February 26, 2019 – In a decidedly clean-looking industrial area off Blackie Road in Castroville, the sight of that magnificent wrought iron gate with the gleaming gold lion emblazoned upon it, stops you in your tracks. This isn’t just another boxy warehouse building: this is an edifice with purpose as well as class. Walk up to the imposing wooden front door, and you feel like you have arrived at a nobleman’s castle. You just hope he’s the welcoming type. I thoroughly expected to be greeted by an 8-foot tall knight clad in armor and fronting a spear. In fact, when ROAR winemaker Scott Shapley opened the massive door, I tucked carefully behind it, just in case. I needn’t have worried, but admittedly, the entire structure is incredibly imposing. Only the grape-themed fresco on the floor in front of the door provides a clue that this is a winery.
The castle theme continues throughout the entryway, with a beautiful rendition of the ROAR logo label painted on the rich cognac colored concrete. It feels awkward to walk on it. Shapley says he’s still not used to stepping on what appears to be a work of art. In fact, the entire place is a work of art, mostly thanks to Rosella Franscioni, the woman for whom the vineyard on River Road is named. The woman who is wife to Gary and mother to Adam and Nick, has fascinating taste in décor, and every room is tastefully rendered to provide a comfortable work environment, and to ensure a pleasant visit, for those lucky enough to pass through the front entrance. (If this isn’t enough to entice you to become a ROAR member—tasting is available by appointment only to members—consider the amazing wines you’re missing.)
Décor, however, isn’t much of a concern when it comes to the core of the winery itself, which was completed, just barely, in time for the very nicely spaced out harvest of 2018. Here, it’s all about functionality, with dozens of identical steel fermentation tanks, armed with custom-made punchdown tools that increase the efficiency of the process. Shapley says they require a different upper body motion than the old handtools they were used to. “It actually gives you quite a workout!” he says. “I thought I was actually going to have six-pack abs for the first time in my life!”
For years, ROAR wines were made in San Francisco, by winemaker, Ed Kurtzman. The winemaking reins were transitioned to Scott Shapley in 2013, and remained in the city until it was decided that a winemaking facility closer to the Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards would be more efficacious. Now, instead of trucking grapes up through the traffic and potential heat to San Francisco, they have an easy ride to Castroville. Shapley, who grew up in the Monterey area, is happy to be home, even though his wife continues to work in San Francisco. And Nick Franscioni, who has transitioned from working in the vineyards—Rosella’s, Soberanes, Sierra Mar and Garys’ —into working side by side with Scott in the winery, is happy not to have to make the drive up north on a regular basis. (Nick is now involved with the business and customer engagement side of the winery operations, while brother, Adam, has transitioned to working with his father, Gary, in the vineyards.)
Having a brand new place to make wine, with all the temperature controls you could want, plus shiny new tanks, brand new drains, vast storage space, two different cold rooms for properly processing whites and reds, plus a gorgeous artfully decorated tasting room with a view of the entire winery, is every winemaker’s dream.
We barrel-tasted two of the 2018 Chardonnay lots, one from Soberanes, with its tropical and citrus nose, and flavors of mandarin orange, and the other from Sierra Mar, with its appealing notes of pear, hibiscus and almond blossom. I half expected it to taste like marzipan from the nose, but the energetic palate showed lemon curd, lime and pear. These vineyards have such clear personalities.
Having all this new space, 12,500 square feet of it, to work with, gave Nick and Scott additional leeway to experiment with different picks and more barrels. We tried their 2018 Rosella’s “stealth” wine, made from a mix of Pinot clones picked on October 15, after the initial lots had been harvested: Garys’ and Sierra Mar are generally the first lots of Pinot to come in. They’d not done anything like this before, but the luxury of a long, protracted ripening season combined with the convenience of a nearby winery, enabled the flavors to ripen further, yielding a wine that exhibits loads of pomegranate, cherry and raspberry tea.
Another experiment was two different picks of Pinot from Garys’ Vineyard, five days apart, using the same yeast and the same new barrel type. The first pick, September 22, showed curry, spice and mint, with an edge of sarsaparilla, while the second pick five days later shows significantly greater texture, with more savory notes like tomato and basil, and an overall bigger sensation in the mouth.
Nick and Scott are particularly excited about their 2018 Garys’ “gonzo” style of Syrah, which is 100% whole cluster: you can’t get more gnarly than that when it comes to a wine. It’s incredibly effusive and uncontained, like being in a room with both Garys. The wine smells of matchsticks, coriander, licorice and baking spice, with enormous flavors of steeped tea, cinnamon, nutmeg and blackberry jam. Massive and gregarious, they’ve dubbed it “The Full Monty.”
Another experiment is the 2018 GSV, a co-ferment of Grenache (they planted some at Sierra Mar a few years ago – very exciting!), Syrah and Viognier, which is just delightfully ready to drink even now, with its brilliant aromatics of honeysuckle and hibiscus, and effusive, nervy flavors of strawberry candy and fresh cranberries. It’s like drinking pop rocks.
While you’re waiting for the 2018s to come along, though, you can turn your attention to the 2017s. In fact, we started our visit by tasting the lip smacking 2017 Rosella’s Chardonnay, with its big toasty aromas, oozing hazelnut and ripe peach, with whiff of the tropics. Yet, on the medium weight palate, the citrus dominates, with lush, appealing notes of lemon bars and shortbread.
If you’re a collector of handsome wooden wine boxes, or want to give someone a truly memorable and awesome gift, they are about to package 4-bottle sets of the 2017 Pinot Noirs from all four of the ROAR estate vineyards. What a way to taste your way through the geography of the beautiful Santa Lucia Highlands bench, from Rosella’s to Garys, with stops at Soberanes and Sierra Mar in between. You know you want one for your cellar.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.