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The New Cal-Ital
“Is there a country so stylishly creative as Italy? Or less easily governed? Italy has the world’s richest variety of individual wine styles, distinctive terroirs, and indigenous grape varieties. At the top end her wines have a vivacity, originality, savour, and flair all their own. At the bottom end… she still has too many dull, over productive vines, but those wines are avoidable. The middle ground is what is most important, and these wines have already improved” (Johnson and Robinson. World Atlas of Wine, 148).
There is one simple reason that Italian grapes grow on the west coast: California was an attractive place for Italian immigrants in the late 1800’s. These pioneers brought clippings of grapes from their homes in Italy—Barbera, Zinfandel and Sangiovese for example—planting them up and down the coast. No culture in the world does table wine as well as Italy does, and these immigrants were looking for a taste of home. They weren’t looking for “fine wine.”
The early farmers were lucky that much of California’s climate was perfect for Italian grapes, which do particularly well in coastal hill-country (like Mendocino and Santa Barbara). Here the constant exposure to UV rays steadily darkens the skins and the sugars develop slowly thanks to cool, foggy nights. This maritime influence is necessary for these grapes because it allows for a long hang time, similar to what they’d get in their ancestral home. With long hang times, winemakers can achieve ripe flavors while maintaining a strong acidity, one of the defining characteristics of Italian wines.
After a decidedly Italian start in the early years of California viticulture, successive generations of Italian-American vintners abandoned these grapes. The biggest Italian families (like Mondavi, Martinelli, and Gallo) got big trading in French varietals, which is no surprise. Italian wines have traditionally been considered rustic; France is where you go for the top shelf, for the refined. Traditionally if you want to make money in California, you planted Cabernet and Chardonnay.
Only in the last few decades have we seen a significant return of well-crafted Italian varietals. My theory is that this is because Italian wines have recently become appealing to a new swath of American drinkers. Turns out there are finessed wines from Italy, wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Piedmontese Nebbiolo (particularly from the Northern Piedmont), and Nerello Mascalese. The same thing has happened in California; people have woken up to find that California wine looks nothing like it did 30 years ago. Just as Italy is no longer only home to rustic, burly reds, California is no longer just about jammy fruit and new oak. People who only ever drank French wines are now turning to both regions.
While the high-end of Californian viniculture may always be French-focused, I have a hunch that mid-priced wines will increasingly be made up of Italian grapes. These wines are focused, acid-driven, fresh dinner wines; wines that are obviously grown/made in California (sun-drenched), but which show restraint and mouth-watering acidity. You’ve going to see more and more Italian grapes California grown, as they are some of the most food-friendly wines made in America, and represent some of the best values in the $15-$45 range.
More than 100 years after the first Italians planted clippings in California, Italian grapes are having a renaissance there—not as fine wine, but as a growing percentage of the greatly improved “middle ground” for the domestic drinker. It’s my hope that this month’s selection will flesh out our understanding of the “stylishly creative” ethos that’s currently swelling up in the middle ground of Californian wines, as well as the debt that these this new wave owes to Italy.
Matthew and the Vanderbilt Wine Merchants’ Team
Region: Sonoma, California
Ryan and Megan Glaab (RYan + MEgan = Ryme) generally present a unified front. They both make the wine, they focus on organic vineyards planted to Italian varieties, and across their entire portfolio they display a distinctly “Old World” style (ie. grapes picked for acidity instead of alcohol level, a minimal use of new oak, plus a desire to bottle single vineyard wines). However, from time to time they admit to having different opinions of a grape’s best interpretation. In those cases, they carve out two different projects: “His” and “Hers.”
