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Interview with Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker at Tablas Creek Vineyard

Interview with Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker at Tablas Creek Vineyard

Meet Sierra Foothills native, Chelsea Franchi, Assistant winemaker at Tablas Creek Vineyard, the pioneering Paso Robles Rhone Ranger winery which produces some of the region’s best organic and biodynamic wines.

Chelsea Franchi in the cellar; Photo Credit: Heather Daenitz

Chelsea was drawn to Tablas Creek after falling in love with the winery’s flagship white blend, Esprit de Tablas Blanc. She joined the Tablas Creek team shortly after her 21st birthday as a greeter at the door of the tasting room, the only position available at the time. Over the next few years, Chelsea worked her way out of the tasting room and into the cellar, joining the winemaking team in 2007 and becoming assistant winemaker in 2009. Her hard work and thirst for knowledge and continuous professional and personal development, have made her an essential member of the Tablas Creek family.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Chelsea to learn more about her career, what she enjoys most about making wine at this celebrated winery and some exciting developments in the cellar at Tablas Creek.

To learn more, read our full interview below. 

Know your winemaker, know your wine

Chelsea Franchi in the cellar; Photo Credit: Heather Daenitz

Nelson Gerena (NG): Where were you born and raised?

Chelsea Franchi (CF): I grew up in El Dorado Hills, the Sierra Foothills of California in an area between Tahoe and Sacramento. Which is now an exceptional wine growing region but when I was living there I didn’t notice much of a focus on winemaking. We went back up last year and the wineries there just blew me away. It is just so cool to see what people are producing up there. We found a lot of Rhone producers and a lot of great Barbera.

NG: When and how did you get into wine?

CF: My parents were always really into wine, not in a professional sense, but we always had wine open for dinner. I grew up with wine and was surrounded by people in the wine industry. Wine was never an industry that seemed overly romantic, it always seemed attainable. 

NG: When you went to Cal Poly, was your intention to become a Winemaker?

CF: It was a rather serendipitous turn of events because both of my parents went to Cal Poly, and had met there so I always knew I was going to go there. Originally I applied for business but was only accepted after I reapplied under ag-business with an intention of later switching my major. After taking a few of the ag-business classes I realized that I really liked the people in that major and if they were any indication of the people I was going to be working with professionally for the rest of my career I decided, I can do this. So I stayed in ag-business and thanks to my advisor’s recommendation I tried wine and viticulture which turned out to be a great fit. 

NG: Can you tell me a little about how you started working at Tablas Creek?

CF: Initially when I was going to school at Cal Poly I knew I really wanted to work at a winery and I applied to Tablas Creek. I had been wine tasting here and the Esprit Blanc, in particular, changed the way I thought about wine, not just in Paso Robles, but I fell in love with the Esprit Blanc and the other Tablas wines too. At the time, the only available job at Tablas Creek was a greeter at the door of the tasting room. I had just turned 21 and I knew that being a greeter wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was where I wanted to do it. After a while, I was able to worm my way into the tasting room which I really loved. I loved being able to talk to people about wine and about all of the crazy things I was learning about at Cal Poly. Then when I graduated I knew I wanted to go into production and thankfully Tablas Creek created a cellar position for me. That was at the end of 2007 and I’ve been here ever since.

The Winemaking Team at Tablas Creek; Photo Credit: Heather Daenitz

NG: What makes Tablas Creek special?

CF: There are a myriad of things that make Tablas Creek special, but it all starts with the people.  The people behind Tablas Creek are the driving force of why we operate the way we do: our organic and biodynamic farming methods, our natural, native yeast fermentations, the way each and every employee is valued and respected… the list goes on.  It starts at the top with the two founding families: the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel and the Haas family of Vineyard Brands.  These two families have very specific ideas about how they treat the people that work for them and the property that they farm – in both of these cases, their goal is to leave everything better than they found it.  From there, the people that work for Tablas Creek are similarly passionate about what they do.  Our team here is made up of a group of individuals that are excited to come to work every day for a company that treats them well and constantly asks the question “what ideas do you have that can help to make our organization better?”  There is a strong sense of pride and ownership that is prevalent in every department, which in turn, I think, is shown in the product we put out into the market.

NG: What wines can’t you get enough of right now?

CF: As far as the Tablas Creek wines are concerned, I am so ridiculously excited about our 2017 reds.  In particular, I think the 2017 varietal Counoise and Mourvedre are some of the best examples we’ve ever made of those wines before.

For other wines, I’ve gone down a Valdiguie/Gamay rabbit hole as of late.  I am so in love with the brightness and freshness and energy they carry.  Especially for this time of year in California – we’re slowly transitioning into colder (for us) weather, so I want to drink a red, but I don’t want something with too much structure and body.

Chelsea Franchi at work in the lab; Photo Credit: Heather Daenitz

NG: What do you enjoy most about making wine at Tablas Creek?

CF: I think, first and foremost, that it’s an honor to make wines at Tablas Creek.  To be part of something so much bigger than I am and to be part of a team that is driving for positive change is incredibly humbling.  During harvest, I love the physical aspect of what we do.  I love going home at night and hitting the pillow so hard knowing that the effort we put into our day will be enjoyed by people celebrating an event a few years from now.  I love tasting through barrels and getting particularly excited about specific lots.  I loved the palpable energy we had in the cellar on the day Tablas Creek was the first U.S. winery to ever harvest Vaccarese – and now taking people into the barrel room to have them taste it all while doing my best to maintain some level of chill while showing it to them.  I try, but I don’t think I succeed.

