From aglianico to ribolla gialla, obscure Italian varieties are gaining a foothold in the Golden State
Back in the days when Bill Clinton was president and Nirvana ruled the airwaves, the Cal-Ital phenomenon—wine made in California from Italian grape varieties—was at its peak. Sangiovese was hot, the sexy new kid on the block whose Italian accent, noble pedigree, and kicky character had besotted winemakers grafting vines faster than you can say ciao, bella! But a decade later, that boom went bust, leaving an empty hole where the Cal-Ital niche used to be.
That’s changing. While there’s no lemming-like stampede towards one grape like sangiovese in the ’90s and the phrase “Cal Ital” is rarely heard anymore, there is a renewed interest in Italian varietals as California winemakers, like consumers everywhere, are branching out to more esoteric grapes.
These days California is like a simmering pot. Lift the lid and you’ll find tiny bubbles across its entire surface: vermentino in Lodi, tocai friuliano in Mendocino, barbera in Amador, nebbiolo in Paso Robles, refosco in Napa. Most of these wines are passion projects, made in miniscule amounts. Nevertheless, it’s easy to find intriguing examples throughout the Golden State. Here are three noteworthy cases.
When Napa’s Steve Matthiasson started his label in 2003, he literally had his pick of the crop. A viticultural consultant for Spottswoode, Sinskey, Trefethen, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, and more, with intimate knowledge of the area’s best vineyards, he could have gone in any direction and been a success. Matthiasson initially took a well-worn path, starting out with a Bordeaux-style blend that, however excellent, was nothing new in Napa. When he was about to make a sauvignon blanc as his first white, ribolla gialla stopped him in his tracks. “I’d never heard of it before,” Matthiasson says the yellow grape from the mountainous border region of Italy and Slovenia. “I don’t know anyone in 2005 who’d heard of ribolla other than sommeliers in New York.”
But one of his clients, Luna winery cofounder George Vare, was growing it as a retirement project. He’d gone to northern Italy to research styles of pinot grigio, but once in Friuli, fell in love with ribolla gialla, eventually bringing back cuttings from the master of ribolla, Josko Gravner. Through Vare, Matthiasson caught the bug. He abandoned the sauvignon blanc idea and took inspiration from the complex Friulian blends of Gravner, Radikon, Edi Simcic, and especially Miani. “His wines are so intense, so balanced,” Matthiasson says of Miani winemaker Enzo Potoni. “He manages to capture acidity and minerality, but with flesh and richness. Those wines really appeal to me.”
Matthiasson started buying ribolla from Vare’s 2.5-acre Oak Knoll district vineyard and later expanded with two small plots of his own, wedged between his 1903 farmhouse and cavernous barn. Though he makes California standards like chardonnay and syrah, it’s his Friulian-style wines that have put Matthiasson on the map. His flagship is Napa Valley White Wine, a mouth-watering blend of sauvignon blanc, ribolla gialla, semillon, and tocai friulano that’s a cornucopia of stone fruit, citrus, and minerality. With production at 895 cases and growing, it’s what you’ll find in shops. Far rarer is the Napa Valley Ribolla Gialla, a skin-fermented ribolla with beguiling hazelnut notes. The entire production fits into two barrels in the barn. That’s a mere 22 cases, sold only through their wine club.
Not surprisingly, Matthiasson has also ventured into Friulian red territory. Working with a grape called Refosco del Penducula, he makes both a rosé and a classic red. Like his pure ribolla, the Napa Valley Refosco is foot-tread by his 12- and 15-year-old sons. “They complain, then brag about it,” says wife and partner Jill Matthiasson, who likes to keep the kids involved. “We always have these mini-micro projects going on.”
Matthiasson is among a small coterie of winemakers who source ribolla from Vare’s vineyard. Others include Massican, Chiarello, Grassi, Forlorn Hope, Arbe Garbe, Arnot-Roberts, and Ryme Cellars, who together form a Friulian outpost in the heart of cabernet country. Their ribollas come in every form: pure and blended; dry, sparkling, passito; fresh and orange style. For several years, they’ve gathered for an annual cookout and comparative tasting. “It was really fun,” says Jill Matthiasson, who hosted last time. “It was amazing to taste the variety of what people had done from the same vineyard.”
Ryme Wine Cellars
When Ryan Glaab started Ryme in 2007 with a single ton of aglianico, he had no business plan. Nor did he deliberately set out to build a label focused on Italian grapes. But six years later, Ryme offers four superb renditions of vermentino, ribolla gialla, and aglianico, along with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. “I’m definitely not looking for the next big thing,” says the soft-spoken winemaker, who developed a European palate on annual trips to Italy since age 19. “There’s no reason a winery our size can’t produce the wines we love.”
