Tim Teichgraeber - Special to The Chronicle - August 1, 2008
[Left: Winemaker Greg Graziano examines clusters of Sangiovese grapes on the vine in Mendocino County's Redwood Valley. (Craig Lee - The Chronicle)]
During the last two decades, California wines made from Italian grape varieties have seen both a promising boom and a crushing bust, leaving only the most dedicated specialists still standing. Their hope is that grapes like Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo, maybe even Dolcetto, Cortese and Aglianico will yet have their day in the California sun.
Whether motivated by their love of the grapes and the wines they make or a desire to pay tribute to their Italian heritage, a few Cal-Ital champions remain dedicated to their cause despite tough financial challenges.
"Sometimes it's easier to make headway doing something different," says Jim Gullett, whose Vino Noceto winery produces several such wines in the Sierra Foothills.
At least that was the rationale among California's early proponents of Italian varieties. Many would learn that the varieties were surprisingly challenging to grow, and sometimes even harder to sell. After two decades of learning the hard way, the movement's survivors can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and may be able to show others the way.
Make no mistake, Cal-Ital wines are still a tough sell, but by most producers' accounts the resistance to them seems to be waning now that many of the weakest have been weeded out, the best have improved, and the weak dollar has driven up the price of imports and making for a mixed, but bullish, market. Almost one-third fewer tons of Sangiovese grapes were crushed in 2007 than a year earlier, according to the Wine Institute, but the price rose almost one-third. Less prominent grapes like Dolcetto, Cortese and Nebbiolo have all shown increases, though plantings remain small.
There was never a compelling reason why Italian grape varieties shouldn't succeed in California. The climates of the two regions are generally similar. And with tens of millions of Americans of Italian descent, Cal-Ital wines - California wines made from Italian grapes - shouldn't be hard to like.
At least that's what a lot of people thought in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, sometimes even the best laid plans go awry. Two decades later, only Pinot Grigio has emerged as a bona fide success.
Sangiovese was the great red hope of the Cal-Ital movement, a more elegant alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon, modeled after Tuscany's Chianti Classico, which Americans already knew and loved.
By the early 1990s, a number of wineries scattered around the state had begun producing Sangiovese and a few other varieties like Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Pinot Grigio.
Among them were Martin & Weyrich in Paso Robles; Montevina, Boeger and Vino Noceto in the Sierra Foothills; Greg Graziano's Enotria and Monte Volpe brands in Mendocino County; and Seghesio in Dry Creek Valley, which had been growing a little bit of Sangiovese since 1910. Even Robert Mondavi launched a Cal-Ital brand called La Famiglia with winemaker Jim Moore at the helm.
Moore had worked in Montalcino, the home of Italy's great Brunello wine, and he knew how great Sangiovese was made. Moore believed that Sangiovese planted in the right place, like the Napa Valley hillsides, could make world class wine, and he wasn't alone.
Movement gains credibility
In 1987, renown Italian producer Piero Antinori announced that he was partnering with British brewing concern Whitbread and Bollinger in the purchase of a property atop Atlas Peak in Napa Valley and he was going to plant Sangiovese - not Cabernet. Suddenly the Cal-Ital movement had credibility.
Others followed suit in planting Italian grapes, including winemaker Chris Dearden of Napa Valley's Benessere Vineyards, which released its first Sangiovese in 1995.
"I thought we could be the pinnacle of production for Italian varieties publicized by Antinori and Mondavi," says Dearden. He was just one of many that saw Sangiovese and other Italian grapes as a growing opportunity.
You can often identify pioneers by the arrows in their backs. Some of the early Cal-Ital wines showed real promise - specifically those from farmers who knew how to grow difficult grapes like Sangiovese, and those who had tasted enough Italian wines to know what made them great. Unfortunately, others were simply chasing a trend and had no idea what they were getting into. The result was a flood of mediocre Cal-Ital wines that undermined the good ones.