Their dueling Las Brisas Vermentino bottling is a remarkable study of the choices that a winemaker makes in the cellar. Ryan chose to make a wine inspired by producers Dettori and Massa Vecchia, who craft beautiful orange wines from the grape. is Vermentino was picked late, fermented and rested on skins, and released late, after time in barrel. Megan, on the other hand, was inspired by the bright, crisp, aromatic wines from the Ligurian coast and from Gallura, in Sardegna. Her wine was whole cluster pressed, and fermented with native yeasts in a combination of neutral barrel and stainless steel. The wine underwent partial malolactic fermentation. The choice to pick earlier and ferment in neutral barrels results in a wine that is mouthwatering and refreshing, full of spicy ginger and tropical sea-seaside flavors like pineapple and mango.
Grape: Malvasia Bianco
Region: Monterey, California
Malvasia has an ancient origin in Greece, but it makes its home in many different coastal regions. Italy is its modern home, followed by the Canary and Balearic Islands, plus Madeira, where it’s called Malmsey. It grows well on slopes with well-draining soils and in climates that are generally dry and hot, and Salinas Valley in Monterey, California—with it’s massive diurnal temperature shifts, with the fog rolling off the Monterey Bay after each long hot day—is an obvious place to plant this grape. The specific clone of Malvasia (Malvasia Bianca) that grows in these California coastal hills was brought over by Calabrian immigrants in the early 20th century.
I love the aromatic nose on this one, it’s incredibly welcome on a hot day. It blooms with tropical fruits: lychee, passionfruit, and a dried citrus pith. On the palate, the wine is fresh and mineral, with no bitter downturn in sight. This wine was made by veteran winemakers who worked at Bonny Doon Vineyard, partners with 40 years of experience between them. A wine like this makes a strong case for becoming a notable home for Malvasia.
Grape: Tocai Friulano
Region: Santa Barbara, California
Appellation: Santa Maria Valley
Jim Clendenen has won countless awards in California, where he makes wines with primarily Burgundian varieties under his label “Au Bon Climat”; he’s a legend. In addition to these lauded and classically styled wines, he purchases fruit and makes small batches of distinctive experimentation with a wide variety of grapes under the name “Clendenen Family Vineyards”. He experiments with a wide variety of grapes and favors the Italian varietals. This Tocai Friulano is sourced from the famed Bien Nacido vineyard, where the grape was planted in 1994.
The wine is compact and subdued in the glass, primarily melon-fruit with dense citrus notes and a nice mineral purity. On the palate, I’m reminded of crisp pear juice, and the wine shows a silky weight with a fresh acidity that makes it a great compliment to a wide variety of foods. While it originates in Friuli-Venezia, the Tocai Friulano has been taken worldwide. In Chile, it was confused for Sauvignon Blanc. In California, it’s a beautiful, shy wine.
Grape: Tocai, Ribolla, Chardonnay
Region: California, USA
Appellation: Napa Valley White Wine
Massican, a project by winemaker Dan Petroski, is named after Monte Massico, the coastal mountain range in southern Italy where Dan’s ancestors are from. Those mountains are famous in mythological wine lore: Bacchus took some much needed refuge here with a local farmer and he was so thankful for the hospitality that he planted the farmer a vineyard as a thank you. That vineyard, the legend goes, became the most sought after white wine vineyard in all of Italy. Dan channels his Italian heritage and cultivates six white grape varieties in Napa and Sonoma, creating wines that could very well be mythical ones from the Mediterranean coast.
The Annia is Dan’s flagship white wine. It’s a blend sourced from small vineyards scattered around the Napa Valley. Each of the three grape varieties is harvested and fermented (in French oak and stainless steel tanks) separately. Six weeks before bottling, the grapes are blended. Generally speaking, the Tocai and Ribolla add aromatic complexity and boost the flavor, while the Chardonnay provides weight and texture. Fresh, subtle, and as Italian as you’ll get in the sunny California hills.
Grape: Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo
Region: Mendocino, California
Sam Bilbro is the son of a winemaker and the brother of two more (one works for the family winery and the other has his own line of wines. Check out this Food and Wine article about the brothers). They are descendents of Italian immigrants who arrived in the US in the early 1900’s. Sam’s brother Jake, says: “I don’t think they moved here to grow grapes as much as survive”. They established their family and now their descendents have established three different wineries. One of these includes Idlewild, which focuses on rustic, old-school interpretations of Italian grapes.
