American drinkers waking up to ‘new’ Old World varieties

In a county where Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon dominate, it takes guts to decide to make and sell a wine from Montepulciano grapes, a variety that not many Americans have heard of and that can be difficult to pronounce.

But in 2005, after success with other Italian grape varieties, including Sangiovese and Barbera, the Unti family decided the Dry Creek Valley could be a great fit for Montepulciano and grafted 1,200 vines of it at Unti Vineyards Winery on Dry Creek Road. Like others in the area who have decided to hitch their wagons to Italian varieties, the Untis’ decision was based on a healthy mix of solid logic and a deep, irrational love of Italian wines.

Mick Unti, who co-founded his winery in 1997 with his father, George Unti, describes the decisions to plant Sangiovese, Barbera and Montepulciano as “educated guesses” based on their travels through Italy and years of drinking Italian wines.

“It’s having a knowledge about those wines. It’s also just having an intuitive knowledge that our climate is maybe not exactly like Tuscany or maybe not exactly like Piemonte or maybe not exactly like Campania or Abruzzo, but it’s not that far off,” he says. “It’s closer to those guys than our climate is to Loire Valley, Burgundy, Champagne. It’s not even close to Bordeaux, really. Bordeaux is a maritime climate. We don’t get that kind of rainfall.”

DaVero Farms & Winery on Westside Road draws that climate connection between Northern California and the Mediterranean with a bright red line on a map of the world that greets visitors to both their tasting room and their website. The line is at 38 degrees 36 minutes 38 seconds north latitude and stretches from DaVero in southern Dry Creek Valley across North America, the Atlantic Ocean, then cuts through Spain and the boot of Italy. Layered onto that map are different colors that indicate whether the area has a hot and dry summer or a cool and wet summer. Just as Unti suggested, most of Europe sees a cool, wet summer. But not California and not most of Italy.

“For us, it’s about climate correctness and about the grapes being in a place that fits their most basic needs, if we’re growing them for flavor,” said Evan LaNouette, DaVero’s winemaker. “In the beginning we did what we did because we liked those wines,” LaNouette said. “Then over time we realized it was working because of climate correctness.”

Unti admitted that some of his planting decisions have been more on the capricious side. Several years ago, he travelled to Italy with his friend Kevin Wardell. Wardell now owns Bergamot Alley, a wine bar and shop in downtown Healdsburg. Then working as a sommelier in San Francisco, he was on a mission to get someone to make a California version of his favorite Italian wine: Lacrima di Morro d’Alba.

Unti says that he, his father and Wardell are all “very enthusiastic wine fanatics.” Wardell is also very “persuasive,” he says. “We thought it was hilarious because we were talking about this when we were in Italy at this wine bar in Verona drinking until 4:00 in the morning, and it was like, ‘Sure, sounds like a great plan.’”

The Untis eventually got Lacrima cuttings from Italy and grafted them to 400 vines in their vineyards. The vines have struggled, however. The Untis are planning on re-planting the Lacrima on a different rootstock, but will also bottle 18 cases of 2015 Lacrima. “They should do well here, but to go through that painstaking process only to have mixed results is strictly because we love the wines,” Unti says. “It’s definitely a frivolous experiment. And it’s still a manifestation of why we do any of this stuff. It’s still a good example of how we got here.”

For Bill Nachbaur of Acorn Winery in the Russian River Valley, much of the pleasure of Italian varieties lies simply in doing something that few people are doing. When he and his wife, Betsy, purchased their vineyards in the Russian River Valley in 1990, there were already many old vines in place, including a block of Zinfandel, with a small amount of Sangiovese mixed in, planted by Americo Rafanelli in 1950. This Sangiovese is considered to be some of the oldest in the county.

“Whether he did it on purpose, I don’t know,” Nachbaur said, “because some field blending, I think, happens by accident.”

Either way, Nachbaur knew that the Sangiovese grew well in his location. In 1992 he decided to add more, taking budwood from the Rafanelli vines.

“I figured there was already plenty of Cabernet and Chardonnay. I wanted to do something different,” he said. “But hardly anyone had Sangiovese and most customers were afraid to try and pronounce it.”

Following the lead of Rafanelli and the other growers who had planted his vineyards over the last century or more, Nachbaur interplanted Canaiolo and Mammolo, both grapes that can be included along with Sangiovese in Tuscan Chiantis. At the time, both Canaiolo and Mammolo were so rare that Nachbaur said he had to petition the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to get the varieties approved for use on his wine labels. Because the Nachbaurs grow more than 60 varieties, many of their grapes are still not on the TTB’s official list.

