Italian viticulture promises great California wines


March 29, 1992|By MICHAEL DRESSER

From its earliest days, California's wine industry has looked to Italy for muscle and energy but to France for inspiration and affirmation.

The industry was practically built on the work of such Italian-American families as Mondavi, Sebastiani, Seghesio, Parducci, Foppiano, Martini and Pedroncelli. They sustained the industry through the dark years of Prohibition and nurtured it through the sleepy decades before the wine boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Like many of California's other wine pioneers, these sons of Italy aspired to make wines that would be counted among the finest in the world. But the model they adopted was no different from that of their counterparts named Daniel, Hanzell, Beringer and de Latour. They wanted to re-create the great wines of France.

In large measure, they have succeeded. They made cabernet sauvignons that passed for fine Bordeaux and chardonnays that rivaled the greatest white Burgundies. They struggled mightily with pinot noir, with real success coming only in the last decade. In the 1980s a new generation of winemakers championed the great but little-known varietals of the Rhone Valley.

Lost in this orgy of Francomania was California's Italian viticultural heritage, which has brought the world some of its finest wines.

Sangiovese and nebbiolo, Italy's two greatest grapes, were represented by a few scraggly old vines in obscure vineyards. Barbera, a good second-tier Italian varietal, became a mainstay of California's jug wine industry, but it was seldom taken seriously as a varietal. Grignolino, a minor Piedmont variety cultivated by Heitz Cellars, has been a spotty performer (the currently available 1987 is awful).

The closest thing to fine Italian wine produced in California was the mysterious zinfandel, believed by some to be closely related to the primitivo of Apulia. But those links are tenuous; modern zinfandel seems inspired as much by the Rhone as any Italian style.

In recent years, however, there has been a small but growing movement in California to explore the state's potential for matching the greatest wines of Italy. Vintners are planting sangiovese, nebbiolo and even less well-known Italian varieties, and the oft-scorned barbera is winning new respect.

These new Roman legions are not numerous, but if some of the early efforts are any indication, Italo-California wines might be the most exciting development in the industry since the "Rhone Rangers" helped drag California out of its chardonnay-cabernet rut.

One of the leaders in this movement is Montevina Winery in Amador County, which was acquired in 1988 by Bob Trinchero, who made his fortune by building Napa Valley's Sutter Home winery into one of the nation's largest producers of white zinfandel and other varietal wines at reasonable prices.

In recent years, Mr. Trinchero's image as an entrepreneur and wine popularizer has eclipsed his reputation as a fine wine producer, but veteran tasters will recall that some of his zinfandels of the early 1970s were among the best made up until that time.

Montevina represents a different kind of commitment for Mr. Trinchero, said Stan Hock, the winery's chief spokesman, who visited Maryland recently and brought a selection of new Italo-California wines with him.

The small winery in the Sierra foothills had built a powerful, if somewhat mixed, reputation in the early 1970s for its blockbuster-style zinfandels. But after family squabbling led to the departure of winemaker Carey Gott in 1982, the winery went into a decline.

When Mr. Trinchero bought Montevina, he upgraded the equipment and renovated the winery, but his most important decision was to begin an extensive program of planting Italian grape varieties.

In 1990, Montevina planted three acres of nebbiolo, five of sangiovese, 10 of Friuli's refosco and two of Umbrias aleatico, as well as expanding its barbera plantings from five acres to 15. In addition, the winery is trying out another 40 grape varieties, some so rare they are no longer found in Italy, in an experimental vineyard.

The first crush from these new plantings will come this fall.

Mr. Hock said Montevina made that commitment for several reasons: suitable climate, especially for Tuscan varieties; the success of the "Rhone Ranger" wines; the growing interest in Mediterranean-style cuisine; and the Trincheros' own Italian heritage.

So far, the only bottled evidence of Montevina's prowess with Italian varieties comes from its original barbera vineyard. But persuasive evidence it is.

Now 99 times out of 100 barbera is a rather ordinary wine with an excess of volatile acidity. Only when yields are kept extremely low and the winemaker lavishes extraordinary care on the wine can a barbera show its true potential. Montevina's 1987 Reserve Selection Barbera is one of those wines.

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