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The Future of California Wine

A star Napa winemaker shares his insights with Food & Wine's Megan Krigbaum.

Food & Wine's Megan Krigbaum talked with Robert Foley, winner of the magazine's 2007 Winemaker of the Year award and winemaker at Pride Mountain Vineyards and Robert Foley Vineyards in Napa Valley. Foley discussed his background, and how it relates to bigger trends.

How did you get interested in making wine?

"Through my parents. They weren't in the business, but my mom and dad planted some Cabernet in 1964 with some of my dad's colleagues, who were in fusion energy research in San Francisco's East Bay. The whole bunch of them would work in the backyard—they're very smart fellows and followed the University of California, Davis oenology textbook."

Whose wine do you look to for inspiration?

"I'm actually more interested in looking at vineyards and geology. It's about trying to envision how to get the best expression out of the land. The result of that has me making pretty powerful, extracted red wines like Claret [an old-fashioned term for a Bordeaux-style red blend; Foley's is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot] and Charbono [an inky, somewhat obscure red grape variety]. But my palate tends toward light and white—Alsace wines, South African wines—as well as Pinot Noir and Burgundy. Lately, I'm trying not to pop too many bottles of our Robert Foley Vineyards Pinot Blanc. Everybody's been loving that wine. It's like a faceful of peaches."

Is that the way you see wine going? Lighter?

"I doubt it. The American palate likes power, and [as winemakers here] we try to get rich, extracted wine. We've realized how important it is that the wine feels good on the palate. But it shouldn't be so big that it's like trying to drink peanut butter."

How's the 2007 vintage shaping up in Napa?

"It looks a lot like the 2001 vintage, which was fantastic."

What's the most underrated grape in California?

"Probably Merlot. If you look at patterns over the decades, something becomes fashionable and everyone tries to do it. Then the pendulum swings somewhere else and it happens again. Merlot happened in a big way, then the movie [Sideways] came out, and it became fashionable to pooh-pooh the grape. There are some great grapes in California that never became trendy at all, like Chenin Blanc."

Has there been a shift in California winemaking?

"I think that now, winemakers are trying harder to figure out how to find the best expression of the land. I worked with a Merlot vineyard in Napa that didn't have much drainage, so the wine didn't have much structure, though it had sort of a nice plumminess. Well, whoever owned that vineyard sold it, and when I drove by recently, I noticed that the new owner had planted white grapes there, and they were thriving. And I thought, Wow, somebody's really paying attention."

Published October 2007
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