Napa Valley AVA
Icons and pioneers for Carneros Pinot Noir
Nearly forty years ago, Francis Mahoney and his wife Kathy set out to realize a dream - to grow Pinot Noir that would stand up to the famed French Burgundies - and to achieve this in Northern California’s soil and climate. Francis was captivated with the undiscovered “Los Carneros” region in the southern portion of Napa and Sonoma valleys, and it was here that the Mahoneys broke ground for the first new winery in the region since before Prohibition.
It was 1972, and on a modest budget, Francis and Kathy built a small, functional winery they named Carneros Creek Winery (the Mahoney Vineyards brand wouldn’t come into play until 2005). With Kathy in the office managing orders, compliance, staff, and finances, Francis took to the vineyards. Francis was unique among Pinot Noir pioneers of the 1970s in that he realized, besides climate and soil, clones were an important factor in creating great Pinot Noir as well. He called upon UC Davis professor Curtis Alley, and together formed a team to begin a tedious clonal research project studying various clones of the Pinot Noir grape.
Francis’ lifelong love for the red Burgundies, by the way, developed after leaving the University of San Francisco to travel in Europe, where he spent some time in the French cellars of Burgundy. “What attracted me to Burgundies was their statement of silkiness,” Francis recently recalled. “They were not big or forceful, but totally balanced and elegant.”
After returning to California and taking some oenology and viticulture classes at UC Davis, Francis honed his palate working at Connoisseur Wine Imports and Mayacamas Vineyards. He was ready to start pursuing his dream. Carneros Creek Winery proved to have potential from the get-go, quickly earning critical praise for balanced Pinot Noirs with bright, focused fruit. Francis used the findings from his clonal trials to determine that the best Pinot Noir was not to be found in a single clonal selection, but rather, from a blend of many clones which created a very distinctive style. This study established Francis not only as a Pinot pioneer, but as a resident authority as well.
“We liked different clones like we like different children,” Mahoney explained in a recent interview. “They had their own personalities and a little bit of this with a little bit of that makes a more interesting wine.” Carneros Creek Winery continued to grow and the winery did quite well for some time. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the winery made changes as
California Pinot producers started embracing new oak to make wines that overpowered food. Many of the wines were being made to please the critics rather than defining a style in terms of soil and climate. The trend contradicted Francis’ original vision, and he ultimately left the winery in 1998 to take care of his vineyard holdings and enjoy life. Francis had planted the Mahoney Ranch Vineyard surrounding his home in northern Carneros, and the Las Brisas Vineyard on Ramal Road (in southern Sonoma-Carneros), and spent the next few years managing and tending his vines.
In 2002, Francis was ready for a fresh start and began working with veteran Pinot Noir winemaker Ken Foster to create an artisanal brand of wines named Mahoney Vineyards. These wines would be the “best of the best” from his estate vineyards with a focus on capturing the site and terroir, rather than making wine for the critics. With a minimalist approach to winemaking, Francis and Ken began crafting wines that were bold yet approachable, offering a pure expression of varietal character. It was a return to the elegantly styled wines of the 1970s, and this time they were staying on track. Mahoney Vineyards released its first wines in 2005 and has since established a strong reputation in the world of California Pinot.
Although Pinot Noir continues to be the focus at Mahoney Vineyards, Francis’ pioneering spirit has lead him in new directions as well, as he takes on Italian and Spanish varietals in his newer releases. Today, Francis Mahoney is still an icon for Carneros Pinot Noir, with a collection of distinctive, small production wines whose varietal charm and Carneros heritage are clearly evidenced with each and every sip. Enjoy!
Map of the area
The Carneros region was the first wine region in the United States created because of its unique terroir, rather than by state, county, or political boundaries. Influenced by the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean and a combination of summer fog, warm days, and a long growing season, Carneros is an independent American Viticultural Area (AVA) that became official in 1983. Its unique climatic characteristics and geographic features put a distinctive stamp on its world-class wine grapes.
Mahoney Vineyards sources Pinot Noir fruit from their Estate Las Brisas Vineyard in the Sonoma-Carneros region for this month’s featured wine. Aptly named (Las Brisas translates to The Breezes), this 110-acre vineyard is often shrouded in fog until noon, then receives cooling breezes from the Petaluma coastal gap in the afternoon. Mahoney believes Pinot Noir from this site gives a ripe expression of red cherry fruit and spice with a good underlying structure. Planted at Las Brisas are 15 different clones of Pinot Noir, along with two Italian varietals - Montepulciano and Vermentino - and the Spanish varietal Tempranillo.
Ken Foster - Winemaker
Ken joined Mahoney Vineyards in June of 2002. The former winemaker/production manager at David Bruce Winery in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, Ken had been making wine there for 15 years. During his tenure, he gained experience with Pinot Noir from fifty different vineyards and a dozen appellations, making him a big name in the world of Pinot Noir winemaking. When Francis Mahoney appointed Ken to oversee production at Mahoney Vineyards, he knew it was a decision that would strengthen their program.
At Mahoney, Ken instituted the use of small open-top fermentors, inventive oak barrel regimes and small-lot processing that immediately brought Mahoney’s wines to the next level. Ken’s intricate knowledge of the technical side of winemaking is perfectly complimented by his superb palate, and an acute sense of how his wines will develop in barrel and bottle. Ken’s philosophy is to emphasize the varietal character of the wines, rather than masking them with an over-abundance of oak tannins. Staying true to the appellation and the natural characteristics of the fruit, Ken assists the wines in their development rather than forcing them to bend to his will.