"Most of the winemakers that were making Italian varietals didn't have a f- clue about what Italian wine tasted like," says winemaker Greg Graziano. "All they cared about was what their neighbor was making, and they had no idea what was going on in the world."
Graziano produces Northern Italian-style wines in Mendocino County from Nebbiolo, Arneis, Barbera, Cortese and Dolcetto grapes under his Enotria brand and several other Italian varieties like Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and Montepulciano under his Monte Volpe label, a sort of tribute to the Italian wines he loves. For the most part he purchases grapes to make his wines, and has coaxed Mendocino farmers into planting several varieties, often persuading them to grow them organically or biodynamically.
[Right: Graziano produces Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese and Tocai Friulano under his Monte Volpe label. (Craig Lee - The Chronicle)]
Graziano is a road warrior, traveling the country to ferret out adventurous retailers and sommeliers willing to try and judge Cal-Ital wines on their merits.
Not everyone had as clear an aesthetic vision. Even Atlas Peak, the $25-a-bottle Sangiovese that was supposed to lead the way stumbled through the 1990s. Piero Antinori's estate never managed to make extraordinary Sangiovese, and was generally seen as overpriced. Young vineyards, inexperienced winemakers and competitively priced Italian wines were all part of the problem.
Italian varieties like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo were never intended for novice growers or winemakers. "If you think Pinot Noir is tough (to grow and vinify), Sangiovese is Pinot Noir squared, and Nebbiolo is Pinot Noir cubed," says Moore. "Nebbiolo is the toughest red grape to make in the known universe."
Nebbiolo, the noble grape of Piedmont, is the source for the brilliant wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, but it hasn't made outstanding wines anywhere else. Moore even has a "Letterman top 10 list" of Nebbiolo's fatal flaws, "10: It buds out too early; 9: It ripens too late; 8: It has too high in acid and tannin ..."
Martin & Weyrich's Nebbiolo vines were planted in 1992 from Italian vine cuttings sourced from unnamed persons at an undisclosed rendezvous location during the 1990 Italian World Cup, and smuggled into the United States as a so-called Samsonite clone. "Twenty-five years of experience with the variety is the key, and we still have so much more to learn," says winemaker Craig Reed.
Today Reed makes 4,500 cases of Nebbiolo, and it's the winery's No. 2 or 3 seller behind a wildly successful wine called Allegro, a slightly sweet, lightly bubbly Moscato that sells 70,000 cases a year. "That one keeps the lights on," says Reed.
Moore says that even with a few good Nebbiolos out there, "Nebbiolo may never succeed in California. If it has to any degree, it's where Pinot Noir was in 1970, when there were a handful of decent ones, but it wasn't on anyone's radar screen."
Likewise, Sangiovese is no easy grape to manage. "Young Sangiovese just produces and produces," says Montevina general manager Jeff Myers. Growers who don't cut back the crop wind up with watery, pale wines that lack body and color. "With vineyards now approaching 20 years old, we're getting better concentration and consistency."
Still, the Cal-Ital movement had momentum. Producers of Italian varieties banded together to form the Consorzio Cal-Italia and staged annual tastings at Fort Mason in San Francisco that drew thousands of wine fans. At its peak, around the year 2000, the consorzio had about 140 members.
Then came 9/11. Only a week before, Moore had sold one of his L'Uvaggio di Giacomo wines to Windows on the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center, placing it on one of the most iconic American wine lists. By 2002, the market had stagnated. Even the wineries making good wines from Italian varieties were struggling to sell them to the broader market but were continuing to sell them directly to loyal consumers who had come to know their quality.
Moore and Greg Graziano and Martin & Weyrich found open-minded retail and restaurant buyers in the Midwest, while others, like Noceto and Benessere, sold directly to customers that were looking for something different.