Some local winemakers working with Italian-style wines are picking up where their predecessors left off, either in the Old World or the New World. When Jane Portalupi and her husband, Tim Borges, started making wine together in 2002, they knew right away that they wanted to focus on Italian varieties. Their winery, Portalupi Winery, now makes a handful of Italian wine varieties and other wines, selling them through their wine club and their tasting room on North Street in Healdsburg.

“We decided to focus on our heritage, and really focus on Italian varietals. We wanted to source our fruit from some of the best growers of Italian varietals from the area,” Jane said. “That’s really how we developed our portfolio.”

Portalupi’s grandmother learned to make wine in the Piemonte region in Northern Italy before immigrating to the United States during Prohibition. Marina Portalupi had a grocery store in San Jose, and she bootlegged her homemade wine out of it in old milk jugs she collected.

“There’s a rich history in the family,” said Borges. “Old World over to the New World, through Prohibition, everything.”

The fruity, high-acid Barbera has become something of a flagship wine for Portalupi.

“Ironically, most Americans probably aren’t aware that Barbera was here well before, and in pretty big numbers acre-wise, up until the 1960s or so,” Borges said. “Predominantly it was just your jug wine, your Gallo Hearty Burgundy, what have you. Most of us old Italian families always grew Barbera because it was the wine of the motherland, wine we enjoy with Northern Italian cuisine.”

Following her grandmother’s lead, Portalupi and Borges do, in fact, make an everyday jug wine, a red blend and a white blend that they sell in milk jugs and call “Vaso di Marina.” The exact varieties used changes from year to year, but the idea is to make a wine that can be drunk immediately.

When Marina Portalupi was learning to make wine in Italy, “every village had a village winery, and they make usually just a Bianco, a Rosso. A village white and a village red,” Borges said. “There might be multiple white grapes growing around the village, but they’d pick them all at once. It’s a field blend. It’s crafted to drink now, and the same holds true with the red varieties… they were crafted to be hearty, but drinkable now, your blue collar, agrarian, everyday, spaghetti bolognese, pizza wine.”

Fred Peterson began his career in the wine industry in the 1970s, and after stints as both a vineyard manager and a winemaker, he started his own winery in Dry Creek Valley in 1987. His approach has been low-tech but high-touch from the beginning, and that’s something his son Jamie has continued since taking over winemaking duties in 2006.

The Petersons make small amounts of several different varieties each year, including Zinfandel and Rhone varieties, at their winery Peterson Winery on Dry Creek Road, but Italian wines have long held a special spot for them. Fred Peterson said he first grew interested in Italian wines during his time in the Navy when he was overseas. Now the winery produces two Sangioveses, a Barbera, and a white blend of Vermentino, Vernaccia and a third variety from Portugal. While Peterson says that Barbera is a relatively straightforward grape both to grow and to make wine from (and one he’d like to see more of in the area), he recalls a steep learning curve with Sangiovese.

“I almost gave up on making it in the early ’90s, because young Sangiovese in the barrel is kind of nasty,” he says. “It has a lot of these bitter tannins.” The solution was to rack the wine frequently to let it work its lees and sediment out. With Sangiovese, Peterson explains, “You just have to be more patient and it’s one year to the next.”

While Barbera has always been an easy sell, he says, it was tougher at first to get customers to open up to Sangiovese. That’s changed in the last decade, but he says restaurants were always very open to his Italian wines. “We’ve always done well with the restaurateurs who appreciate wines that truly go with their food,” he says.

Combining Italian-style wines with food might seem obvious, but there’s a reason they work so well together. Many Italian varieties, and especially Barbera, have relatively high acid. This makes them easy to pair with food. Higher acid wines cause one’s mouth to produce more saliva, so the mouth is literally watering even before taking the first bite of food. For many winemakers working with Italian varieties, there is no separating the wine from the food it with which it will be drunk.

“For me, wine is more of a food than it is a stand-alone drink. It is a component to a meal at its best,” says DaVero’s winemaker Evan LaNouette. “There’s something that always is reflective of the people that are handling it, the climates that it’s grown in, the biology of its area. There’s something reflective about it. It connects people and it’s another food, food that forces us to pay attention to differences in flavor.”

Husband and wife owners of Mora Estate, Fabiano and Alena Ramaci, also grew up in Italian-American families with a predilection for good food and good wine. Alena was born in the United States, but spent plenty of time with her grandmother in Italy’s northern Veneto region. Fabiano was born in Sicily but grew up in his father’s Italian restaurant in San Francisco. Fabiano became a chef as well and a hobby winemaker, and then he and Alena decided to take the plunge and start making wine a little more seriously.