NG: The Tablas Creek Blog, which you contribute to, is a fantastic, award-winning blog. What posts either from your ‘Notes from the Cellar’ series or from other members of the team would you recommend reading to learn more about Tablas Creek Vineyards?

CF: General Manager Jason Haas is the brains behind the Tablas Creek blog and I never stop being amazed at his ability to think of new, interesting content as well as the way it’s presented.  Even his more technical blogs are a delight to read.  Some of my favorites that he’s written include:

Corks and Screwcaps – Not an Open and Shut Case

Can I get an Ice Bucket for my Red?

Both of these offer sound, approachable advice that is both interesting and practical.  And this one below is a little more Tablas Creek specific and absolutely lovely:

30 Years of Tablas Creek: What We Got Right (and Wrong)

I love this one from National Sales Manager Darren Delmore for its bold-faced humor:

Tract Home Guerilla Winemaking

And pretty much anything that Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg writes for his “Viticultural Revolution” series

Additionally, there were two blogs this harvest that got me particularly fired up for what we do.  Our multi-talented Shepherd, Nathan Stuart, also does some incredible video work.  These two blogs contain short videos showcasing what a night pick looks like and what a day in the cellar during harvest, respectively:

The delayed 2019 Harvest begins slowly, but we can feel the wave building

What it Feels Like to Spend a Day in the Cellar During Harvest

See Also

16 Rhône varietals are grown at Tablas Creek Vineyards; Photo Credit: Heather Daenitz

NG: What’s coming on your horizon that you’re most excited about?

CF: We’ve got some new grapes quietly fermenting in the cellar right now: Cinsault, which is new to Tablas Creek, Bourboulenc, which is new to Paso Robles, and Vaccarese, which is new to the United States.  I’m absolutely silly with excitement about having Cinsault to work with, as it’s a grape I know and love – I’m particularly delighted to add it into our rose program in the coming years!  As far as Bourboulenc and Vaccarese are concerned, I don’t know much about them, so I’m really looking forward to getting to know them and seeing their personalities unfurl in the cellar.  In a few more years, we’ll have our first harvest of Muscardin, which will fall into a similar category as Bourboulenc and Vaccarese for me – it’ll be completely new and unknown and I can’t wait to see it come through the cellar for the first time!

NG: What advice would you give the younger Chelsea just starting out in the cellar at Tablas Creek back in 2007?

CF: If I could go back in time and tell 2007 Chelsea what her professional life is like now, she probably would think it was too good to be true.  And really, I couldn’t blame her.  She should know that patience and hard work pays off.  Dues must be paid!  Paying attention, listening to and absorbing information from your peers is invaluable.  Tasting with other winemakers is worth its weight in gold, whether it’s a wine you made or they made.  You should continuously look for things in your work that inspire and excite you; not only will you benefit from this experience, but everyone around you will, too.  Most importantly, attitude is everything.  Even when (ESPECIALLY when) it’s the tail end of harvest, your body hurts, you feel like you haven’t been dry for weeks and you feel a cold coming on, keep that smile on your face and remember that you are one of the lucky ones.

Wine Recommendations

2017 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Tablas

The Tablas Creek Vineyard 2017 Esprit de Tablas is a blend of four estate-grown varietals, propagated from budwood cuttings from the Château de Beaucastel estate.

A blend of 40% Mourvèdre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 5% Counoise, this wine is ruby in color and displays beautiful dark red fruit mixed with spice, earth and chocolate. Gorgeous mouthfeel. This wine is approachable now but is built to last. 

 

2017 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Tablas Blanc

The Tablas Creek Vineyard 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc is a blend of five estate-grown varietals, propagated from budwood cuttings from the Château de Beaucastel estate.

68% Roussanne, 17% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc, 4% Picardan, and 4% Clairette Blanche. This is the first vintage incorporating Picardan and Clairette Blanche to the blend. This is a beautiful wine with layers of complexity. Primary aromas/flavors of Green apple, pear, pineapple and white flowers mix with baking spices, oak and minerality. Elegant, balanced and delicious. This wine will continue to evolve and gain complexity for years to come. 

2017 Tablas Creek Vineyard Patelin de Tablas Blanc

The Tablas Creek Vineyard Patelin de Tablas Blanc is a blend of five white Rhône varietals: 44% Grenache Blanc, 29% Viognier, 12% Roussanne, 12% Marsanne and 3% Clairette Blanche. The wine incorporates fruit from nine top Rhone vineyards in Paso Robles, each vineyard selected for its quality.

Like many white wines from the Southern Rhône, this wine has lovely aromatics on the nose – white flowers, pear, stone fruit, citrus and mint. On the palate, it has bright acidity which balances the creamy richness. Well-balanced with a long finish. Drink this one young and enjoy all it’s delish primary flavors.

 

2017 Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvèdre

The 2017 Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvèdre is Tablas Creek’s fourteenth varietal bottling of Mourvèdre. Most of Tablas Creek Vineyard’s Mourvèdre is used in their Esprit de Tablas each year. However, they feel that the Mourvèdre grape, often pigeonholed as a blending varietal, can produce remarkable varietal wines, and when they can, they try to reserve a limited quantity of particularly characteristic lots of Mourvèdre for a single-varietal bottling.

This wine is loaded with dark fruit, beautifully complimented by notes of leather, licorice, spice and delicious minerality. It’s a lively wine with a persistent and memorable finish. A wine I’d love to revisit in a few years time. Enjoy now or hold. 

 

Special thanks to Heather Daenitz at Craft & Cluster for supplying the amazing photos used within this feature and to the team at Vineyard Brands for providing the wine samples.

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