As assistant winemaker at Wind Gap Wines in Sonoma’s Russian River, Glaab owns neither vines nor winemaking facility. He borrows space in Wind Gap’s Forestville quarters and buys all his grapes.
That crop of aglianico—native to sunny Campania—came from friends in Paso Robles. “I’m a big fan of aglianico, and it’s a great grape for Paso Robles. It likes the warm climate,” Glaab says. “I bought a ton, just to try it out. We were way more impressed with the wine than we expected to be.”
The next year, Glaab made a cabernet sourced from Chalk Hill, where he and his wife Megan were caretakers. By 2009, they were actively searching for vineyards. But “we still didn’t know what the brand was all about,” he says.
He again turned to Italy. “I’m fanatical about orange wines and love Ribolla Gialla, so I took a trip to Friuli to explore.” It was there that Sasha Radikon informed him about the ribolla growing just 50 miles away. “So we went all the way there to find out that George Vare had two acres in Napa! We called him as soon as we got back.”
Next came vermentino. Glaab buys grapes from Frances Mahoney, a grower and winemaker who pioneered Old World varieties in Carneros. Mahoney’s vermentino is planted in the windy Las Brisas vineyard in view of San Pablo Bay—obeying the imperative that vermentino needs to see the sea. “He’s got the best vermentino vineyard in California, I would say confidently,” Glaab states. “I love the salinity I can get on this wine,”
Glaab planned to skin-ferment his vermentino, like the “exotic, exuberant, bizarre” renditions he admires from Massa Vecchia in Tuscany and Dettori in Sardinia. This would complement his ribolla, which he macerates in oak for five months. But Megan Glaab, also a winemaker, protested. “She said, ‘Are you crazy? We don’t need two orange wines!’ I put my foot down and said, ‘I found the vineyard. You should go find your own vineyard,’ ” he recounts, grinning. “She told me to forget about it. So we decided to compromise and make two versions.”
The result is “His” and “Hers” vermentino. His offers luscious peach, white flower, and herbal notes, arising from late-harvest, whole-cluster grapes macerated for two weeks. Hers has the powerful aromatics and zippy character of a Ligurian version—an ideal summer wine.
In 2011, the couple started another label, Verse, to showcase pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma vineyards. With Ryme and Verse, it seems their business strategy is now set. Meanwhile, restaurants and consumers are catching up to the Glaabs’ tastes. “Nobody would have been interested in these wines five years ago,” says Ryan. “People would’ve asked, ‘Why do you make a wine like this? What’s the point?’ Now it’s like, why not?”
Barbera is no stranger to California. First planted in the 1880s, this Piedmont variety exploded in the Central Valley in the 1970s—a component of Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy and other jug wines. Today it’s identified with the Sierra Foothills, where vintner Dick Cooper pioneered the grape in the 1970s and dozens of boutique wineries followed suit.
Among the best is Yorba, the label of grower Ann Kraemer. After working 30 years as a vineyard manager and consultant for top Napa wineries (including Swanson, Shafer, and Domaine Chandon), she longed for vines she could call her own. In 2001, she bought land on Shake Ridge Road in Amador County, where she now grows 36 acres of vines—mostly zinfandel and Rhone varieties, but also barbera, primitivo, and greco—selling most, but keeping selected grapes for her own label.
Bumping along in a jeep, it’s clear Kraemer is at home in the vineyards. She stops to point out barbera’s lacey canopy; greco’s tiny tendrils and dinner plate–sized leaves; the differing clusters of zinfandel and primitivo (genetic twins); the soil’s sparkling quartz. “During the gold rush, they’d find surface quartz and dig for gold there, because they were formed at the same time,” she notes.
Her soil is “geological chaos,” she says fondly. “We’re on the edge of a tectonic plate, so there’s a little bit of everything.” That mishmash of volcanic uplift, ocean bottom, quartz, and metamorphic rock gives her plenty of options to play with when matching soil, exposure, and grapes.
Kraemer planted barbera because “I didn’t want to do just zin”—the local star. “Looking at varietals that could handle the heat, barbera seemed like a really good bet,” says the agronomist, who tapped Italian enologist Alberto Antonini for advice. “Amador’s hot enough during the day to tame the acid, but cool enough at night that you don’t lose the fruit.”
Indeed, Yorba’s barbera is all about clarity of fruit; it’s blueberry-rich without being cloying or heavy. “It’s not super-extracted,” Kraemer notes. “We use gentle winemaking, which preserves the pretty fruit. I asked my winemaker, Ken Bernards, to make wines that show what the vineyards taste like. He’s a pinot winemaker, so he’s used to this.”
These days, Kraemer is pondering how to best train her baby greco vines. Ryan Glaab is toying with the idea of verdicchio as his next white. And Matthiasson sums up this great experiment with Italian varietals in California today: “We’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Published in the July/August 2013 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.