Keynote Address to the 3rd Annual Cabernet Franc Celebration
Copperopolis, CA April 7, 2022
Finding Home: Why the Livermore Valley Should Become
Cabernet Franc’s New Spiritual Center
Hello, I’m Steven Kent Mirassou, Proprietor & Winemaker of the Lineage Wine Collection, and I call the Livermore Valley home.
I want to thank Michael Kelly and everyone else who made this event possible. I also want to thank all of you for helping us celebrate this greatest of grapes.
I’m going to talk to you for a few minutes about my favorite grape, Cabernet Franc, and about why I believe the Livermore Valley can be its ultimate American homeland. The concept of “Home” and Wine reverberates in a million different ways, practically every single one of them is emotional in nature. The intersection of great wine and the emotional response to it is where true Beauty and kinship and lifeblood reside.
It’s thought that Cabernet Franc originated in southwest France or just over the Pyrenees in Spain. It is known that Cardinal Richelieu, one of the architects of modern France, was enamored of the variety and brought it with him to the abbey of Bourgeuil in the mid-Loire Valley in the 1630s.
Breton, the abbot there, became synonymous with the grape, and the variety is still called after him on occasion. One of Cab Franc’s true homes remains the Loire Valley where 100% versions abound.
A century later, Bordeaux – especially the Right Bank – becomes another spiritual home to Cab Franc. Here, the grape plays a meaningful, but supportive role in the greatest blends in the world.
From France, the grape spreads all over Europe – Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, to name a few places.
It spread on waves of immigration to the New World too – South Africa, Chile, Argentina, to New York, Virginia, Michigan, Colorado, and to California.
There are records of Cab Franc finding home in California more than a century ago, but it is documented in the annual California Grape Crush report for the first time in 1977. Cab Franc was planted in the Livermore Valley more than 100 years ago but was relegated, as it was in most California vineyards, to the status of a blending grape – providing a little verve to bigger Cabernet Sauvignon blends. It wasn’t allowed to stand on its own – majestic and beautiful and sexy – until now.
The Livermore Valley is one of the oldest and best growing areas in California. It is also one of the rare east-west oriented valleys in the state, and its western end is only about 25 miles from San Francisco Bay. Dry – but important – viticultural characteristics denote the excellence of our AVA: huge diurnal temperature ranges (the difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows), a plethora of different soil types and micro-climates, 150 years of winegrowing experience passed down from one generation of winemakers to another.
Unlike the Napa Valley, our Valley floor is about 600 feet above sea level; the encircling hills funnel San Francisco Bay air through our vineyards practically every afternoon. The prevalence of wind – and its increasingly important effects due to climate change – obtain to the glorious future of Cabernet Franc in the Livermore Valley.
Our experience with climate change is different than Paso Robles’ and Napa’s. Increasing airflow west to east through the Livermore Valley is producing a need for longer growing seasons. Vines don’t like a lot of wind, so they shut down earlier in the day than in Napa and Paso. We still require an aggregate number of ripening hours to get fruit physiologically ripe, though, so the need for more growing days – extending our growing season into mid-November – makes the earlier ripener – Cab Franc – a long-term better choice for a noble variety than Cabernet Sauvignon.
Much more important than the viticultural reasons for adopting Cab Franc as the grape of world-class quality choice in Livermore is the beautiful and rare confluence of nature’s need married to the emotional needs of a growing community of winemakers here. Speaking just for myself and my winemaking team, though I know that my feelings are felt to one degree or another by many others in Livermore, including those in this room: great winemaking requires a deft touch, good fruit, good winery sanitation, etc. But what it really requires is a deeply felt connection between what one conceives as ultimate Beauty in wine and the grape that can turn that burning emotional need into vinous deed. In my mind and in my heart and in my loins, no grape does that better than Cabernet Franc.
Important regional Progress is always initiated by just a few true believers, and it is measured only haltingly. This small group believes and proselytizes, often toils away in the dark and without fanfare until – if they are persistent enough and lucky – the larger world comes to discover and embrace their heartfelt message.
The Cabernet Franc producers of the Livermore Valley are certainly just beginning the first phase of this process. We know why we love the grape: its intensity of flavor and aroma; its ability to pair with food from all over the world; its natural affinity to the growing conditions of the Livermore Valley. We know too its desire to be made on a structural continuum that emphasizes acidity, that eschews obvious unbalanced “bigness” for something much rarer: a vinous representation of perfect balance and Beauty.
As I’ve written in my first book, there is no transactional relationship between Cabernet Franc and the lover of it, as there is with Cabernet Sauvignon. “Great” Cabernet Sauvignon is more often about the presentation of the bottle as if it were a trophy – my $200 gets me bragging rights – than it is about finely crafted wine.
With Cabernet Franc, however, the relationship between the drinker of great Cab Franc and the wine itself is that of sensual dance, a love affair…great sex. Great Cab Franc doesn’t make demands like other wines do, but it does require a sympathetic palate and a romantic spirit. In the world of wine, grapes like Pinot Noir are about the intellect. Cabernet Franc is ultimately about orgasm.
So, who cares about Cab Franc and its next great spiritual home – the Livermore Valley? I certainly do. My assistant winemakers, Beth Refsnider and Aidan Mirassou, certainly do. We are not just making wine to quench a thirst or to go with the next meal. We are on a mission to create emotional connections between our wines and those who choose to drink them.
We are dedicated, much like the winemaker who first grew Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley more than 400 years ago, to work to make a wine that celebrates the finest that we are able to achieve, that bridges the gap between the mind and the body, and that inspires and inflames the wine lover’s heart.
We are fortunate enough to be working at the right time in the right place with the right grape. Those who know or will come to know the Livermore Valley already get its rare perfection of site. We know that this grape is as perfectly suited to our vineyards as anywhere in the world, and the winemakers who care about the mission the way we do will help us to create not only ecstatic examples of great wine but also a new spiritual center for Cabernet Franc in the New World.
Thank you very much.