Turn Turn Turn: A Time For A Right Banker In Napa Valley?

Vinted on August 18, 2010 binned in California wine, on the road

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
The Byrds

Let’s play a little game of word association.  I say “Carneros” and you say… ___________.

Budding wine geeks and geekettes out there would likely answer “Pinot Noir” or “Chardonnay” or “Sparklers” or “Unimpressive-In-Recent-Vintages.”

But the answer we’re looking for today is… wait for it…

Cabernet Franc.

Yes, way.

Our story today not only involves Carneros, it also involves turns, banks, and several groan-worthy, near-pun plays-on-words.  Oh, yeah, and some very good wine as well (you didn’t think I leave that part out, did you?).

A couple of weeks back, I dragged my worn-out and slightly-hungover bones over to the fine Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena to meet up with former investment-banker turned wine brand owner (and first-class personality dynamo) Emily Richer.  Over a “light” lunch of amazingly fresh garden produce made into phenomenal but artery-clogging, buttery delights, Emily and I chatted (and chatted, and chatted – we’re both talkers) about her new wine venture, Virage Napa Valley.  Emily had come with a preview, label-less bottle of Virage’s inaugural release.

It’s from Carneros.  But it’s not a Chard, a Pinot, or a sparkler.

It’s a blend made primarily from Cabernet Franc.  And it’s pretty damn good.

Is Emily nuts for trying to establish a new brand in today’s hostile market – especially when she’s banking on a variety that still isn’t relatively well-known to most wine consumers (and even to some wine store employees)?  Her backers don’t seem to think so…

If it seems odd to be making a Right Bank Bordeaux style blend out of Napa, most of your trepidation should dissipate after a taste of Virage; it’s a solid wine with a lot of personality.  Lush, of course, as Napa Cab Franc is sure to be, but it doesn’t shy away from Cab Franc’s spicy side, either.  No one is going to confuse it with Cheval Blanc anytime soon, but it’s definitely got enough cache factor to get sommelier’s heads turning when they’re looking for a tasty-but-out-of-the-ordinary-red to pair with the chef’s new flank steak.

Virage is, of course, French for turn – think a banked turn, as in a racetrack.  Which is where our cheesy bank wordplay begins.
Emily used to work in banking, though she’s been in The Valley for several years, working for folks like Karen MacNeil and producers like Quintessa – where she met Virage’s winemaker Aaron Pott.  Aaron is an actual Right Banker, having cut his winemaking teeth in St. Emilion.  When Emily was looking for a turn in her life (virage also means a change in orientation – I told you, it’s gonna get worse before it gets better) towards wine, she turned (ouch!) to the “Alta” Carneros – an area just inside the Mayacamas foothills, near Highway 12 just before the Highway 29 turn (hey, at least I didn’t italicize or bold the last one, okay?).

According to Virage’s PR material: “this unique and hilly corner is protected from the cool winds that sweep through the Petaluma Gap across much of Carneros, yet because it sits just above the Bay its temperatures never reach the daytime highs of inland Napa Valley to the north. Neighbors include Hyde and Hudson Vineyards, longtime champions of cool-climate winegrowing.”  It’s a spot where Cab Franc (and Merlot, the other substantial component in the Virage blend) get nice, slow, and relatively long ripening periods.  According to Emily, when a winemaker friend toured the vineyard with her, he advised her to purchase it before he did.

Virage is a big, juicy wine.  Early on, it’s fighting a battle to see if the red or black fruits will dominate.  The mouthfeel is silky but the tannins are a tad tight.  I found myself wanting to get on a spaceship, approach the speed of light, and come back a minute or two later, which would have been like four years in Earth time, to see how the wine developed.  In any case, the spiciness and acidity mean that Virage should be be pretty fun to throw at a meal, though you’ll need something meaty to tame it right now.
Emily’s plan is to release Virage’s first bottling this fall, in the relatively affordable range of low-to-mid $40s.  Seems like it’s going to be well worth it.

