Making His Own Luck
Like anybody else, who lives long enough, Francis Mahoney has had his ups and downs. But from all outward appearances, they’ve been mostly “ups.” He would agree with that and expresses gratitude. “I’ve been married 45 years, and my wife and I are still good buddies. I’m lucky. I don’t think I’ve made as much money as some people have in this business, but it’s been good for me.”
In 1972, Francis Mahoney founded Carneros Creek in partnership with Balfour Gibson, his employer at Connoisseur Wine Imports in San Francisco, where he developed his life-long passion for Pinot Noir. Francis was one of Pinot Noir’s most important pioneers in California and the first to plant it in the cool-climate Carneros appellation, which straddles Napa and Sonoma. At that time, wine was inseparable from food. So with that background, the wines he has made throughout his career have been on the European model, clean, bright, and higher in acid, made to refresh the next bite on the plate. Since then, a newer wine category has developed for both reds and whites, the sipping wine, smoother and higher in alcohol, that pleases with or without food. But except for a brief foray into that style, Frances Mahoney has remained faithful to making “food” wines.
In 2004, Francis Mahoney decided to devote himself to his 200 acres in Carneros and take on a partner, who would make and sell the wines. The partner was the legendary investment banker William Hambrecht, who already owned Belvedere Winery and Bradford Mountain. Over extended in many directions, Hambrecht’s empire collapsed, and he was unable to maintain his agreement with Francis Mahoney, who subsequently bought out Hambrecht and began making wine again. With the Carneros Creek brand in shambles, Francis launched a new Mahoney Vineyards label and relaunched the Fleur brand, which he had established in 1991. Ultimately, the independent agonies of both Francis Mahoney and Bill Hambrecht subsided, and both recovered handsomely.
Today, Francis Mahoney farms his 200-acres of vineyards in Carneros, the original Mahoney Ranch, where Francis lives, on the Napa side of Carneros and the Las Brisas vineyard on the Sonoma side. He sells most of his grapes to other wineries, including Flowers, Whitehall Lane, Coppola, and Bouchaine, reserving enough for his 4000-case Mahoney Vineyards label. He makes an additional 18 thousand cases for the Fleur label, purchasing most of the fruit. I repeat our conversation with minor editing for length and clarity.
Stylistically, the wines you make now have more in common with what you made 20 years ago than what you were making in 2004.
In 2004, I wasn’t making the wines. I had taken on a partner, Bill Hambrecht. I was running the vineyards, and he was responsible for making and selling the wine. He hired some younger people, M.B.A. types, and they wanted to lead in a different direction. Their wine style in 2004 showed an appreciation for a lot of oak and a lot of alcohol. As the grower, I was asked to ramp up the sugars in the grapes to 25/26 brix (the measure of sugar in the fruit). I was saying, ‘Hey guys, where in the world do they make wines like this except Portugal? And they call it Port.’ They were my juniors by 20 plus years and said, ‘C’mon, cool it guy. This is where the style is now.’ But actually, I think if you really like wine in its place with food, you really can’t remain long on that big-wine agenda. Of course, they’re impressive. And of course, they’re big. And of course, you win the beauty contest when you line up 15 glasses in a row and taste them. But to go with food, you need wines with acidity that allow you to move around the plate. And that’s what it’s all about. That style never goes away. The French, the Italians, and the Germans, anybody, and even in Portugal, they make wines that go with their foods. But we’re getting back to that lighter style. I think there is a movement out there with a number of wine writers, Dan Berger for instance, who has been touting for years that you should be able to identify the varietal and the place where the grapes are grown, which you can’t do when you make wines with very ripe fruit.
When you pick at lower brix, the wine has more character.
Absolutely. The analogy would be if you like a white or a yellow peach, and you know that there’s a difference, or you like a red delicious apple or a golden delicious, you don’t wait until they get soft to eat them because by then the sugars have masked the brightness of the fruit, and they all begin taste the same. That’s what happens with grapes. At high sugars, they begin to take on a jammyness. The flavors won’t be clean. At lower brix, especially with Pinot Noir, you can start to see the cherry and recognize wine made in Carneros rather than another appellation. At 25 to 26 brix, you’re not sure if it’s Carneros or the hot Central Valley. Not to beat on anyone here, but that happens everywhere where the sugars get so high that you can no longer identify a varietal or a region because you have an engineered product. I think we’re returning to less winemaker over-kill to a little bit of letting the vineyard show in the wine.
