The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA appellation is a mighty area around half an hour south of Monterey which makes some of California’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
We’re here to meet with Tony Franscioni, a fourth generation farmer whose family owns large plantings in the Gabilan Mountains in the eastern part of the Salinas Valley, and who is responsible for the Old Stage brand. The property is right across the valley from the Talbott vineyards and just below Chalone.
After Tony shows us around his estate – during which we shelter from the strong cooling breeze (it’s not called a cool-climate area for nothing!) – we get down to taste the wines with veteran winemaker consultant Dan Karlsen.
Dan tells us that the Franscioni vineyards have the right components to produce great wine. The Chardonnay vineyard is planted on deep sandy soils exposed to the full brunt of the Salinas valley winds, perfect for Chardonnay, preserving fruit character and acidity The Old Stage 2019 has really good no-nonsense fruit, touches of stone fruit, cream and a hint of vanilla. It has excellent balance, the acidity adding a lovely refreshing note.
The Pinot Noir comes from vineyards further up Chualar Canyon, more protected from the wind. Wind toughens up the skins, which is good for Chardonnay and bad for Pinot Noir. The 2019 vintage is a textbook example of the grape; strawberry and raspberry fruit balanced out by that uplifting acidity. Very more-ish.
As we taste, Dan – a hardwired gnarled 41-harvest veteran of Norwegian stock, takes us through his potted history. He has worked as a winemaker at Chalone, Estancia, Domaine Carneros, Talbott and Taittinger among others, retiring once before he got bored. Now he is a consultant, meaning no employees or HR stuff, just winemaking. The fun stuff. As our conversation rambles, a mixture of business and simply chewing the cud, he gives us his views on a wide range of topics and provides us with some fabulous one-lines, which I jot down in between laughing.
On how to be a winemaker: “Grow a good grape. Then don’t screw it up. Simple.”
On the difficulties of winemaking: “Vineyards are like a bell-shaped curve. You get under-ripe grapes, ripe grapes, and over-ripe grapes. And the main problem you have is: homogeneity. How do you ensure that every grape is at the same ripeness? How do you get that in a large vineyard? What I used to try to do to achieve consistency was to pick from the centre of the rows and leave both ends until the end.”
On the influence of oak: “There’s no such thing as an over-oaked wine. There are only under-wined wines.”
On malolactic fermentation: “I only do a partial malolactic fermentation. Malo steals the life-force from the wine.”
But he reserves his strongest views on cork: “Cork is good for Birkenstocks and dartboards. And that’s it.”
He tells us what he used to say to customers who bought wine from him. “I will guarantee that wine in screwcap for 30 years. I will guarantee that wine in cork for 30 feet.”
He finishes by telling us of a great story from a few years back. A bevvy of executives flew over from Portugal to take him to task for not using their cork closures. They gave him all of the statistics, how they had improved the quality of the cork, how things were much better, and he should really try them again. “Then I said to them? “When are you flying back home?” They told me: “Oh, tomorrow evening.” “Well here’s a thought, gentlemen. Would you get on an aircraft if it only had a 5% failure rate?”