by Pam Long
This is the second in a series of three blogs about Humboldt County wine grape growers and the vineyards they farm.
Wil Franklin is a scientist, farmer and winemaker. He’s a local who attended Humboldt State University where he achieved his B.S. in Botany and a Master’s in Mycology. He tends two vineyards – Winnett and Gardner Ranch. The Winnett Vineyard is at 900 feet elevation and Gardner Ranch is directly below, a few hundred feet from the banks of the Trinity River. Both properties are located in Willow Creek, Humboldt County’s only designated American Viticulture Area (AVA). The Willow Creek AVA spans 6,000 acres across Humboldt and Trinity counties.
Franklin is the winemaker for Sun Valley Cellars and Stargazer Barn. He also collaborates with David Winnett on some of his estate wines. The varieties of wine grapes he works with include Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I asked what motivates him. “Oh my God. I am in the sweet spot. I have to make this work,” Franklin said. “Let’s take a walk and I will explain what this place is all about.” Our vineyard hike included both the Winnett and Gardner Ranch properties. Gardner Ranch was purchased by Sun Valley Floral Farms a handful of years ago.
As we walked between the rows of the naked, dormant Sangiovese, I took note of a vibrant, almost suffocating, sensory-overload: The forceful, slanted winter sun with a direct hit to the eyes; the stately, northeast tree line fiercely hugging the land like warrior mamas and papas protecting their babies; and the sound of our steps incrementally revealing each crunch and scatter of rock, sand and soil.
It relayed a hyper-visceral sense of place.
“I know this will sound biased,” Franklin said, “but, really, when you factor in the amount of recorded GDDs (growing degree days) combined with the consistent overnight cool to cold temperatures, what you have here is the perfect balance between Napa and Bordeaux with an Austrian-like, alpine twist. This is unique to California wine country. And I get to manage these vineyards and make wine from grapes that have the ultimate combination of ripeness and acidity.”
California’s Napa and France’s Bordeaux are two world-class winegrowing regions famous for producing Cabernet Sauvignon with varying levels of quality and complexity. Napa Valley produces Cabs that are “fat” and fruit-forward due to a generally hot ripening season, whereas Bordeaux Cabs tend toward higher acidity, firmer tannins and a leaner “mouth-feel” due to a cooler and shorter ripening season. Think of the difference as inland Mediterranean vs. oceanic Mediterranean. Combine the two, as Franklin points out, and you have a winemaker’s dream come true.
Being a fanatic of lean, low-alcohol, high-acid, European-style wines, my eyes must have been popping out of my head when he asked if I would like to tank and barrel sample some of the finished red and white wines he was preparing to bottle within the next few weeks.
One of the wines we sampled was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. In two words, I quickly described it as a “baby Pauillac.” The Pauillac appellation of Bordeaux is on the left bank of the Gironde River. I tasted bright, juicy, red fruits along with subtle, herbaceous lavender all supported by a formidable and elegant structure of minerality, dense tannins and lip-smacking acidity. Wow, I thought. I just tasted a world-class Bordeaux-style wine grown in Humboldt County. Not only that, but a wine that could easily age for 20 to 30 years!
Wil Franklin is making wine that genuinely tastes like the terroir; wines that display careful and non-manipulative, old-world methods. He has found his sweet spot and he is well on his way to making it work. He has to.
Wine Dummy Correction In last month’s blog I wrote that Humboldt County was a designated American Viticulture Area (AVA). This is incorrect. Humboldt is a county appellation and Willow Creek is the only AVA embedded within the county.