When the grapes are very ripe, the winemaker has to do a lot of manipulating.
He does because the fruit is out of balance. You start, ‘I’ve got to get rid of this. I’ve got to get rid of that. Or I’ve got too much of this and wouldn’t it be nice to marry this jammy compote flavor with some barrels.’ And yet some people appreciate that style. I’m not talking against it but trying to emphasize that we have kind of come full circle. I’ve seen how leaner wines will age. I participated in a tasting three years ago. I was asked to do something for Pinot Noir Week. They asked us to bring a wine from a particular vintage, 1976. I thought, oh this is going to be tough. Finally I just grabbed three bottles, telling myself that nobody was expecting great things. We opened them up, and this particular vintage, in 76 and 77, we had droughts. I remember picking at 23.3 or 23.6 brix, and I had 0.8 acidity, and pH was 3.5. The wines were tight, very tight then. But they had wonderful fruit-identifiable traits. And there we were, a group of people who came to the tasting, some newcomers, but there were a lot of people in the room, who had been around for those vintages, and the wine just showed beautifully. It made me feel good. There were no bows on my part. It was really more that my philosophy was being reconfirmed. If you make wine that’s good with food, you’re going to be rewarded in the here and now but also you’ll have that intrigue of being able to enjoy the wine later. Here we were with 34-year old wines. That’s a long time. This is like my 43rd vintage. I can’t believe it. I’ve got to tell you that I still enjoy this.
When you focus on a wine, you automatically focus on food, and that is probably not what many consumers are doing now.
Yes, and it’s a hard concept as we try to educate people who might be up and coming foodies. A Frenchman taught me that as the fat increases, you have to increase the amount of acidity in the wine in order to bring you back to the plate. So often the wines that are made to be cocktail wines, wines by the glass so to speak, they’re not designed for a certain type of cuisine. They’re designed to be pleasurable. We’re talking differently here. When I was a young kid in this business, 24 years old and newly married, and working at a wine shop in San Francisco, every time I went through the store to sell somebody wine, I would literally start thinking of the food that they were going to have with it. I’d pick out the wine that would go best with it. That was how ingrained it was then. Of course I’m talking about French Bordeaux because they were plentiful, and they had distinct styles. I remember looking like a wine snob to my wife when I’d say, ‘I’m going to go to the basement and get a Chateau Palmer. I just got in some 1967 bla, bla’ that cost a rip-roaring $4.65. That’s where our heads were. We were kids growing up in the city, and we’d go over to a restaurant in Berkeley, and they had wine by the glass, a 1959 Lynch-Bages, and it would be $4 a glass. I entertain quite a bit and am always bringing bottles of wine to restaurants. It’s not that I’m a cheap person, but the wines are so over priced that I wonder who buys them. It’s tough for somebody, who grew up drinking Georges de Latour for $5 a bottle. And great Italian wines that were $2.95 a bottle. And the wines on a restaurant wine list were about the same as an entrée. Those days have long gone. The wine business is always evolving. If you’re around this business for five years, then you can’t relate to the previous five years. It just keeps moving.
Do you ever think of retiring?
