from the vineyards at higher altitude on Mt. Veeder. The difference in flavor was remarkable, with a richer fruit flavor and mellower tannins.
I ended up buying a bottle of both the 2007 Mt. Veeder cab ($40) and 2009 Chardonnay ($18), the latter of which I couldn't help but pop open tonight with dinner... it was just too tempting, and it paired perfectly with my peasant's meal of lentil soup and grilled cheddar sandwiches!

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