Francis Mahoney taught me more about wine in 1 1/2 hours than I’d learned up to that point in my life.
The owner of Mahoney Winery has been in the business more than 40 years. His winery in the Carneros region of northern California makes very good pinot noir wines.
He was an Irish kid whose family didn’t drink wine, but he fell in love with it when he visited Europe in the 1960s, he said Saturday afternoon.
We stood between his house and his vineyard at Mahoney Ranch and then a few miles away at Las Brisas, where he grows most of his pinot noir grapes. And while we stood, he talked about his wines and wine in general.
He told how he started in the wine business in 1973 after importing Burgundy wines from Europe. So he wanted to make pinot noir and chardonnay, the two
Burgundy wines. He bought land for $800 an acre and went to work. There were 28 wineries in Napa when he started. Now there are about 400 and nearly again that many in Sonoma County.
“We were pear trees, cattle and dairy,” he said of his vineyards. He had the first vineyard in Carneros where it’s colder than other parts of the region. The pinot grapes like that. He can watch the fog approach from the San Francisco Bay. Temperatures can vary wildly within short distances around San Francisco he said. There may be 40-degree differences for areas less than two hours apart. “In the summertime, it’s not the warmest place in California,” he said.
He makes two lines of wine, Mahoney and Fleur de California, totaling about 25,000 cases a year. The latter is bright and fresh without a lot of oak. Mahoney wines have a little more body, but are still intended to pair well with food.
One of the revelations of the day was having the Fleur Pinot Noir Rose, which spends less time in contact with the skins. Rose – a pink wine – doesn’t often have much going for it, but this one had a nice flavor that would pair so well with food. Jay Fields of Indiana Wholesale Wine & Liquor Co. said rose is hard to sell in Indiana, but he too liked this wine.
Mahoney humbly and passionately talked about his life, which is about making wine. And in doing so, he gave lessons on both:
• How a wine feels in your mouth can help you know how it was made. “If it’s on your molars, they put sugar in that baby,” he said.
• “Pricing has to do with production levels,” he said. A hillside that produces three tons or less of grapes an acre will also likely produce more flavor and age ability in a wine, he said. If you pare the fruit from the vine it’ll produce fewer grapes, but more flavorful ones.
• “If you don’t like it at 50 degrees, I wouldn’t buy another bottle,” he said. Wine that is too cold or too warm will change its flavor, but 50 degrees is the ideal temperature to drink a wine and if you don’t like it at that temperature, you won’t likely like it.
• Relationships have value. In a region where finding short-term agricultural workers would be easy, Mahoney Winery makes a commitment to its employees to keep them employed. The average length they stay on is 14 years, Mahoney said. “We make a commitment to them and they make a commitment to us,” he said. Because of that, the same people are pruning his vines every year and come to know them. That makes better wine.
• Soils all drain differently and so he matches root stocks to the soils. He then clones pinot noir on different root stocks. The 14 different pinot clones in his Las Brisas vineyard are sold to a lot of the region’s other pinot noir makers or used in his wine.
• Pinot noir wines should be brick red without a hint of purple. Cabernet sauvignons may have a purple hue, but pinots should be bright and approachable, not dark, he said.
• A ton of grapes yields approximately 2 1/2 barrels of wine. He gets about four tons an acre, he said. That means an acre of grapes produces about 550 gallons of wine.
• The trick to pairing food and wine is to “have them balanced,” he said. You shouldn’t taste the food or the wine more than the other. If a wine is too big for the food, you’ll end up saying, “We just had wine last night. We didn’t know what we ate,” he said. Pinot noir goes with lamb, pasta, chicken or grilled vegetables, but if you want steak, you should go with a Cabernet Sauvignon.
• You need acid to cut fat flavors. So if you’re eating a rich food and pair a sweet wine, you won’t cut it. “You’re always trying to bring your mouth back to neutral,” he said.
• The 2012 harvest was big and had great grapes. California winemakers were pleased and are thrilled with the wines they’ll have to sell. “The 2012s are going to outrageously nice,” he said.
Mahoney Ranch vineyard
Roger Rymer and others walk through the Mahoney Las Brisas Vineyard.
John Alter pours some Mahoney wine.
Francis Mahoney talks to the group.
Mahoney Las Brisas Vineyard.
Francis Mahoney with Paul Cataldo and Dominic Cataldo