Why Aren’t More California Winemakers Doing Italian Varietals?

Recently I’ve been intrigued by varietals outside of the major grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Those grapes make some damn fine wines, but after a time, your palate desires something more adventurous.

Enter Italian varietals.  They are perfect for such a craving–there are thousands to choose from–Dolcetto, Nero D’Avola, Bosco are a few examples–and with them come a whole new inventory of flavors: grapey, funky, saline, floral…the list goes on.

Last week, I put together a list of everyone I know of focusing on Italian varietals on the Central Coast, Who’s Doing Italian on the Central Coast?  The list is small.  Under two dozen out of hundreds of wineries, which only points to how much of California is devoted to more historically established varietals like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

LouisLucas Viticulturist, CoOwnersm
                                                                                                             Louis Lucas is viticulturist and co-owner of Toccata in Santa Barbara

I asked people from these wineries why there aren’t more people making Italian wines on the Central Coast, and received a rich variety of answers, painting a picture of the state of affairs in California winemaking today. It comes down to economics, history, and winemaker preference.

Economics

“There is little price support,” says John Backer, founder and co-owner of August Ridge Vineyards in Paso Robles. “Folks who will pay $60 for a mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon hesitate to pay $40 for a top-quality Sangiovese.  So business-minded winery owners just don’t do it.”

Janis Denner, proprietor of Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery in Paso Robles, points to the popularity of other varietals in her region.

“When the area was developed, Rhone varietals were planted and doing well.  As new vineyards were developed, the natural tendency might have been to plant the varieties with the proven track record and fruit that could be sold at harvest to other area wineries.

There’s low consumer demand, agrees John Ritchey.   The winemaker for Bottle Jack Wines in Santa Cruz says:

“My guess is because they are not mainstream wines for most consumers…and are somewhat confusing for consumers that aren’t already familiar with them or who don’t intentionally seek them out.”

2009.Nebbiolo.Rocca
Courtesy Palmina Wines

As an example, he adds, “I’ll get asked, ‘What’s a Sangiovese?’ a lot by the same person who is already familiar with Chianti.

Brian Terrizzi, founder and winemaker for Giornata Wines in Paso Robles, found that he had to educate consumers about the wines of Italy to make it work.

“Growth has been slow, but we have a solid following,” he says.  “We’ve kind of taken the hard, long road with Giornata and were prepared for this believing over time we’d be rewarded. It’s much easier to get momentum working with the better known varieties.”

History

Backer lists some of the developments in California winemaking  as the reason for low Italian plantings.

“It has to do in many ways with the triumph of wine marketing in France in the 1700’s, the resurgence of interest in the wine business in California in the 60’s and 70’s, and the way the industry has been dominated by gatekeepers since the mid-70’s.  People in California tend to forget (or ignore) the fact that the wine tradition in California is really Italian, not French.  The names say it all: Gallo, Mirassou, Cribari, Pedroncelli, Pesenti, Rotta, etc.  But the styles of wines are different.  The traditional Italian immigrant brought with them a working class, family approach to farming and wine making.  The Prohibition era shut many of them down and the few that survived (generally) produced jug wines that were fruity, slightly off-dry and simple.  The wine resurgence in the 70’s brought a different wine aesthetic and with it a long look down the nose at the style of wine then current and the varieties represented.  The likes of Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and a few other influential publications cemented in the mind of the public the concept that only Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot were to be accepted….'”

vineyardphotosJuly08 003
Toccata vineyard, Santa Barbara

“There are not a lot of Italian varietals made, because there are not a lot of them grown here yet,” adds Vailia From, owner and winemaker for Desparada Wines.  “It will take more time for the Central Coast region to develop its varietal focus, as we are, and actually all of California is, a relatively new wine growing area.  We all have lots to learn about what works best where.”

“It’s still ‘early days’ in Santa Barbara County,” adds John Busby, general manager for Palmina Wines in Santa Barbara.  “We’re still in the process here of determining what grows best where.”

Winemaker Preference

Some winemakers found themselves entranced with Italian grapes and set out to make something different from the get-go. Steve Clifton, the co-founder of Brewer-Clifton in Santa Barbara and winemaker for many area labels, started experimenting with Italian varietals in 1995 after visiting his sister’s home in Northern Italy.  Thus was born Palmina.

winemaker
Steve Clifton is the founder, owner and winemaker of Palmina Wines in Santa Barbara

“Producing Italian varietal wines is a choice,” says Ginny Burroughs.  The office manager for Mosby Winery feels that many producers concentrate on French varietals “simply because those are the wines they want to produce, whether by personal taste or the fact that California started out with French varietals so they are more common.”

Still, with less than two dozen Cal-Ital wineries on the Central Coast, and a mass market that wants Cabernet and Chardonnay, one would have to believe it’s a brave choice.

“It really comes down to what wines the winemakers are passionate about making, and what they like to drink,” agrees Chris Kiranbay, office manager for Desparada Wines.

Brave, or Seizing an Opportunity?

Some wine professionals interviewed believe Italian varietals were made for California, and that by making them they are merely doing what is natural.

Clifton believes Santa Barbara is an ideal place for growing these grapes, because of its Mediterranean climate, and soil types similar to Northern Italy.

Colleen Thompson, public relations for Lucas & Lewellen (owner of Toccata), thinks that these wines are perfect for Californians, because they are low-alcohol and pair well with active lifestyles and healthy diets.

“Cal-Itals are typically priced right for every day enjoyment, which many health professionals consider to be essential to the healthy Mediterranean diet.”

Alas, most of these wines are available only to Californians, as they are sold locally. Desparada, Giornata and Palmina are the only ones available (among those interviewed) outside the state, and then only in scattered areas.  Other wineries ship their wines to out-of-state buyers.

Looking Forward

Though it may be an uphill battle, the time may be right for these exotic birds.  Xers and Millenials are looking for the next fresh thing on the boutique shelf.

“I am finding that the younger population are breaking this mold [breaking the habit of drinking only the major varietals].  They refuse to be told what to drink and are much more open to variety.  And much less willing to pay prices inflated by contrived market perception,” says Backer.

Well, this X/Millenial cusper is very excited about breaking the mold.  And my guess is that older wine drinkers, perhaps also worn out from decades of inflated Cabernets, are looking to have something different with dinner, too.

Because after all, there’s a huge variety of Italian varietals out there.

-Carol

 

3 thoughts on “Why Aren’t More California Winemakers Doing Italian Varietals?

  1. Carol –

    Sergio Esposito’s book Passion on the Vine is a lovely account of coming to the US as a child and his path to becoming a major figure in Italian wine in the US. (Has a store in NYC,) One thing he stresses is that Italian wines are more about food than French wines. The book is both about wine and food. He also describes trying to get customers to think about Italian wines. In his early days selling wines, he would do tastings and would slip in a bottle of Italian wine among a group of French wines. When customers said, “What is this? It is really good” ,he would tell them it was an Italian wine.

    Like

    1. Love it! And always looking for new wine books. I will have to check that one out. I do agree that Italian wines are about meals, which is pretty new to me, since I mostly eat vegetarian. There’s not a lot of vegetarian pairings out there, so I tend not to know how to pair things. But I’m working on it. I will definitely check out that book.

      Like

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