French Camp Vineyard: Hidden Treasure
Vintage New World & Salmon Harbor
Bob and Steve Miller named French Camp Vineyards after French Basque farmers who first settled there in the 1860s, after the Gold Rush. Tall tales are told of desperadoes and vigilantes, and of gold treasure hidden in the hills surrounding French Camp, but it's no stretch of the imagination to see French Camp as a viticultural Mother Lode. This site has been a well-kept secret … a secret that is soon to get out.
French Camp is a cousin to the famed Bien Nacido vineyard near Santa Maria, also owned by the Millers. Using Bien Nacido as their quality model, they began developing French Camp in 1973, selecting grape varieties suited to the climate and soils of the area. Today, at 1,700+ acres, French Camp is the largest single vineyard in the Central Coast. Eleven grape varieties thrive here, and the unique growing conditions produce high-quality fruit that is purchased by a handful of top wine producers.
French Camp is located about 25 miles east of the city of San Luis Obispo, in San Luis Obispo County. It is as remote as it is large; a 45-minute drive through mostly grazing land. Between San Luis Obispo to the vineyard, cattle outnumber humans by a huge margin. From the vineyard office, with its 360-degree view of French Camp, Hank Ashby explain why this off-the-beaten-path site is so special.
The vineyard is surrounded by the Santa Lucia foothills, and it gets quite warm during the summer as the grapes ripen. The coastal fog that influences most vineyards on the Central Coast stops before it reaches French Camp, but a natural wind tunnel pulls cool air from the Pacific Ocean into the vineyard around 5 p.m., dropping the summer overnight temperature some 50 degrees. It is this huge temperature swing that makes French Camp distinctive among Central Coast vineyards. The grapes reach full maturity due to the heat and sun exposure, and also develop ideal natural acids and tremendous flavor intensity as the temperature drops at night. Grapes are picked at night to retain those characteristics.
Nearby Paso Robles, recognized for the quality of its red wines, does not get as warm as French Camp and does not have the same benefit of the cooling winds. One well respected wine maker believes that French Camp's "kiss of cold air" gives the vineyard a fruit quality advantage over Paso Robles and other surrounding regions.
The Millers grow Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Napa Gamay, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and La Grein, on nine different rootstocks for their grapes, and also grow many rootstocks and scions for nurseries on the property.