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NM: Cabernet Franc often runs the danger of being too leafy. Yours definitely has an herbaceous character but it's an attractive one that's beautifully balanced with very expressive fruit.
SJ: Not many people produce a varietal Cabernet Franc; it's a very challenging variety to grow. It has to be planted in the right spot because it's actually a very late-ripening variety, even though there's a misconception that it's earlier-ripening. If it's planted in a cool site, it just won't get ripe enough. And even in the right spot, it really needs to hang longer. We pick ours later than much of the Cabernet Sauvignon since it needs much more time to lose that herbal tone. It also varies with vintage conditions; in some years it's more similar to the Merlot, in others more similar to the Cabernet. It's sometimes defined by red-toned fruit — red cherry, strawberry, plum — but in other years more blue fruit. We always try to push it far beyond the green tone it can otherwise get if it's not ripened correctly. Some of the [Cabernet Franc] wines from the Loire Valley, for example, are herbaceous or even green, and that works well for the style of wine that they're trying to produce. In California, though, I think it's hard to bottle any wine that's not fully ripe and expect wide support for that style of winemaking; it would be so contrary to what most producers are doing and what most critics are looking for, and just not something generally accepted for California. And that's probably because we have a warmer climate and are fully capable of getting our wines much riper.
NM: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are what Pride is known for. What is it about these wines that sets them apart from other Bordeaux varietal wines in this region?
"Pride was one of the first wineries to really push the limits of ripeness and start picking grapes based on flavor rather than sugar levels."
SJ: Pride was one of the first wineries to really push the limits of ripeness and start picking grapes based on flavor rather than sugar levels. Bob Foley, our founding winemaker, along with some of the other great winemakers of his generation, were really the ones who initiated that revolution in practice, which has now been adopted by all of Napa Valley. So, our style is very ripe without being overripe; we pick when the grape seeds start to turn brown and become crunchy, and when the grapes themselves start to get a concentrated fruity flavor and ripe tannins. For that reason, our wines can carry a lot of tannin without being grippy because those tannins are very ripe. Also, this being a mountaintop location, the tannins are driven by the fact that we're growing these wines in vineyards with no topsoil and under extreme water stress. And that yields small berries that have more tannins (since those tannins are in the skins of the berries and there's not as much juice to dilute that down). For those reasons, our wines are very long-lived and made to be aged. But aside from that, it's really the diversity of the property that makes these wines different. We don't try to pigeonhole our wines; we let each vintage to express it's own unique character, and they are very different. Being located on a small spot like we are, there's no hedging of our bets — we don't get fruit from other areas of the valley, so whatever the conditions are here at this vineyard location, it affects every single grape that we pick. And we can have big differences in vintage. But even with those variations there's still a core of Pride fruit that runs through these wines — flavors of blue fruit, coffee and cocoa, and a mouthfeel that's very rich and unctuous.
NM: Has making these Bordeaux varietal wines for Pride done anything to alter your understanding or prior assumptions about Merlot or Cabernet?
SJ: As far as winemaking, I wouldn't say we're doing anything drastically unique; what we do in the winery is fairly simple. It's the picking of the grapes that's really the most important decision that we make and we let those grapes drive all of our decisions in the vineyards. With the sheer diversity of the soils we have here, the different aspects and exposures, and the winds that come in on some areas of the property, we really do a lot to manage each block — section-by-section and even vine-by-vine, in some cases. In fact, we've done a lot of experiments with things like early-season leaf-pulling to get more sunshine on the grapes even before bloom and before the berries are even developing. There's also been some evidence to suggest that having looser clusters, which increases air flow during ripening, gives the grapes greater concentration of flavor and color. And so, we play around with things like to get each block really dialed in. But at the same time, it's not like I have in my head a rule book of steps that I take or guidelines that I follow in order to make the wines; it's really more of an overarching philosophy. Ultimately, I've adapted things I've learned from other environments to fit this one because it's totally unique.