For more on Virage, check out Emily’s blog, and features on Virage at the CabFrancoFiles, GoodGrape.com, and Corkd.


(images: .viragenapavalley.com)





  • Richard Scholtz

    When I started reading this, I thought to myself "Hmmm, if this right bank is anything like Quintessa, I bet I'll like it." Lo and behold, I find there's a link to Quintessa! I'm also a big fan of cab franc, but with the caveat that it has to be ripe. I've had some cab francs from Chinon, and they reminded me of the smell of if you fed some cows a bunch of bell peppers and then took a big whiff of the excrement. I almost couldn't drink it. However, if it's grown in an area that's warm enough to let it get ripe, it can be a truly wonderful wine on it's own. I'm looking forward to trying this sometime.

    • 1WineDude

      Richard – I hear you about Chinon. I haven't been shy about picking on them when they're Bretty :-).

    • Emily

      I just learned from Aaron that the "Dragon's Terrace," one of the best blocks at Quintessa (consistently producing, always makes the blend) is on Forward soil (yes, that's the name of a soil series…). We're into this particular growing area due to the soils which appear from my Soil Series map of Napa Valley to be unique within Carneros, and the climate (there's a post about it on my blog). Believe it or not, a temperate climate gets your cabernet franc to optimal ripeness without massive brix, or green-ness. There's sort of a tobacco leaf, dried tea leaf thing, but not green. I promise.

      • Cabfrancophile

        Anecdotally, Cab Franc ripening in a balanced manner in temperate micro climates fits my (amateur) perception. It's not hard to find Cab Franc from Santa Barbara County that is both high in alcohol (well over 15%) and very herbaceous. Vintners love to brag about the large diurnal flux (night-day temp difference), but I'm not convinced this is such a great thing. If it keeps the acid and pyrazines at high levels, then they harvest later and later, and in turn sugar goes up, too. Northern latitudes, where summer days are longer, probably are much more favorable for even sun exposure and moderate temperatures. Cab Franc is the Pinot Noir of Bdx varietals, IMHO. It's a cool(er) climate grape–it usually turns into a flabby caricature in hot zones–but needs just the right spot to get to the balance point.

    • Cabfrancophile

      Great description of Chinon! I kind of enjoy them when they are super rustic and vegetative as you describe, but that style isn't exactly what I'd call balanced. I definitely prefer them when the stink is a complexing agent and the green aromas are more tobacco than bell pepper or simply cut grass. My last Joguet was great–it smelled like dried cigarettes and roses, and tasted like pomegranites and smashed rocks. A bit idiosyncratic, but lots of character there.

  • Steve Heimoff

    Pride Mountain makes a helluva Cab Franc. So do Lang & Reed and La Jota, although they're not from Carneros. We've long known how well Merlot can do in Carneros, especially up in that northeast corner where it's a little warmer than on the Sonoma side or down by San Pablo Bay. I'm looking forward to trying the Virage.

    • 1WineDude

      THanks, Steve – you've reminded me that I need to try the La Jota CF!


    • Emily

      Steve – sample comin' your way via Mora Cronin next week!!

  • Ron Washam, HMW

    And I'd throw in the Cab Franc made by Pam Starr at Crocker and Starr. Emily seems to be doing well walking the Napa Valley walk–Aaron Pott has made some nice wines, and she's learned to drop her neighbor's famous names. Plus, she worked for Karen MacNeil, so she understands struggle. She'll do fine.

  • Ron Washam, HMW

    Come on, Joe, you need to toast me with Lodi Zin or Gruner Veltliner. I am indeed irrepressible, the code word for annoying.

    • 1WineDude

      Ron, how about using Ripple? Or something from the Night Train region of Italy? :)

      • Emily

        +1 on Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc –outstanding. Big rich juicy dark chocolate-covered cherry.

