Cabernet Franc has long been an invaluable blending grape. Now Napa's La Jota Winery is giving it star treatment--and throwing a party to celebrate.

SEVEN YEARS AGO, on the day I won a Pulitzer Prize, I immediately pulled the best wine from my cellar to celebrate. It was a magnificent 1964 Cheval Blanc, and I can still remember it--a ruby beauty with a glorious bouquet of ripe plums. Ever since that day I've wondered why California winemakers haven't tried to do more with Cabernet Franc, the dominant grape of Cheval Blanc.

Now several wineries are doing more with it.

One of the first to perceive the grape's potential was La Jota. Built in 1898 and revitalized by Bill and Joan Smith in 1974, La Jota makes what is generally regarded as this country's finest Cabernet Franc. And while the Smiths were once pretty much alone in producing a single varietal wine from this grape, the ranks of their Cab Franc confreres have swelled in recent years to include such highly regarded wineries as Ravenswood, Jarvis, Francis Coppola, Pride Mountain, Lang & Reed, Benzinger, Kendall-Jackson, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Justin, William Wheeler, Bedford Thompson and Spottswoode (under the Lyndenhurst label). Cabernet Franc also accounts for nearly half of Dalla Valle's fabled Maya, currently one of the most sought-after wines in the country.

Cabernet Franc has long been useful in both California and Bordeaux as a blending grape. It ripens earlier than its better-known cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon, and has more finesse and elegance and a generally smoother finish--qualities that help to soften Cabernet Sauvignon's often aggressive tannins. Yet in many other parts of the world Cabernet Franc is vinified on its own, most notably in the Chinon wines of the Loire Valley, where it's called Breton after the abbot who first planted it there, in the early 17th century, at the direction of Cardinal Richelieu. In Italy, Cabernet Franc is grown in several regions, including Alto Adige, Friuli, the Veneto and as far south as Apulia. Hence it has both a noble lineage and an international pedigree.

But it was taste, not history, that prompted the Smiths to begin bottling Cabernet Franc a dozen years ago. "We never had much Cabernet Franc," Bill Smith says, "and we'd always blended it into our Cabernet Sauvignon. But in 1986, our Cabernet Franc was so ripe, dark and full of rich blackberry flavors, and everyone at the winery thought it was such a great wine, that I decided to keep it separate and blend it in later." That never happened. "The more I tasted it," Smith explains, "and the more we talked about it, the more convinced I became that we should bottle it alone." (Well, mostly alone. The La Jota Cabernet Franc ranges from 75 percent to 84 percent Cab Franc; the rest is Merlot.) Thus, La Jota's first Cabernet Franc.

One of the reasons for the winery's success with Cabernet Franc, Smith believes, is its setting atop Howell Mountain, 1,800 feet above the often fog-shrouded Napa Valley. The warmer nights at that higher altitude help the grapes ripen more fully, he reasons, while the mountain's iron-rich soil produces especially deep, dense wines, like the Cabernet Sauvignons of the Smiths' widely heralded neighbor Randy Dunn (of Dunn Vineyards)--who, it's worth noting, was an early consultant to La Jota.

The winery also makes several other wines, including two sought-after Cabernet Sauvignons, which are, in fact, what La Jota is most widely known for. But after that seminal 1986 vintage, Cabernet Franc became a permanent part of the lineup. "Cabernet Franc is a very rich grape," Smith says. "I thought that if we concentrated on it, we could make yet another great wine."

As memorable as that first vintage was, La Jota's Cab Francs have improved. In fact, the Smiths are so pleased with the wine's progress that they served it when they invited six friends--including their fellow Howell Mountain winemakers Michael and Lyndsey Harrison of Harrison Vineyards and Art and Bunnie Finkelstein of Judd's Hill--to dinner to celebrate the move into their new home down the road from the winery. Grant Achatz, assistant winemaker at La Jota and an alumnus of the French Laundry, designed the menu with help from another former French Laundry staffer, Mark Hopper. "We wanted a wine with the weight and the body to stand up to the braised veal shanks and quinoa pilaf," Smith says. "The Cab Franc was perfect."

Smith readily admits that Cab Franc was so little known that it was a tough sell when La Jota first began bottling it. But in recent years it has acquired a devoted following. In both 1996 and 1997, La Jota made just under 300 cases of it, and when the '96 was released last fall, it sold out instantly--at $36 a bottle. "We don't have any trouble selling it now," Smith says. "We could sell more if we wanted to."

La Jota's Cabernet Franc is available only by direct mail. The 1997 La Jota Cab Franc will be released in the fall of '99 and will in all likelihood move even more quickly than its predecessor, given the general strength of the vintage and Smith's conviction that it is "our best Cabernet Franc yet."

Meanwhile, La Jota's fellow producers of Cabernet Franc are hoping that their nascent efforts will prove as successful. And that isn't an unreasonable hope. After all, 10 years ago, anyone outside Pomerol or Saint-Emilion who had suggested that Merlot might become a hot stand-alone wine would have been dismissed as a dreamer. With Merlot setting such a precedent, could Cabernet Franc be far behind?

The recipes were contributed by Grant Achatz, the assistant winemaker at La Jota Vineyard. Joan Smith provided the wine suggestions.

Story by David Shaw, media critic for The Los Angeles Times, who writes frequently about food and wine.