The 4th annual Big Sur Food & Wine Festival was big on Pinot, and long on local, two factors to be applauded. The seminar Sierra Mar Vineyard: Gary Franscioni and Friends held Saturday morning in a tent beneath the towering redwoods at the Henry Miller Library, was long on both, with a soupçon of Chardonnay for interest. After all, it’s hard to drink wine at 10 in the morning without a sip of white to chase the coffee away. In keeping with apparent (Henry) Miller time, the seminar convened over 45 minutes late. But who cared? A bountiful measure of wine clearly beckoned.
Gary Franscioni explained the delay with his characteristic smile and shrug: “If you haven’t been to Hawaii, welcome to Big Sur!” He then introduced the panel, which included ROAR and August West winemaker, Ed Kurtzman; Siduri winemaker, Adam Lee; Pelerin winemaker, Chris Weideman and Bernardus winemaker, Dean DeKorth. These 5 labels represent half of those lucky winemakers who pulled the right strings to get Sierra Mar grapes.
The panel was winegrower Gary Franscioni’s baby and he made no bones about his passion for this sweet parcel of land in the Santa Lucia Highlands that came to him from his mother’s side of the family. Sierra Mar vineyard was born out of demand, but became his quixotic quest for the perfect site to grow Pinot Noir.
“In 2004, there were 64 wineries on a waiting list to get grapes from Garys’ and Rosella’s. We had 1,000 acres just sitting there. I started witching for water in every way I could,” said Franscioni. Eventually, he gave up, bit the bullet, and put in the pumps needed to push water four miles up from the Salinas River to elevations of 1,000 feet and above. It was a task as gargantuan as Gary is dauntless.
Located south of Rosella’s and north of Pisoni, Sierra Mar is decidedly in the southern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, where fog has less influence and water is scarcer than good sense. Gary brazenly predicted that in 20 years, the Santa Lucia Highlands would officially be broken into North and South. He might be right.
One thing is certain, this site is special and gets Pinot fully ripe while maintaining a zipline of acidity that unchecked, glissades across your palate. The Chardonnays from the 10 acres of 5 different clones planted here are also marvelous, teasing with sagebrush and scrub oak aromas, and pleasing with phenomenal minerality and mouthfilling textures.
The 2010 ROAR Chardonnay exhibits aromatics of sage, green olive and butterscotch, while delivering rich flavors of baked caramel apples and butterscotch. The acidity is delightful. This one is for oak lovers. Gary and his wife, Rosella, are big fans of toasty oak.
The 2010 Pellerin Chard, made from clones 95 and 96, serves up sweet aromas of honeysuckle, pear blossom and white fig. Its lovely texture, from lees stirring in puncheons, serves as the perfect backdrop for sumptuous flavors of ripe pear, peaches, apricots and key lime pie. Picked at 23.5 Brix, Weideman explained that this site achieves great expression at lower brix. Clone 95 delivers lime, while 96 is rich, often tropical.
Of the three Chardonnays, the 2010 Bernardus was the leanest, really accentuating the sagebrush aromas, and laying on the lime from the Clone 95. Vibrant acidity carries the racy flavors of lime zest, sage, thyme and just shy of ripe nectarine.
Someone suggested that the Bernardus and Pelerin Chardonnays seemed built to age. Gary commented he wasn’t about making wines to lay down, to which Adam Lee of Siduri quipped, “Gee, when you get to Gary’s age, I guess you’re not so interested in subtlety and longevity!”
Then, the Pinot onslaught began. First up was 2010 Siduri, of clone 23, 828, Pommard and 943, a clone unique to Sierra Mar. Adam Lee says it’s earlier ripening than the others. He picks all four separately, noting that the vineyard is really like fingers, created by alluvial fans, giving the overall impression of a bunch of islands. He used some whole cluster pressing and 75% new French oak, giving the wine a chewy, tanginess, with an overall impression of a chocolate cake with raspberry filling and coffee icing.
DeKorth’s 2010 Bernardus steered in the direction of cranberry, mulberry, red plums and sassafrass tea. This one has an old world touch.
Ed Kurtzman’s 2010 August West was made entirely from clone 23, or Vadensville, also called Mariafeld, known for its divine alpine strawberry aromas and flavors. This Pinot was by far my favorite, filled with tangy strawberry, raspberry and cherry fruit, laced with chocolate and butterscotch, like the perfect ice cream sundae. It’s racy, silky, gorgeously radiant and lively, like a ballerina with an attitude.
Chris Weideman chose clone 828, often called the Viagra clone, because it grows straight up, and clone 777 for his 2010 Pelerin Pinot. This wine smells as sweet as cherry pie and pleases with raspberry-milk chocolate fudge, coffee, chestnut puree and a hint of meatiness: seriously complex and well made.
He praised Gary for being a phenomenal grower who allows winemakers to be hands on, even when it could be a distraction. Chris is constantly in the vineyard checking on his designated rows. Gary explained, “Chris isn’t really a pain in the ass, he’s just paying attention to detail.” Chris remarked that he’s never seen fruit as immaculate as the stuff he gets from Sierra Mar.
The 2010 ROAR Pinot seemed a bit closed on fruit, and the overwhelming oak imparted cherry wood and tobacco aromas. Gary explained his choice of clones is “all about the spices,” noting, “I can’t cook worth s****.” Which is why he leaves the cooking to Rosella and the winemaking to Ed.
We finished with the 2010 ROAR Viognier, a pet project of Gary’s because it’s something Rosella adores. “I’m in love with Viognier,” Franscioni said, quickly adding, “I like women, too.” As if there were any doubt.
He tried unsuccessfully to grow Viognier at his home vineyard, giving up and putting in Chardonnay instead. Here at Sierra Mar, it seems to have found a loving home. Gary’s son, Adam, nurtured the grapes to full ripeness by noting that the sun side of the bunches turned gold, while the backside remained green. Each bunch was thus laboriously turned to face the sun.
This wine, brilliantly made by Ed Kurtzman with guidance from the Queen of Viognier herself, Megan Clendenen of Cold Heaven, was barrel fermented in neutral with full malolactic, yielding a creamy pool of comice pear and honey butter, heady with floral perfume and as regal as a summer day.
Yes, this vineyard has all the hallmarks of a Grand Cru. Grab every Sierra Mar vineyard designate you can. This one is bound for glory, along with Gary Franscioni, and a little help from his friends.
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.