Little Frances: Erin Pooley on not being a natural winemaker

little frances semillon
2015 Little Frances Semillon, Luchsinger Vineyard, Lake County, California. Photo: Bruce Cole

Diamonds. Teeny tiny diamonds. That’s the first thing that came to mind when drinking a glass of this Little Frances 2015 Semillion, Luschinger Vineyard. It’s not sparkly, but it’s jewel-like just the same. Every element in the glass seems precisely composed to produce a luxurious texture and sublimely zesty finish.

Winemaker Erin Pooley grew up in Australia, where she began making wine, especially Semillon, in 2007. When she moved to the West Coast, she found a small block of the Semillon at the Luschinger Vineyards in Lake County and launched her first vintage under the Wei Chi label in 2012, which she later changed to Little Frances. She picks earlier than usual which results in a low ABV of around 10.5%, bottles the wine (versus aging it in barrels) and sits on it for at least three years before release to allow the wine to develop.

Edible SF: Tell us about your wines.

Erin Pooley: The wines of the Hunter Valley are my inspiration, but I take my own approach to fermentation. I allow early oxidation, warmer ferments, no inoculation and natural malolactic fermentation. I want the wine to find its sense of place and completion, so I stay out of the way as much as possible.

Edible SF: Would it be safe to assume then, that your wines are “natural”?

Erin Pooley: While I value and love many wines considered natural, I don’t classify myself as such in an attempt to stay away from the dogma and extremism of this movement. I value the economic sustainability of our farmers in their pursuit of quality in this ever increasingly expensive Northern Californian life. While not adding chemicals to my wine, to the earth, to the water table, to the fields and workplace of so many of our nation’s most vulnerable workers is incredibly important to me. I know that change occurs slowly, with long-term relationships and not overnight with the demands and inflexibility of mind I’ve seen in the market. Also, I add sulphur (at minimal levels for my wines) and filter when I believe it will benefit wine quality. The 2015 Semillon was sterile filtered as it did not complete malolactic fermentation naturally.

Edible SF: Can you tell us more about your relationship with the Luschinger vineyard and their farming practices?

Erin Pooley: I work with farmers on a spectrum of Sustainable to CCOF, some certified, some not. The Luchsingers are certified sustainable but do reserve the right to spray when necessary. Typically against fungus, as mold can be an issue in certain conditions. Since our relationship began in 2012, I’ve seen constant improvements and changes in their farming, including significant reductions in the use of any and all chemical sprays. The world is changing (even in Lake County!) and I’m proud to partner with such a community-orientated family.

Edible SF: The bottle we’re drinking is a 2015 vintage, and we’ve read that you age wines in the bottle (versus barrels or other containers) for three years before release. Seeing how it’s 2020, has this Semillon been aging longer than usual?

Erin Pooley: The 2015 Semillon is my current release (made available in September 2019). It was bottled in early Spring 2016. So, three-and-half years in bottle before release. It was a leaner, more demure wine and took longer to come around than my 2014 did. The 2016 behind it is starting to blossom right now. I wish it wasn’t a faux pas to have more than one vintage on the market! They’re both so pleasurable in different ways.