Winemaker Bottles Willow Creek | Edible Shasta-Butte
By Nora Mounce
Wilfred Franklin’s education as a winemaker began in Humboldt County and today, continues amidst the rain-soaked vineyards framing the cold waters of the Trinity River. Known to friends as Wil, Franklin grew up in Arcata, California and attended Humboldt State University. Beneath the redwoods, he met his wife, Liz, and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’as in mycology. The pursuit of love and adventure took him south to San Luis Obispo, where the couple quickly snagged jobs making wine in the labs of local wineries. After years of fussing over titrates and monitoring second fermentations, Wil followed Liz to the East Coast where she traded in her rubber winemaker’s boots for a career in teaching. Wil, still feverish with the wine bug, continued to quench his thirst for knowledge at a small wine shop and importer in New Jersey. There, he was exposed to some of the world’s finest vintners and vintages, inspiring his life-long appreciation for wines that express geographical identity, the very beating heart of terroir. A French term associated with equal amounts of pomp and mystique, Wil is quick to strip down terroir, a French term, to it’s exactitude - expressing a place through a grape. His dream of capturing his rugged and beautiful homeland, Humboldt County, in a bottle, inspired Franklin’s launch of Trinity River Vineyards in 2012.
On a January morning wetter than the local surf break, Wil eases his “office,” a white Ford farm truck, along the slick curves of Highway 96. Four successful vintages of Trinity River Vineyards under his belt, Franklin now manages nearly half a dozen vineyards for local grape growers in the Willow Creek AVA (American Viticulture Area). Encompassing mountainous terrain in both Trinity and Humboldt counties, the Willow Creek AVA enjoys historic notoriety. Due to the diligent petitioning of a few visionary farmers, the wine region was established in 1983, long before many of California’s world-famous winegrowing AVA’s were granted the same recognition. Yet, today, Willow Creek is far better known for outlaw marijuana farmers than winegrowers. Both locals and wine connoisseurs alike are surprised to learn that a small, but stunning, network of vineyards pepper the Trinity River watershed, tucked away between neighboring cannabis farms. This variety in the region’s landscape is part of Franklin’s, “vision of agricultural diversification,” that he fervently believes will help sustain the struggling economies of Humboldt and Trinity counties.
Wil and Liz returned to Humboldt County looking forward to the better quality of life ‘behind the redwood curtain,’ a nickname for the hidden pocket of Northern California. Humboldt and Trinity counties are famed for their verdant and forested landscapes, yet mere miles from the isolated Pacific coastline. The rural region is rich with recreational opportunities from surfing to rafting to cycling, while offering small town consideration and charm- a great environment to raise their two young children, Rafaella and Vincent. But the couple was concerned for their financial survival in the region’s infamous boom and bust economy. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, the resource-extractive industries of fishing, timber and cannabis have ravaged the region’s economic fertility. Amidst this dismal financial trajectory, the wine industry has played a minor role in Humboldt and Trinity. The bulk of local vinification has been relegated to hobby winemakers, ex- Humboldt State professors and well-endowed cannabis farmers, though each Humboldt and Trinity County proudly a handful of commercial wineries.
Despite the small economy of scale, a legacy for quality had been quietly growing on the steep, green hills of the Willow Creek AVA. In 2012, Franklin joined several winegrowing pioneers who had similarly forecast the rich viticulture potential of the region’s most important natural resource – water. In the majority of California’s vineyards, dry farming (indicative of a growing season where irrigation is not utilized) is a niche term, used to describe elite, coastal vineyards. Dry farming is the status quo throughout most of Europe’s famed wine regions, as on the quality versus quantity continuum, top quality grapes are a direct result of low yields. Given that California’s most sacred resource is water, Humboldt and Trinity County growers understand they’ve been offered a rare opportunity to dry farm in California. The Willow Creek AVA averages nearly 70 inches of rain annually, promising long-term environmental and economic sustainability for the small, but mighty, wine region. Also, the boon of Northern California moisture allows grapes to mature as nature intended, with less manmade intervention.
“What I think will emerge is a really unique, boutique, small wine industry,” says Franklin. He explains how the worst attributes of winegrowing in Humboldt and Trinity, are simultaneously their best. First, the scenic, but mountainous, vineyards overlooking the Trinity River are impossible machine harvest, which protects the grapes from harsh treatment come harvest time. Hillside vineyards are also good for shedding heat. Despite Humboldt County’s reputation for gray, rainy weather, Willow Creek regularly sees triple digit temperatures in the summer, allowing red-skinned varietals like Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah to thrive.Franklin believes that the challenges of grape farming in Willow Creek (isolation, terrain) will protect the wine industry from the intrusion of big corporations. Meanwhile, everyone living in Emerald Triangle (Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity) is concerned about the threat of“big ag” for the region’s number one agricultural crop - marijuana. Though its ultimate impact is still to be unveiled, Proposition 64, which passed last November, legalized cannabis cultivation in California. The new legislation is wrought with red tape and ambiguity, but without a doubt, inevitable changes are on the horizon for agriculture in Humboldt and Trinity.
