Gary Franscioni is widely regarded as one of the best wine-grape growers in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation of Monterey County. He owns and farms Rosella's Vineyard and is partners with the Pisoni family, of Pisoni Vineyards fame, in Garys' and the new Soberanes vineyards. But the project he appears particularly excited about is his Sierra Mar Vineyard, planted in 2007.
The 38-acre Sierra Mar is part of the emerging trend of planting higher into the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, which overlook the west side of the Salinas Valley. The elevation of Sierra Mar ranges from 600 to 1,100 feet. The vineyard is in the southern end of the appellation, farther from chilly Monterey Bay, so it's a little warmer and less windy than the other properties Franscioni farms.
The 420-acre property had been used as a cattle ranch and was covered with brush when Franscioni bought it. He knew he needed more vineyard land: He and Gary Pisoni had a waiting list of 62 wineries in 2004 that wanted to buy fruit from one of their vineyards.
"I wasn't sure what I had when I planted this thing," Franscioni says. "It's been a great project to tackle."
The vineyard is about three-quarters pinot noir; the rest is planted with chardonnay, syrah and a half-acre of viognier. Franscioni planted multiple clones, including some he hadn't used before.
His favorite part of the vineyard is a four-acre block that's about a mile from the rest of the plantings. That block, planted in May, is all pinot noir; Franscioni wanted to be able to harvest it all about the same time because of the logistical challenges of getting trucks up the steep road to the vines in the dark. Franscioni's vineyards are harvested during the night and early morning.
From an overlook, the new planting looks like an oasis surrounded by steep, brushy ravines. "It's an island," he says.
The first wines were made from Sierra Mar in 2009, with more in 2010. This year, 90 percent of the vineyard will be in full production. Franscioni currently sells Sierra Mar grapes to about 10 wineries, including his own Roar Wines label.
It's always interesting to taste a range of wines made by different winemakers from grapes grown in the same vineyard, so Franscioni put together a tasting of 2010 wines from several of the wineries he works with. (A few haven't been released yet.) Harvest decisions and winemaking practices often overshadow vineyard nuances in such tastings, and a young vineyard sometimes produces exuberant fruit that is devoid of much vineyard character. In the case of Sierra Mar, however, I found a common aromatic thread in all four of the chardonnays, despite their differences in ripeness, oak treatment and the like. All displayed a savory, olive/herbal note.
The 2010 Roar Sierra Mar Chardonnay ($45), for example, was lemony and fairly ripe with a mineral note, while the 2010 Bernardus Sierra Mar Chardonnay ($40) was creamier and more racy. Still, both had remarkably similar aromas.
The pinot noirs, on the other hand, may need a few more years to show their common origin. Wines ranged from the ripe, round 2010 Roar Sierra Mar Pinot Noir ($52), with its bright cherry and raspberry fruit, to the leaner, prettier 2010 Pelerin Sierra Mar Pinot Noir ($54).
Sierra Mar isn't the only new project that Franscioni is working on. In 2008, he and Pisoni planted the 35-acre Soberanes Vineyard, which adjoins their Garys' Vineyard. And his Roar Wines, made in San Francisco by Ed Kurtzman, moved into a larger facility in time for the 2012 harvest. The 20,000-square-foot winery is double the size of the old space.
Franscioni's son Adam joined the family business in time for the 2011 harvest; he's been working at the San Francisco winery and learning the vineyard business.
That clearly pleases Franscioni, a third-generation farmer in Monterey County, who takes the long view when it comes to agriculture. He says he's working to "build a reputation to be among the best vineyards in the state," but he acknowledges that such things take time. He's happy to leave it to future generations.
Contact Laurie Daniel at email@example.com.