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Francis Tannahill Winery

Francis Tannahill Pinot noir - It's a Personal Thing
by Cole Danehower

Ask Sam and Cheryl Tannahill (at right with son Theo) who makes the wine for their new Francis Tannahill label and they answer simultaneously - and with enthusiasm - "We do!" What other answer could there be when you combine two of Oregon's finest Pinot noir winemakers in both marriage and winemaking?

There's been a lot of excitement among Oregon wine aficionados about the debut of the Francis Tannahill range of wines - after all, Sam Tannahill and Cheryl Francis-Tannahill have Pinot noir winemaking credentials that are hard to beat.

Sam worked side-by-side with Gary Andrus to help make Archery Summit one of the best-known and most respected Pinot noir producers in America (taking over the sole winemaking job after Andrus left the winery, before Sam himself left to help start Francis Tannahill). Cheryl Francis shared winemaking duties with Harry Peterson-Nedry at Chehalem winery, producing a range of exceptional Pinot noirs for that prestigious label that have become some of the most sought after of all New World Pinots.

And now, as husband and wife and business partners, Sam and Cheryl are turning their formidable talents to the more personal effort of making their own wine their own way. We talked with Sam about how they're doing it.

Pinots with "Power, not Size"

"We know that we have only a little bit of wine and a limited amount of time in our lives to make it" proclaims Sam, "so we want to make the best we can!" Having already helped produce some of Oregon's most famous "blockbuster" Pinots, Sam and Cheryl now want to make Pinot noir that is a bit more personal, and that reflects a different sensibility.

"We think the industry as a whole has gone too much to heavily concentrated and extracted wines," explains Sam. "We're looking again at how to make Pinot noirs that are concentrated, but without excess extraction." Sam calls this ideal of balanced extraction with high concentration "power without size." Or, to put it another way "We know how to make wines that shout, now we want to make wines that sing!"

But how are they going to achieve this delicate balance? "Concentration happens in the vineyard," says Sam, "and it is extended in the cellar." Carefully managing both processes is key to the success of Francis Tannahill wines.

Producing Powerful Pinots Part One: The Vineyard

"First and foremost is the vineyard. I know that's what everybody says, but it really is true." Three important aspects of vineyard quality, says Sam, are attention to detail, low - but not too low - yields, and making the right picking decisions.

For Pinot noir, Sam and Cheryl source their fruit from Shea Vineyard and Momtazi Vineyard - "two vineyards we don't have to worry about," says Sam.

Shea Vineyard is well known to Oregon pinot noir lovers as the source of some of the region's finest fruit. "I know this vineyard intimately," says Sam, "since I make the wine for Shea Wine Cellars." To get the maximum fruit quality, Sam and Cheryl are working with vineyard owner Dick Shea to bring the farming of their block into conformance with organic standards.

Momtazi Vineyard, located in Yamhill County, is a relatively new vineyard (most vines are in their fifth leaf) that is being biodynamically farmed by fellow winemaker Jimi Brooks. "We would trust Jimi farming anything for us," says Sam, "and we're really happy with the fruit we get from Momtazi."

"We pay meticulous attention to detail and low yields," continues Sam. ""You need low yields for quality, but if you go too low you can get wines that are unbalanced, with grapes that are overripe, where sugars are racing ahead of phenolic development. Knowing when to pick is really important!"

Sam cites the great 2002 vintage as an example of making the right picking decision. Unusually hot weather caused rapid ripening and some wineries picked their grapes early in order to catch them before they became excessively ripe. But Sam and some others delayed picking and benefited from a spell of rain that slowed ripening and allowed phenolic development to "catch up" with the sugars.

"We were able to hold on - Dick Shea and I were the last people to pick blocks from Shea Vineyard - and I think we got fully ripe tannins and fruit-flavor development." The result is that Sam and Cheryl think their 2002 Pinot noirs more closely resemble the 1999 vintage (which generally had good structure and balance) than the 1998 vintage (which emphasized big, ripe fruit flavors) - which is exactly what they want.

Producing Powerful Pinots Part Two: The Cellar

"Once in the cellar, you have to continue to pay attention to every detail - and it is much more important that you make the right choices," Sam says. And the choices are myriad, each affecting the final style of the wine. "We really want to achieve a long pulling back of the flavors in the mouth," says Sam, so to achieve that plus the balanced elegance they are after, they manage their cellar decisions carefully.

For instance, depending on the nature of the fruit, different vineyard sources will require a different regime. Young vines, Sam points out, can make great wines, but they can also lack length, while older vines tend to have more expansive and refined tannins. So, in order to lengthen the short tannins in the younger vines from Momtazi Vineyard, Sam will treat them differently from the Shea sourced grapes.