This blend of Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo is primarily sourced from the Fox Hill Vineyard, a 60-acre organic vineyard planted between 700 and 1400 feet to a smattering of Italian grapes. This is an homage to the Italian house wine: it’s light, fresh, aromatic, and firmly structured in order to pair with a wide variety of foods. The wine is a comforting combination of fruit and spice, black cherries and strawberries meet anise and spicy floral tones. On the palate, it’s not fussy or delicate; it’s got a fresh core, with a firm and rich flavor, made to pair with whatever food you throw at it. An Italian house wine, grown in California! 350 cases made.
Region: Santa Barbara
Appellation: Ballard Canyon
Pete Stolpman took over his family’s winery in 2009 and helped create the AVA that he works in, the Ballard Canyon AVA, which is an emerging locus of boutique wineries in Santa Barbara. Since the creation of the AVA in 2013, he’s been the president of the Ballard Canyon Winegrowers Alliance. Before this, he made wine in the Barossa Valley in Australia and in Chianti in Italy (where Sangiovese is king). He works closely with some of the best farmers in the region and crafts balanced, varietally-correct wines that consistently deliver.
Let this be your chilled red wine for the entire summer—I still haven’t found a better one. “Love You Bunches” is 100% Sangiovese that’s been fermented carbonically, ie. the grapes ferment whole, uncrushed in a sealed tank. It’s the same way that grapes ferment in Beaujolais Nouveau, which creates a full-flavored wine with a tiny percentage of the tannin present in a traditionally fermented red wine. Serve chilled.
Grape: Aglianico, Montepulciano, Barbera
Region: Napa, California
Appellation: California Red Wine
Matthiasson is one of my favorite projects in Napa, hands down. Steve and Jill Matthiasson craft balanced wines that are both luscious and crisp, in what appears to be absolute bliss. This is the Tendu, the “drink it up” Italian blend made in red and white form; thirst quenching bottles that I can hardly wait for every year.
Matthiasson is a family project, the result Steve’s years of experience as a vineyard guy for clients that include Spotteswoode, Chappellet and Stag’s Leap. Jill brings a masters degree in soil health and a lifelong career in sustainable agriculture. They have two children who help and together they are shifting the winemaking culture of Napa towards something more sustainable. The wines are honest and delicious, and the high end cuvees are the few top-shelf Napa Cabernets that I personally would want to pay for. But this is not Matthiasson’s high end Cabernet, this wine is insanely crushable. It’s jug wine sourced from practicing organic vineyards with only522 cases made. No sulphur added.
Grape: Zinfandel, Syrah
Region: Mendocino, California
Zinfandel has a long history in America, dating back to the early 1800s, when it was first shipped to Long Island, eventually making its way to California, forgetting its origins along the way. Some claim it’s the Croatian grape Plavac Mali, while most maintain it’s the Italian grape Primitivo. While the former is more likely true, modern history of this grape is largely defined by the Italian immigrants John and Mario Tinchero, who ran Sutter Home Winery and fed oceans of sweet White Zinfandel to the masses starting in the mid-70s. Because of its long history here, there are remarkable heritage vineyards with vines dating back 50-100 years.
This wine comes from the Poor Family Vineyard, from a parcel of 100+ year-old vines. The current owners trace their family back in California to the 1600s and of the 13 subsequent generations, six have lived on this 180-acre ranch, starting in 1888. Find more information about the family and vineyard here. The vineyard is organic and dry farmed. This wine—a far cry from both White Zin and the 15% alcohol, highly extracted versions found elsewhere—is an incredible example of a natural, low-alcohol wine. All stainless steel fermentation with no added sulphur, this wine is a raspberry soda (yep there’s a little spritz) with surprising grip and depth.