My original idea of retiring was to have my kids take over, but they have their own professions. The youngest teaches English at Montana State Univ. Another lives in Fort Collins and is a chief engineer for computer chip design. And I have a daughter in San Francisco, who is a nurse practitioner. They all love to come home and love to be here, but they’re also quick to go back to what they enjoy. I have no regrets. If they weren’t happy, I’d be offering them something, but they’re getting along in this journey we call life in a good way. After all the bribery I could come up with, they all wanted to stay where they were. So I decided to find a partner, and that was Bill Hambrecht. I was going to continue to be the grower in that operation. I figured I’d get three or four months off a year, from October through Feb when the vines are dormant, and that would be a pretty good life. It didn’t work out that way, unfortunately. Bill made a major mistake. He lost about $300 million in cash, investing in Vanguard Airlines. We bought back the winery, actually came in and picked up the pieces and bought back the majority of it, and I took Bill out. Bill had Belvedere Winery and Brandford Mountain. He sold those off because he had to get rid of a lot of things that the banks were leaning on him to liquidate. Bill was so well liked in the industry because of his fairness and the way he dealt with people that when Google went public, they went to Bill to set up the public offering. And they couldn’t have made a better choice at that time. He had gone broke. He had no money. He had no prospects. He had laid off over 200 people from W.R. Hambrecht, and there he was sitting in what I called a cave down there on Bryant Street in San Francisco with nobody there. The people from Google went to him because he was a believer in the Dutch auction, and he thought that was the way to go public instead of going to Wall Street and everybody lining their pockets and then going out and tooting the horn at the public, who would get suckered in, and after putting their life savings on the line, the guys on Wall Street would take their profits and leave. Bill thought that was wrong. The people on Wall Street hated him because he exposed them for what they were. Bill Hambrecht, despite all the bad press that came out during that time, I think he’s a very good man. I had to dig my way out of that problem, but I have no ill feelings toward Bill. He got himself involved in way too many things. That happens to people. I’m embellishing it a little but that’s the gist of it. I was a nothing in the scheme of money that he had, but I was like a knight on a white horse coming to the rescue when I offered to buy him out. It ended up very nice at the end for both of us.
California Wines of the Month
Fleur – 2010 Pinot Noir, Central Coast
Winemaker Ken Foster’s Notes
This delicious Pinot Noir from California’s scenic Central Coast displays a brilliant ruby color that sets the state for aromas of fresh picked strawberries, raspberry, and earthly notes. With a well-balanced mouthful of ripe berries and a harmonious combination of acidity and structure, this Pinot has a bit more weight in the mouth than the typical Central Coast Pinot (Alcohol 13.78%, Brix 25.4 degrees, Total acidity 0.63 g/L, pH 3.66).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Aged for nine months in neutral French oak barrels, in other words older barrels that don’t impart wood flavors, this attractively fresh Pinot Noir will pair with literally every food. This wine proves the reputation that Pinot has for being one of the most versatile wines in the world in terms of its ability to compliment a huge variety of dishes from delicate Asian dishes to roasted meats.
Fleur – 2011 Chardonnay, North Coast
Winemaker Ken Foster’s Notes
The Fleur Chardonnay comes from several vineyards in the hills along California’s North Coast. These cool vineyards create wines that combine opulent fruit with wonderful richness. The brilliant color sets the stage for aromas of apricots, honeysuckle, and pear. Aging this Chardonnay for nine months in neutral French oak barrels on the lees gives the wine a creamy, soft texture without a heavy oak presence (Alcohol 13.72%, Brix 24.9 degrees, Total acidity 6.33 g/L, pH 3.58).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This might be a Chardonnay for people, who dislike Chardonnay. The wine is terrifically vibrant, fresh, and flavorful without the oak flavors and residual sugar that have turned away a vocal group, the Anything-but-Chardonnay crowd, tired of the excesses that big brand Chardonnay has cultivated. The Fleur 2011 will show you why the wine is a classic when made properly.
Mahoney Vineyards – 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir, Las Brisas Vineyard
Winemaker Ken Foster’s Notes
Generally two styles of Pinot Noir come from the Carneros zone, fresh and fruit-forward or dense and structured. The cool breezes from the San Pablo Bay and the foggy summer mornings ensure that Las Brisas Vineyard Pinots will mature at a leisurely pace. The Las Brisas Vineyard contains 15 clonal selections of Pinot Noir dispersed throughout the vineyard according to the soil types, which range from the alluvial Haire soil to more dark and densely packed Diablo soil. This Las Brisas Pinot Noir exhibits the softer, more fruit forward style of Carneros-grown Pinot Noir and shows ripe red cherry fruit and spicy notes, complimented by a lovely, layered texture and a harmonious sense of balance and structure (Alcohol 13.88%, Brix 25.45degrees, Total acidity 0.56 g/L, pH 3.61).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Francis Mahoney’s Pinot Noir wines are all lean and clean however they may otherwise differ in flavor nuances. With subdued tannin and ample acid, the wines are made for food and will not show their characters without it. No need to worry about food pairings. This wine will complement any dish from grilled salmon to a summer-fall minestrone with braised red bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and succini, finished off with a pesto of chopped garlic and basil. Serve at cool room temperature.