Vintners shapen skills
Through the hard years, dedicated Cal-Ital vintners honed their skills, and their vineyards matured. Even Nebbiolo has made remarkable progress in California, most notably at Paso Robles' Martin & Weyrich winery. "We considered giving up on it, but it's a labor of love," says winemaker Reed, whose favorite wines are Barolo and Barbaresco made from Nebbiolo.
Though Pinot Grigio has been a big hit, Sangiovese, Dolcetto and Aglianico from California are still a hard sell, even when well executed. Today's Cal-Ital wines are often as good as their like-priced Italian equivalents, especially now that the weak dollar has European prices rising, but they're often regarded as being "fake Italian" when French varietal wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California are regarded as perfectly legitimate rivals to their European counterparts. "The wine business has always been Franco-centric," explains Moore.
"We've all gone to the Italian restaurant, and you meet the Italian guy. He's like, 'But this wine's not Italian,' " says Graziano. "I'll say, "What do you have that's Italian? You've got dried pasta and olive oil! Your bread is from L.A., your vegetables are from Southern California, and your meat is from California. Don't give me this crap!' "
"I had that experience at Angelini on Melrose, one of the best trattorias in Los Angeles," echoes Moore. "I showed him my wines and he was blown away. I said, 'Are you going to buy any?' He says, 'No, because I have my Italian wines.' I said, 'Wait a sec, you have Burgundy and you have Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. You have Napa Cabernet and you have Bordeaux. Should you have only Rhone Syrah and none of this Australian Shiraz?' He says, 'You know, you have a point.' But did he buy any? No."
[Left: Chris Dearden, who makes Italian-style wines for Benessere in St. Helena, stands next to the winery's open-top French oak fermenter made in Italy. (Craig Lee - The Chronicle)]
For some the term Cal-Ital itself has been a sore point. "I don't want to hear the term Cal-Ital anymore," says Benessere's Dearden. Does anybody say Cal-Franco? Cal-Espana? Get rid of it," says Dearden, who is tired of his work being regarded as a "failed experiment."
The most dedicated California devotees of Italian varieties have proven that it can, in fact, be done well.
Though it's easy to wonder if some would have chosen another path if they had it to do all over, Noceto's Jim Gullett sees a light at the end of the tunnel in consumers in their 20s and 30s who are looking for something new. "Now people are interested in what's new and different ... You need to be a little bit zealous about it and have a good story and a lot of confidence. You have to be willing to accept a little defeat."
"How long did it take California, and Oregon to figure our how to make Pinot Noir with consistency? It's at least as tough to make Sangiovese as Pinot Noir," says Gullett.
He has no regrets, but is he happy? "Yes, but I probably wouldn't be if it was much harder to sell," says Gullett.
For the best California producers of Italian varieties, the clouds are parting. They're looking forward to a decade where they're more competitive in quality and value to the Italian wines they were modeled after, Cal-Ital producers once again see the glass half-full.
Montevina's Jeff Myers puts it succinctly: "We're real happy with where we're at."
2007 Benessere Napa Valley Carneros Pinot Grigio ($26) A superb California interpretation of the Italian style - ripe, flavorful and full with green apple, nectarine and cream flavors and a crisp, minerally finish.
2007 Enotria Mendocino Cortese ($15) From the grape that makes Gavi di Gavi in Piedmont, this lovely white is every bit as refined as the best Italian examples, with sweet-tart Granny Smith apple, cream, fennel and lemon drop flavors.
2006 Monte Volpe Mendocino Pinot Grigio ($14) Fresh and expressive and flavorful with zesty green apple and lilac aromas, fresh apple flavors and a clean finish. A terrific value.
2007 Terra d'Oro Santa Barbara County Pinot Grigio ($16) Focused and aromatic with beautiful freesia, lavender and honeydew aromas and crystalline citrus, melon and mineral flavors. Excellent.
