The story behind Gabby’s Cab Franc

A bottle of Gabby's cab franc inside Roanoke Vineyards' Riverhead tasting room. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)

A bottle of Gabby’s cab franc inside Roanoke Vineyards’ Riverhead tasting room. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)

There is a lot of good, even great, wine made on Long Island. Very few wines, however, reach the level of “cult wine”  — wines that are so sought-after that groups of dedicated fans wait impatiently every year for the latest vintage and buy as much as they can, often before it’s even released.

Roanoke Vineyards’ Gabby’s Cabernet Franc is one such wine. 

Gabby’s is rare, with only 153 cases of the just-released 2012 vintage made. And those roughly 1,800 bottles are more or less already gone. They’ve been gone for months, sold to the winery’s rabid wine club well before release.

The wine is consistently distinctive, of course, but there’s more to it than that. The story, and the man himself, all add to its appeal.

The wine that so many clamor for was born in 2006, when Roanoke Vineyards co-owner Rich Pisacano, who has been growing grapes since high school, had a disagreement with his father, Gabby, also a long-time grape grower. The source of the dispute? Employing a more manually intensive, hands-on approach in the vineyard.

“At the time, he [Gabby] was not entirely convinced that such differences in the process could have such a profound effect on the finished wine,” Rich said. “He suggested taking a portion of the vineyard to do exactly what an extreme protocol asked of him to see what would happen.”

Just like that, “Gabby’s Rows” became a semi-official vineyard block.

If you’ve been to Roanoke Vineyards, you’ve seen Gabby’s Rows. They are the 12 easternmost rows right behind the Riverhead tasting room, just off the patio. There’s also a good chance you’ve seen Gabby tending those vines.

He’s out there a lot. He has to be — the protocol is much more intensive and time-consuming than what is done in the rest of the vineyard.

And Gabby is the only one allowed in the block. So if it’s going to be done, he’s the one who will do it.

Throughout the growing season, he thins the canopy —  pulling leaves off the vine to allow more sunlight into the fruit zone and improving air circulation — and drops fruit multiple times. When anything has to be done in the vineyard, it’s done immediately by Gabby, not a day or two before or after it needed to be finished in order to accommodate vineyard crew schedules.

Yields are intentionally kept low. Grapes that “looked perfect but did not taste intense” are dropped to the ground. At harvest, Gabby’s Rows yielded 2.4 tons per acre rather than the more than 3 tons per acre the rest of the cabernet franc did.

Typically, those 2.4 tons per acre also hang in the vineyard longer than the rest of the cabernet franc. The extra hang time, plus lower yields, led to 22.2 brix — a measure of the grapes’ sugar content — versus 22 for the non-Gabby franc (which is also delicious). According to Rich, that difference is the smallest it’s ever been.

This is intense, hands-on viticulture — so hands-on that Rich told me years ago that “The time and effort Gabby spent in those 12 rows would be cost-prohibitive for us to repeat in the rest of the vineyard. I always believed that fine wine needs to be made with the absence of imperfect fruit and without varying levels of ripeness. The fruit that goes into Gabby’s Cabernet Franc is simply absent of imperfection.”

After tasting this wine, it’s hard to argue that the hard work Gabby puts into it isn’t worth it.

Gabby’s 2012 shows the ripeness of the vintage but is a standout for its elegant intensity and early complexity.

A blend of cab franc from Gabby’s rows, along with 17 percent merlot and one percent petit verdot, it offers a spicy and slightly herbal — in a good way — nose with layers of sweet black cherry and blackberry, with subtle but distinct minty-licorice notes and high-toned floral aromas.

Pretty and fresh on the medium-bodied palate, mixed berries lead the way with layers of sweet spice, grilled herbs and a bit of nutty oak. The finish is long and impeccably balanced, ending on a lovely spiced berry note. The tannins are ripe and well-integrated, bringing structure without astringency.

It’s a beautiful, age-worthy wine with plenty of charm and a story to match.

Of course, the 2012 is sold out. But if you want the chance to drink future vintages, join Roanoke’s wine club or make friends with a current member.

This story was originally published in the fall 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press