  • Peter A

    I applaud Emily for entering the saturated American wine market. She seems to have the marketing prowess to make a sort of splash. I say "sort of" because it doesn't sound like her wine has anything to distinguish it from the other "spicy" Carneros reds such as Syrah or Merlot, or even Cab. Well, sure, she has "Cabernet Franc" and " Carneros" on the label, which I'm sure will appeal to the bored Carneros Merlot, Syrah, and Cab "lovers", but Napa already has a ton of "big, juicy" reds (your words) in the market. Nonetheless, I intend to buy and try this wine.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Peter – you're quite right, Napa has a ton on big juicy red wines (it's kind of what they're really good at, I suppose). On that note, Emily talked at length about her wine and the fact that it was a lush, juicy wine and my main point during that part of the conversation essentially was that I'd like to see the Virage capture a bit more of CF spiciness. In my opinion, that's what the wine needs a bit more of to hit the "greatness" level. But it's a damn good wine anyway for $40. Cheers!

  • jontroutman

    I hope you tried the burger and/or potted pig at Farmstead! Rockin' good food… and the wine's great, too!

    • 1WineDude

      Alas, Jon, I wasn't hungry enough to go for the burger!

  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, Emily – Well, don't worry, if you were a marketing guru you'd probably be helping other people who were making wine, instead of making it yourself. :)

  • Sean

    It's about time Bordeaux varietals in Carneros are getting some respect. The fact they are planted there shouldn't be a revelation to anyone. Vintners like Robert Sinskey have been making killer Cab Franc (and Cab Sauv) from Carneros for decades. And sorry, but -1 for the descriptors like "big rich juicy dark chocolate-covered cherry". Those words belong to a class of wines called Paso Robles Zin. Looking forward to seeing what Virage has to offer. I suspect the fruit is coming from Hudson?

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Sean – well, I gotta call it like I taste it :-).

      Not sure but I"m guessing you're in CA – if so, put yourself in the the Right Coast mindset (and palate) for a moment. Compared with Cab Franc out here, Virage is a big, big wine.

      • Sean

        Yeah, in Napa currently, but from your neck of the woods originally (DE). Don't get me wrong, I am a huge Pott fan and well versed in his style (2007 Pott The Aresnal is absolutely incredible), so I would expect nothing less than a big, big wine, even in Left Coast terms. I just don't want your readers to get the impression that growing Bordeaux varietals in Carneros is something new although I'm excited to see Carneros getting some press for something other than Pinot or Chardonnay.

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, Sean – and DE peeps are always welcome here; that's where I grew up! Cheers!

  • Cabfrancophile

    Ah, I see Virage is migrating through the rest of the blog world. Thanks for the link to my blog in your copy, Joe! I now have a review posted, and it looks like I'm on the same page as you. Virage is in an interesting spot. It's a fairly large wine compared to pretty much any Chinon or Bourgueil, but restrained compared to what I think of when it comes to Napa Bdx blends. At any rate, it hits the texture and fruit density that says New World, while staying at the ripeness level where there's some tobacco-y edge and acidity in there as well. It's right along the lines of what I want from California Franc. I definitely agree, though, that there wasn't that something that made me go wow–yet. I'll be interested to see what Virage will do with some age.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, CF! I think the WOW potential is there… will need to see if they hit it in future vintages, but it's a hell of a first release. Cheers!

  • 1WineDude

    "Cab Franc is the Pinot Noir of Bdx varietals" – AWESOME description!

  • Emily

    "Big juicy chocolate-covered cherry" was my take on the Crocker and Starr Cab Franc – it's from St. Helena. I think my wine is more in the Sinskey style camp. I love their wines. You all better order up some 2007 Virage because it's now labeled and ready to ship. Then you can post your own opinion. Mine: this is a wine of depth and character, very compelling and layered, but not big. It's 14.4 alcohol and brooding. Order form is up on the thrown-together-for-now splashpage: http://www.viragenapavalley.com/PreRelease%20Web%

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