Arrivederci, Roma. Hello, California Gaining a toehold: The heritage of the state's early vineyard workers is making its presence felt as Italian-inspired California wines are coming on strong on the market.

Vintage Point

April 03, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It's ironic. California's wine industry was largely built by Italian immigrants, but the state only achieved its status as a world-class wine region by denying its Italian heritage.

French grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay took center stage as the state built its reputation for fine varietal wines during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Famous wine families with names such as Mondavi, Martini, Parducci, Sebastiani and Pedroncelli looked to Bordeaux and Burgundy for inspiration.

Meanwhile, Italy's rich wine heritage was reduced to an ethnic slur that became a common phrase for any cheap red wine.

But something's changed in the last few years. California winemakers are now in the process of turning that insult on its head.

Dozens of wineries are producing wines modeled on Italian classic such as Barbaresco, Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino.

From Santa Barbara to Mendocino County, winegrowers are rushing to plant sangiovese from Toscana (Tuscany) and nebbiolo from Piemonte (Piedmont).

Meanwhile, like a priceless antique in Grandpa's attic, the state's rich legacy of old barbera vineyards has been discovered.

Like the Rhone Ranger revolution that preceded it, the Cal-Ital movement is a work in progress.

There is no California equivalent to Piedmont's Angelo Gaja or Tuscany's Piero Antinori. Many of the wines are clearly the product of young vines. Others are evidence that California winemakers still have a lot to learn about Italian varietals.

But my recent tastings of Cal-Ital wines show there's reason to be encouraged.

There were few outright failures, and many clear-cut successes. Give California another decade and Italian producers will be hearing footsteps close behind them.

(An argument can be made that zinfandel is Italy's great contribution to California, based upon the grape's apparent descent from the primitivo of Apulia. In reality, any cultural links between zinfandel and Italy were severed long ago. It stands alone as California's own grape.)

There are some significant barriers to widespread acceptance of Italian-inspired wines.

Consumers who are just getting used to the profusion of French varietals now have a new vocabulary to learn. But when the wines are good, it isn't so painful.


Barbera is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world -- and one of the most disrespected.

So which grape is emerging as the superstar of the Cal-Ital movement? The lowly barbera, which turns out not to be lowly at all when grown in a cool climate and treated with respect. It doesn't hurt that in many cases the fruit is coming from ancient vines that make overcropping an impossibility.

Still not convinced? Then try to get your hands on the rare 1993 Il Podere dell' Olivos Barbera ($22) from the folks who produce Au Bon Climat wines. This wine is a stunner, with rich, meaty, bold flavors and a silky texture that conceals an impressive tannic backbone. It can easily stand in the same company as the gorgeous barberas being produced by Piedmont's Elio Altare.

The Il Podere is no fluke, however. Other excellent barberas on the market include the 1993 Renwood ($19) and the 1993 Montevina Terra d'Oro ($16), both from Amador County. A step down but still good, is the 1993 Monte Volpe ($14).


The sangiovese is the classic grape of Tuscany, the dominant varietal in Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. As interest in Tuscan wine and food have soared in recent years, so has the reputation of sangiovese.

Unlike with barbera, California winemakers could not suddenly discover old vineyards of sangiovese. Few had been planted. So most of the sangioveses you see on the market today are the yield of vineyards planted in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The results so far have been promising. Sangiovese seems to be adapting well to its New World home and is retaining much of its Italian character. If the wines show a certain lack of intensity, it is probably a result of the youth of the vines.

So far, there are no signs of California sangioveses that can rival the Brunellos (or even the Rossos) di Montalcino of a top producer such as Pertimali. The best are reaching the level of a good Chianti Classico.

Progressive Italian winemakers have shown that sangiovese blends quite successfully with cabernet sauvignon, which contributes some much needed heft and backbone.

The wisdom of that approach shows in the 1993 Shafer Firebreak ($26), which combines 84 percent sangiovese and 16 percent cabernet. It's a classy wine with deep cassis fruit, a bit closed now but with tremendous potential to match its hefty price tag.

One excellent but atypical sangiovese is the 1993 Renwood from Amador County's Clockspring Vineyard ($19). Its concentration and 14.5 percent alcohol are unusual, and the wine resembles zinfandel more than anything Tuscan, but there's no denying its bold, meaty, herbal flavors.

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