CABERNET FRANC ON THE RISE IN NAPA: HERE’S WHY!

When you are looking for the best red grapes in the Napa Valley, there is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the best that you can go for. However, you also should place some strong consideration on one of Cabernet Sauvignon’s sister wines, that of Cabernet Franc. This wine continues to gain some interesting attention from winemakers within this region. In the last couple of years, this unique grape continues to make some incredible headway, with more and more placement occurring in bottlings, blends, and other single varieties. As the demand for Cabernet Franc continues to rise, the grape prices keep following suit as well.

While it might be true that Cabernet Franc still has a small presence in the valley, there are a lot of winemakers that see the immense potential of this particular grape. In a nutshell, they are impressed. “We have such a great opportunity here,” Chris Carpenter, a winemaker with La Jota Vineyard Company said. “We can make a completely unique Cab Franc in the Napa Valley. We have the right soils, the right climate, and we have several different people trying to pick up on it.”

Consumers like Cabernet Franc as well. It will hit on multiple levels, such as appealing to those who like a classic Bordeaux style and also those who are a part of the younger generation and like the herbal style usually found in the Loire. Although it has taken some time, the drinkers of these Cabernet Francs are slowly coming around to the idea that these wines are not only collectible, but they have an immense amount of longevity as well. Of course, Cabernet Sauvignot has been seen collectible for many years, but there is no question that Cabernet Franc is absolutely an upstart.

So yes, there is no question that Cabernet Franc is becoming more and more trendy every day, but if you want to get in on this fascination early, here are some things you need to know:

There is now an increase in plantings and price.

Cabernet Sauvignon has a long history in the region, but Cabernet Franc continues to be on the upstart. The first-ever Cabernet Franc was planted in this region in 1949 in the Detert Vineyard, which was an area that was originally a portion of the To Kalon Vineyard. However, this original 18-acre site would quickly grow to become predominantly known as a Cabernet Franc planting station. Indeed, they say that approximately 17 acres were devoted to this unique grape, and this was due to the instrumental influence of Robert Mondavi, who was one of the first individuals who placed a large investment in the fruit.

There was a replant of the west portion of that vineyard in 2015, and it gave rise to a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon plantings going in. However, there is still a broad spectrum of vintners who see great interest in the Cabernet Franc. Tom Garret is one example, and needless to say he is very proud of his Oakville Cabernet Franc product, which is currently selling for $100. “We have a unique perspective,” he said. “We both make our wine and sell the grapes, so we continue a slow but steady interest in the Cabernet Franc. There continues to be some Cabernet Franc enthusiasts out there that are incredibly passionate. It really has a lot of fans.”

Cabernet Franc plantings might be small in the region, but they continue to be growing. They currently hold a market share of 1,211 acres of Cabernet Franc. Even though that amount is definitely dwarfed by the acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is currently standing at over 24,000 strong. Moreover, Cabernet Franc continues to grow, with plantings that increased by 13.5 percent from 2006 to 2016. When you add in the flood of new projects, it seems that the sky is the limit for the possible production of Cabernet Franc.

Mr. Carpenter works for La Jota Vineyard Company, and he said that he started with a block of Cabernet Franc planted on rootstock called St. George. “We still farm on that particular ground,” he said. “It is possibly one of the oldest blocks of Cabernet Franc in the Napa Valley. We also have additional Cab Franc up there now simply because the popularity of this brand continues to grow tremendously.” Meeting customer demand has been tough for La Jota, but they had an initial production of 200 cases, but that only rose to 900 cases and continues to grow.

Carpenter has an intense conviction that Cabernet Franc should continue to grow within the Napa Valley, and he has the conviction to put his money where his mouth is. His latest project is Caladan, which he calls a “Right Bank expression” of Cabernet Franc in the Napa Valley. He continues to source his fruit from at least four unique and picturesque mountain sites, including Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain. Because of his persistence, he is able to create a complex wine that is currently selling at $150 per bottle.

Of course, there are other vineyards that have long known about the successes of this grape wine blend. One example of this would be Bryant Estate, which has always made some excellent use of Cabernet Franc, such as placing it in their $500 Bettina blend. However, they also started experimenting with the blend somewhat, most notably placing it in their Pritchard Hill site. This winery has bottled their first single-varietal Cabernet Franc in 2016; they are planning on releasing it later on this year.

There are some notable indicators of the growing popularity of Cabernet Franc in these grape prices. Indeed, all you have to do is look at the California Department of Food and Agraculture’s 2019 Grape Crush Report. Once you find Cabernet Franc within the list, you will be surprised to notice that it commands an average of just over $9,400 per ton. When you compare this to Cabernet Sauvignon’s offering of over $7,800 per ton, you definitely realize you have something special. Moreover, this is absolutely not some type of one-off luck for Cabernet Franc; they have commanded higher prices since at least 2016. Of course, much of that is driven by supply and demand, but even the fact that this demand is present in the first place is an indication of just how popular this grape is becoming.

The case for business regarding Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc can be described as a bit of a fickle grape, and one where it also “has a mean streak, and a green streak as well,” according to Larkmead Vineyards winemaker Dan Petroski. Here is the challenge you are looking at: should you push Cabernet Franc to a full ripe condition and then cause it to lose its nuanced aroma and flavor, or should you leave this grape underripe and risk it becoming unpleasant? It’s definitely a conundrum either way.

“There’s no question that there’s a weird love-hate relationship with Cabernet Franc in the Napa Valley,” Petroski said. “I mean, a lot of people would go ahead and say that they love it, but we tend to be afraid to champion it just because we’re worried that the flavor profile won’t match the typical Napa Valley profile.” However, Petroski does add more. “It looks like people are opening up to the realization that green is good, and that the Cabernet Franc consists of a complex and nuanced flavor in their wines.”

 

Indeed, there is at least one Cabernet Franc specialist in the region who pretty much swears by this version. One of the main reasons why Lang and Reed is crazy about the Cabernet Franc is simply because they have had tremendously good sales, even during the height of the pandemic. Lang and Reed owner John Skupny loves to market Cabernet Franc, simply because it will mean more direct-to-consumer sales on various consumer channels. Of course, he was initially skittish regarding selling these brands, just because he originally sold most of his wines right there on the premises. However, he now sells the vast majority of his wines on the sales channels, and this includes the $85 “Two-Fourteen’ Cabernet Franc. He loves selling Cabernet Franc because it allows him to recoup up to ninety percent of his expected sales.

Is this success the result of changing personal tastes? It’s hard to tell. It could simply mean that there is simply more a desire to try something a little bit different than the normal Cabernet Sauvignon. Simply put, it’s anybody’s guess. Cabernet Franc is not going to be forced to relinquish their planting crown any time soon. However, even though Cabernet Franc plantings are still relatively small, there is still an incredible enthusiasm for the grape and it gives the wine enthusiast a nice glimpse into just how much varietal diversity there is in this region.