Mahoney Vineyards – 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir, Mahony Ranch
Winemaker Ken Foster’s Notes
Generally two styles of Pinot Noir come from the Carneros appellation, fresh and fruit-forward or dense and structured. The sloping hillside of the Mahoney Ranch vineyard, along with the shy-bearing Pinot clones we have planted along its southwest face, yield wines that definitely fit into the dense and structured style. Grown in the vineyard on Dealy Lane that has produced some of our most celebrated wines over the last 30 years, this wine offers lovely black cherry notes with a pervasive fusion of perfume, black pepper, and allspice in the nose. The wine has ample tannins, well-integrated oak, and a lush, rich texture (Alcohol 13.85%, Brix 25.35 degrees, Total acidity 0.56 g/L, pH 3.64).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Basically, Ken Foster describes the Mahoney Ranch and Las Brisas vineyard Pinots in similar terms, both with cherry notes and spice. Both are 100% Pinot Noir, harvested from Frances Mahoney’s cool-weather vineyards in Carneros, and both were aged for 15 months in French oak barrels but without intrusive oak flavor. Alcohol is roughly the same in both wines. And both have clean and precise flavor very much on the leaner French style that is made to accompany food. Serve at cool room temperature.
Mahoney Vineyards – 2011 Gavin Vineyard Chardonnay
Winemaker Ken Foster’s Notes
The Gavin Vineyard is comprised of two small blocks on the Napa side of the CArneros appellation. These vines produce low yields of fruit and wines with concentrated flavors. We harvested into small bins and went directly to the press with whole clusters to minimize handling. A regime of gentle pressing, a short settling period, and barrel fermentation with a wide array of yeasts helped to create complexity while preserving the inherent character of the fruit. Extended sur-lies aging added richness and toast flavors to the wine while helping to integrate the French oak notes with the fruit. The result is a bold and complex wine with forward citrus and Granny Smith apple notes layered with yeasty toast and soft touch of sweet oak in the finish (Alcohol 13.65%, Brix 24.6 degrees, Total acidity 6.2 g/L, pH 3.39).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Having tasted probably a large number of Chardonnay wines in my life, I’m a bit underwhelmed by the thought of Chardonnay these days. I tend to be startled by those that make me pay attention. This is one of them, truly delicious. Serve chilled.
Menu of the Month
Red & yellow bell peppers braised with onions and tomatoes and garnished with fresh oregano and basil, served over lightly toasted slices of fresh country bread
Braised rabbit with capers, served with farro
Arugula & pear salad with a balsamic-olive oil dressing
Apple cake served with cinnamon ice cream
Recipe of the Month
Braised Rabbit with Capers
The 21st of September marks the end of summer, a season that I find hard to relinquish. In the markets, apples and pears are crowding out stone fruit and berries, but I refuse to acknowledge fall until the moment that it arrives. At least some of the iconic fruits of summer, tomatoes and red bell peppers, are plentiful, so I continue to make them an important part of meals as they are in this menu. Rabbit, on the other hand, is available almost all year long at the Bell Campo market nearby, a store that features meats from its sprawling 10,000-acre, organic farm at the foot of Mt. Shasta, California where the animals are free to roam pastures. The following recipe has been adapted from Canal House Cooking, Volume No 7.
1 rabbit, 3 pounds
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil or more
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 rib celery, diced
1 bay leaf
2cups dry white wine
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
6 anchovy filets, minced
2 tablespoon capers
Lay the rabbit on its back. Using a sharp knife, cut off the hind legs at the joint near the backbone. Cut under the shoulder blades to remove the forelegs from the rib cage. Trim off the rib cage on either side of the loin and save for another purpose. Cut the loin crosswise, through the backbone, in two pieces. Heat the oil in a heavy medium pot over medium heat. Add the rabbit and lightly brown all over, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Add the carrots, onion, celery, and bay leaf to the pot and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables begin to soften, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the wine and vinegar, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Return the rabbit to the pot, cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low, and braise the rabbit until it is just cooked through and tender, about 30 minutes or less. Uncover the pot and add the anchovies and capers and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and season with pepper.