But Fabiano didn’t take the easy road. He decided to focus on varieties and techniques that no one in California was using, approaches he says date back to Roman times. He decided to make an Amarone-style wine, which is made with Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and other red wine grapes from the Valpolicella region with which few Americans are familiar.

It was not easy at first to find a grower who would convert vineyards over to these unknown varieties, but eventually, about 10 years ago, they did find someone willing to take the risk.

“We had to take small steps, and it has been a long journey,” says Fabiano. Once he had convinced a grower to graft vines over to his pet varieties, he started in on his process. For Amarone-style wines, a portion of the grapes are set aside to be slowly air-dried after picking but before fermentation.

Fabiano wants his fruit to have as long a hang time as possible. They pick late, usually October, but are looking for relatively low sugar.

“With hang time I get toasty seeds and I get brown stems,” he says. “Then we pick all the best fruit, we put them on tray… At that point winter is starting to kick in. You can feel that cool breeze in the wintertime. It’s the end of fall. It goes into this place. It has fans blowing. It’s cool. You have to keep it cool as much as possible.”

The idea is that the grapes will dry out very slowly, ideally over 120 days. Only then are the grapes crushed and allowed to go through fermentation.

“It’s been an extremely hard road because when you’re pioneering something, it’s not like at first you’re accepted. In fact, you’re judged,” Alena says.

Now, Mora Estate is finding its stride. Production is still tiny at under 500 cases a year and all of the wine is made at a custom crush facility in Healdsburg.

“At this point Mora already has her own momentum; it’s separate from us,” says Alena. “It’s an entity that exists on its own.”

That momentum is growing for Italian wines more widely as well.
“Italian wines have just kind of blown up,” says Kevin Wardell of Bergamot Alley. Wardell says that especially in the Bay Area and especially among those who enjoy paying attention to the wines they are drinking, familiarity with Italian wine varieties and an openness to try new wines is growing.
“I think that’s still changing and I think there’s still a ways to go. I think it starts at the customer base having that knowledge. Armed with that knowledge that when they go in and see a Vermentino on the list and say, ‘That’s actually a California Vermentino. I’m going to really like that,’” he says. “That’s something that’s becoming more commonplace and has leagues to grow as well.”

Wardell has focused exclusively on European wines at his bar and wine shop since it opened four years ago. But he’s also been involved in spearheading what he and his compatriots calls the Seven % Solution, a movement that celebrates and explores the lesser known varieties grown in California. It started when they realized that just a handful of varieties made up 93 percent of the wine grapes planted in California. They wanted to celebrate those rarer varieties. Now, for the first time, Bergamot Alley is going to be selling and serving California wines—those that fit the Seven % Solution criteria—and that means California Sangiovese, California Barbera and maybe even California Lacrima—that rare, aromatic favorite of Wardell’s.

“It’s a movement that I really believe in, which is perpetuating varietal diversity in California,” he says. “We really want to be able to carry these wines and to be able to help build these local businesses. To stand on that platform and put our money where our mouth is by representing what we want to see in the California market. If we’re not setting that example, then we’re not being fully honest.”

Because Bergamot Alley is all about education, including these California wines also means side-by-side tastings comparing Old World and New World versions. For example, Wardell says, a Montepulciano from Marche and one from Dry Creek Valley and made by Mick Unti.

“I think some people who think they only like American wine might find some loves on the other side, and vice versa. You never can tell what people are going to see in it, but I think that no matter what, it’s worth doing,” he says.

As American wine drinkers’ tastes expand to encompass more esoteric wines, those in Sonoma County who’ve devoted their vineyards and their fermentation tanks to Italian varieties stand to reap the benefits of their hard work and choices that sometimes seemed irrational but were driven by passion. SD



Acorn Winery
12040 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg
AVA: Russian River Valley
Buy through wine club, website and tasting room by appt. only.

Bergamot Alley
328A Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg

DaVero Farms & Winery
766 Westside Road, Healdsburg
AVA: Dry Creek Valley
Buy through wine club, website and tasting room 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday; reservation required for Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Mora Estate
AVA: a range
Wines for sale at Healdsburg Emporium and Oliver’s Markets, served at some local restaurants; planning to start wine club soon.

Peterson Winery
4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg
AVA: Dry Creek Valley
Buy through wine club, website and tasting room 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

Portalupi Winery
107 North Street, Healdsburg
AVA: a range
Buy through wine club, website and tasting room 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Unti Vineyards Winery
4202 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg
AVA: Dry Creek Valley
Buy through wine club, website and tasting room (visits by appt. only), Oliver’s Markets, Bottle Barn, Big John’s Market and many local restaurants.