Fermentation of the Shea Vineyard grapes took place in wood tanks - something that Sam learned to love at Archery Summit. "I've become super-enamored of them," he says. For Sam and Cheryl, the benefits of wood fermentation include a more uniform thermal fermentation profile (less temperature fluctuation) that they feel results in "beautiful, really rich tannins" and a more natural expression of the character of the fruit - and a better match for the mature Shea grapes.

The use of whole clusters in the fermentations was another result of experience gained at Archery Summit. "100% destemmed fruit can produce rich and big wines," explains Sam, "but they can also fade fast. The tannin profile with added stems brings the flavors all the way across the mouth. You can modify the short tannins in young vines by putting in more whole cluster," - which was what they did for the Momtazi fruit.

Similarly, more new oak was used in ageing the young fruit - to help lengthen the structure - and less was employed in the old vines so as not to mask their flavors. When all was said and done in 2002, the Francis Tannahill Pinot noir wines were made with 30% whole cluster and 30% new oak.

Other cellar decisions involved extensive "barrel watching" to minimize the need for racking, a refusal to do any filtering of red wines to avoid stripping any flavors, and extensive fining trials to find the best way to clarify the wine (resulting in the use of a quarter of an egg white per barrel to give the wine a Ôlight polishing" of additional clarity).

In the cellar, says Sam "it all boils down to tasting and listening to the wine and not being production driven. You get that from experience - no other way."

The Importance of Experience and Learning

Sam and Cheryl are grateful to be able to draw on their experiences at Archery Summit and Chehalem. "We learned about whole cluster, tannin management, enzymes, yeasts, adding acid or not, punch downs, wood tanks... everything," says Sam. "We can't overstate how important it was for us to have worked at such great wineries."

But at the same time, the Tannahills are focused on constantly learning and expanding their craft so that they can further develop their personal style. They both are involved with other wine ventures as partners and consultants, and use that experience to inform the character of Francis Tannahill wines.

For instance, they started out thinking they would bottle their Shea Vineyard Pinot noir as a single vineyard wine - which is almost an unquestioned tenant of the current Oregon Pinot noir scene. It was a "slam dunk" says Sam because of the great reputation of the vineyard and the outstanding character of the wine. Yet, as they tasted through their wines in the cellar, they discovered that when the Shea wine was blended with the Momtazi wine, "we realized the blend made for a better wine."

It was their experience in producing blended wines for another project, A to Z Wines, that opened their minds to the possibility of blending. "Exposure to new ideas, new vineyards, new wines, is really important," says Sam, "it helps us bring new perspectives to our Pinot noir."

The Power of Personal Values

Talking to both Sam and Cheryl, it becomes obvious that living up to their personal values is a vital part of the Francis Tannahill brand promise.

"Wine in essence is an agricultural product," says Sam. "Wine is a humble thing, it is a thing of nature. When you take it out of context and put it up as a museum piece or a luxury, for us it loses some of its reason for being. We want to offer consumers high quality and good value," explains Sam. Their vision is to focus on "super high-end, very high quality, all gravity flow, no expense spared wines."

And yet, on the value side, adds Sam, "we're not pricing our wines according to quality or scarcity... we're pricing our wines so that growers and the people who work for us - and us - can have a sustainable wage and maintain a reasonable lifestyle."

With exceptional experience behind them, an openness to learning in front of them, and their first two vintages in the bottle, Sam and Cheryl Tannahill are looking forward to a bright future with Francis Tannahill wines.

The University of Archery Summit

"I just can't overstate how much I learned at Archery Summit," says Sam Tannahill, "from general winemaking to working specifically with Pinot noir."

Sam had spent two years in Burgundy when he met Gary Andrus in 1993. Andrus had built Pine Ridge Winery in Napa and was in the process of establishing Archery Summit in Oregon - a winery that would go on and establish a new level of prestige and visibility for Oregon Pinot noir. A bit later, Sam joined Achery Summit, and began making wine at Andrus's side.

"We both started making Pinot at the same time," recalls Sam, "and I think we pushed each other to find out how we could make better wines. Gary had us tasting all the time, and we always had a variety of research projects under way, from analyzing the effects of different cover crops to measuring amino acids, to picking at different times for phenolic levels - it was like going to university!"

"Having made wine at Archery Summit under Gary was a fantastic experience - it helped teach me how to make good wine. I learned about fermenting in oak, using whole clusters, which yeasts worked in what way. I think if you look at the progression of Archery Summit wines, you can see a lot of that knowledge put to use. The 1993 and 1994 wines were bright and nice, but in 1996 andf 1997 they became more earthy - more burgundian. As the vines came into their own and we learned more about how to treat the different blocks, I think the wines really excelled. There were some great wines starting in 1997, and of course 1999 and 2000... and we're all continuing to make strong Pinots!"

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