NAPA VALLEY, Calif. - Benessere Vineyards is located smack in the middle of the northern Napa Valley - one of the world's prime spots for growing $50-plus cabernet sauvignons.
So what did John and Ellen Benish decide to specialize in when they bought the former Charles Shaw winery and vineyards in 1994?
Sangiovese - the prime red-wine grape of Italy's Tuscany region but an uneven performer in California.
"The world didn't need another cabernet," says Benesserre winemaker Christopher Dearden.
Luna Vineyards took over the old St. Andrew's winery in the cooler southern reaches of the Napa Valley, where chardonnay is popular and commercially successful.
So what did George Vare and Mike Moone, the co-founders of Luna, do when they bought up a moneymaking chardonnay vineyard in the heart of that area in the mid-1990s?
Pulled it out and planted pinot grigio, a white variety with a modest reputation in Italy but a minimal track record in California. Neighbors thought they were lunatics, a description the Luna team happily embraced. Now pinot grigio - also known as pinot gris - is catching on like wildfire throughout California.
"From today's point of view, it looks like genius," says winemaker Kelly Wheat.
These two relatively young wineries, which I visited recently during a brief trip to the Napa Valley, are in the forefront of an increasingly successful effort by innovative California vintners to produce outstanding wines from Italian grape varieties.
Benessere and Luna are not the first California wineries to embrace sangiovese and pinot grigio. Various winemakers have been struggling with the varietals - particularly sangiovese - for more than a decade.
What's different is that these two wineries appear to be getting it right. Their sangioveses are structured, complex and full of fruit; their pinot grigios are intense and flavorful.
Before my recent California visit, I had not been fully persuaded that either sangiovese or pinot grigio had an exciting future in California. Now I'm confident that these two varietals will provide consumers with welcome alternatives to the ubiquitous chardonnays, merlots and cabernets that play-it-safe wineries continue to crank out.
My conversion started at the London Wine Bar in San Francisco, where the 1998 Benessere (Italian for well-being) sangiovese was part of a tasting sampler. One sip of this concentrated, stylish wine - so reminiscent of a fine Chianti Classico - and a visit to Benessere became a priority.
A few days later, I was at the winery, asking Dearden how Benessere had created such a truly Tuscan-style wine when so many other California sangiovese producers had bottled harsh, skeletal wines with little character.
Dearden explained that when the first California wineries started serious plantings of sangiovese in the 1980s and early 1990s, all they had to work with were clones from the University of California at Davis. Benessere, he said, had been able to take advantage of some of the newer and better clones developed during Italy's recent wine renaissance.
He said Benessere has also benefited from the advice of Italian wine consultants, including a former winemaker at the famous Piero Antinori winery in Tuscany.
Like virtually all serious winemakers, Dearden also stresses the importance of keeping crop levels low. Where the average Napa vineyard yields 4 to 5 tons an acre, Benessere harvests 2 to 2 1/2 tons, he said.
For pinot grigio, Benessere looks southward in Napa County to the cool Carneros region - on the opposite side of the city of Napa from Luna's vineyard. (In the Napa Valley, generally the further south, the cooler the growing site.)
Benessere's success with the white grape is evident in its 2001 Carneros pinot grigio ($20). It's bone-dry and full of character and superior to most Italian pinot griogios - with flavors of sweet pea, minerals, lemon and pears.
A tasting of the winery's more recent sangioveses showed that the 1998 was no fluke. The just-released 1999 Napa Valley sangiovese ($30) is intense and impressive, though it could benefit from additional aging. The 2000 is a bit leaner but still stylish, while an unblended barrel sample from the 2001 vintage shows that Benessere will have some outstanding raw material to work with. If the blend lives up to the sample, this could be California's breakthrough sangiovese.
Like many Tuscan wineries, Benessere also produces a proprietary blend of sangiovese and other red wine. In its case, the wine is called the Estate and is produced from 80 percent sangiovese and 20 percent syrah. The 1999 vintage is impressive, but I preferred the 100 percent sangiovese.
Southeast of Benessere at Luna, the winemaking team also emphasizes low yields - often pruning away more than half the grape clusters to concentrate the remaining fruit.
After extensive research, Luna's owners determined that the style of white wine they aimed to emulate was that of the Italian region of Friuli.