Noting a symbiotic relationship between the wine industry and cannabis farming, Franklin believes Humboldt and Trinity are farmers are in a unique position to help one another. By marketing the virtues of the region, Franklin believes that farmers should be able to share the fruits of their labor with wider audiences. “People want to come here for the mystique, the history, the organically grown [farms], the outdoor experience,” says Franklin. Believing that the future of economic sustainability in Humboldt and Trinity County lies in marketing the region’s rare beauty and agricultural provisions, Franklin sees vast potential in sustainable agriculture being a bedrock of the region’s economy.
Hardly alone in his rosy outlook on agricultural sustainability behind the redwood curtain, Franklin actually got his winemaking start in Humboldt County through a unique partnership with Lane DeVries, the owner of Sun Valley Floral Farms. Located in coastal the cow pastures northwest of Arcata, Sun Valley was established in 1982 and has grown to into the nation’s largest cut flower farm. DeVries, who first immigrated from Holland for a job growing lilies, first signed on with Sun Valley after researching Humboldt’s climate. Years later, now at the helm of Sun Valley’s operations, DeVries saw similar potential in Gardner Ranch, an old vineyard outside of Willow Creek. By hiring Franklin to manage the vineyard, originally planted in the 1960’s, the two farmers created a new Humboldt County wine label, Stargazer Barns. Producing a portfolio of whites, reds and blends, Stargazer Barns wines are sold across the country in cheerful ‘Humboldt Made’ gift baskets, featuring Sun Valley flowers, wine and an assortment of local chocolates, jams and cheese - essentially, the bounty of Humboldt County agriculture.
Franklin could have hardly known that by agreeing to farm grapes at Gardner Ranch, he was judiciously fertilizing his dream of making Humboldt County wine. Before long, other Willow Creek farmers were calling on Franklin’s viticulture background and he quickly developed a reputation as skillful, hardworking winegrower. Referring to himself a sharecropper, today Franklin manages four different vineyard sites around Willow Creek. After signing a contract with each property owner, Franklin trades his labor and knowledge for half the grapes of each harvest. Taking full advantage of the opportunity to gauge local soil content and determine where particular grape varietals perform best, Franklin is building a bed of knowledge about the various microclimates in the Willow Creek AVA. This includes trial and error with vineyard management tactics, so that every one of the vineyards he manages bears organically grown grapes. A black and white issue for Franklin, he believes, “If you can’t grow it organic, you shouldn’t be growing it.” No small feat in a region with such wet winters, Franklin avoids using pesticides and anti-fungal sprays by working with the unique soil content, elevation and canopy of each vineyard.
“You can’t make good wine without good grapes. Done. Boom. End of story,” says Franklin. Of the many hats he wears as the owner of Trinity River Vineyards, Franklin views himself, first and foremost, as a farmer. With an unwavering commitment to growing premium, organic grapes in Willow Creek, he seeks to put Humboldt County wines on the map for wine drinkers across the country. Since his first vintage release in 2012, Trinity River Vineyards wines have grown more sophisticated and expressive. Not believing in the winemaker’s sleight of hand, Franklin preaches the virtue of producing clean wines, aged with minimal oak, and as little “massaging” as possible. By farming all his own fruit, Franklin starts the winemaking process in the vineyard, choosing to harvest a particular block of Syrah early or co-fermenting his Sauvignon Blanc with clusters of aromatic Semillon. The 2015 Trinity River Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc was recently awarded Double Gold in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, a benchmark for quality, and a nod to Franklin that he’s on the right path.
As the weak, winter sunlight disappears in Willow Creek, Franklin points his farm truck west towards to the Pacific Ocean. Driving through redwoods, he lumbers up Berry Summit and descends into the foggy, coastal town of McKinleyville, where he and Liz make their home. Franklin wants to pass on many things to Rafaella and Vincent – an appreciation for the outdoors, a value in education and the story of Humboldt, their homeland, famed for it’s independence and beauty. As a father, a winemaker and a farmer, Franklin seeks to tell that story, forever preserving life behind the redwood curtain, in each bottle of Trinity River Vineyards wine.