2003 Benessere Napa Valley Aglianico ($50) This powerful Southern Italian red variety seems to like Napa Valley. From a 1/2-acre block of the BK Collins vineyard comes this dark, full red with vanilla, licorice, blackberry and blueberry aromas and deep plum and berry flavors finishing with sturdy tannins on the graceful finish. The most Cabernet-like of the great Italian reds. Winery only.
2006 Enotria Mendocino Dolcetto ($17) This wine captures well the many charms of this underappreciated Northern Italian variety from its pretty violet aromas to its bright blackberry and cherry fruit, racy acidity and gritty tannins that soften with age.
2004 Enotria Mendocino Barbera ($17) Beautiful blueberry and blackberry pie aromas, vanilla, fruity middle, very approachable with a nice spank of acidity and tarry tannin on the finish. Lovely.
2005 L'Uvaggio di Giacomo Lodi Barbera ($18) Very young, with tight blueberry, blackberry and cranberry aromas. Dark, very ripe blackberry fruit in the middle and a tight finish, but should develop some jammier flavors and soften soon.
2002 L'Uvaggio di Giacomo Il Leopardo Central Coast Nebbiolo ($36) Another solid showing. Elegant, perfumed, textbook Nebbiolo from Stolpman Vineyards in Santa Barbara County with complex plum, cherry, cinnamon, licorice and tar flavors.
2003 Martin & Weyrich Reserve Il Vecchio Paso Robles Nebbiolo ($22) A seamless, beautifully matured red from the frustrating variety of Barolo and Barbaresco with amber-rimmed brick red color, dried rose, lavender, sweet oak, licorice and mushroom aromas, pretty, expressive, tangy cherry and raspberry fruit kissed with toast and a velvety finish. Superb.
2006 MonteVina Amador County Barbera ($12) A fruity red that's at once bright and deep with juicy cherry, raspberry, rose, toast and tar aromas, a round mouthfeel and bright cherry fruit on the finish. Perfect for a picnic or pizza.
2005 Monte Volpe Mendocino Sangiovese ($17) Delicious, fruit-driven California Sangiovese with youthful violet aromas, fresh blueberry and cherry pie flavors trailing into a moderately astringent finish typical of the grape.
Washington and Oregon
[Right: Benessere's 2005 Napa Valley Sangiovese. The winery released its first vintage of the varietal in 1995. (Craig Lee - The Chronicle)]
Wash-Ital and Or-Ital might not have the same ring as Cal-Ital, but the Golden State isn't the only place where growers and vintners have been honing their skills with Italian varieties.
Benchmark producer Ponzi makes a very nice white from Arneis, which is native to Piedmont. Earl and Hilda Jones of southern Oregon's Abacela Vineyards grow a daunting pastiche of Italian grapes, including the varieties Dolcetto, Sangiovese and Freisa.
A number of Washington state wineries are making first-rate wines from Italian varieties, especially Sangiovese. Star Walla Walla producer Leonetti makes a small batch of it each year. Like its other wines, the Sangiovese is excellent and at around $70 a bottle, pricey. Stella Fino, also of Walla Walla, and Cavatappi are two Washington wineries that focus on Italian varieties with great success. Stella Fino sources its Sangiovese ($25) from the excellent Pepper Bridge vineyard in Walla Walla, and Cavatappi's superb Maddalena Nebbiolo ($25) comes from Washington's historic Red Willow vineyard, where many varieties were first planted in Washington. Others to look for include Andrew Will's Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Sangiovese ($30) and Maryhill's Brunello-like Reserve Sangiovese ($32).
Some Italians are still wary of growing Italian grapes in the New World. After abandoning his Sangiovese dreams in Napa Valley, Tuscan producer Piero Antinori partnered with Chateau Ste. Michelle on Washington's Red Mountain in an estate dubbed Col Solare, which makes one red wine, a Bordeaux blend, without a drop of Sangiovese.
Tim Teichgraeber is a San Francisco writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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'Cal-Ital's second act'