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Whatever Became of California Sangiovese?

Whatever Became of California Sangiovese?

Cal Ital wines, Part II

Last year at an awards dinner in Napa, I happened to be seated next to Adam Strum, publisher of Wine Enthusiast. I took the opportunity to spring a question I’d been asking everyone: “What California sangiovese have you recently tasted that you liked?”

He burst out laughing, then stopped to ponder the question. “I can’t think of any California sangiovese I’ve had for quite some time.”

Strum’s non-answer says a lot. First, the very idea of California sangiovese has become a laughing matter in some quarters. Second, this noble variety—the undisputed king in Tuscany, where it’s behind Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino—has virtually disappeared from our shores. In the 1990s, it was The Next Big Thing, with acreage growing by 600 percent. Then came the roller-coaster plummet in the 2000s as countless wineries ripped it out.

Why the backlash? And does any good sangiovese remain?

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Sonoma pioneers

My first stop is Seghesio Family Vineyards. Though known for their zinfandel, they’re the largest sangiovese producer in Sonoma and own the oldest extant sangiovese vineyard in the country. In their Healdsburg tasting room, alongside sepia photos of mustached founder Eduardo Seghesio and his Gibson Girl wife, Angela, hangs a lithograph of Chianti Station. The scene is bucolic: a railroad depot surrounded by head-trained vines; wine barrels being readied for transport; a puffing steam engine.

It was directly across from this station that Edoardo Seghesio—part of a wave of immigrants from northern Italy—bought his first 10 acres in 1895. If people were coming to Sonoma to buy wine, he reasoned, they’d see his vineyard first. The strategy worked, and in 1910 Seghesio expanded, purchasing the southern edge of Italian Swiss Colony’s vast property (owned by his wife’s uncle), where they’d planted a Chianti field blend: canaiolo, trebbiano, malvasia, and, presumably, the first sangiovese in the state.

LEGACY Pete Seghesio oversees the Sonoma winery started in 1895 by his grandfather, Edoardo Seghesio. Photo courtesy Seghesio

LEGACY Pete Seghesio oversees the Sonoma winery started in 1895 by his grandfather, Edoardo Seghesio. Photo courtesy Seghesio

Only one acre of that legacy vineyard remains (plus the railroad depot, bought for $20 by Angela after she learned Western Pacific Railroad planned to tear it down). But that acre is a precious archive of historic clones, brought from the Old Country by viticulturalist and brandy maker A.R. Morrow.

“That’s the unique thing about our sangiovese,” says Pete Seghesio Jr, Edoardo’s grandson and CEO. “These are clones that go back to Italy, that nobody else has in the States—and Italy potentially has lost. We thought there was one clone, but it turns out there’s four.”

Seghesio makes two sangiovese bottlings from these propagated vines. The basic orange label ($30) comes from three clones planted on porous flatland, benchland, and hillside. The more intense, oak-aged Venom ($54) comes from the fourth clone—with the smallest berries and loosest clusters—planted on the formidable Rattlesnake Hill. “If you put it up against the great crus of Italian sangiovese—Monsanto Reserva, Biondi Santi, Brancaia—Venom stands up very well,” says Seghesio. “We put it on our toughest site. There’s maybe five or six inches of top soil, so it naturally devigorizes it. We have 10 acres and never get over 20 tons total.” That’s a far cry from the Green Giant bounty of the 1990s.  “I’ve heard stories of guys getting 10, 12 tons to the acre,” he continues. “It’s a joke. There were large plantings on incredibly fertile soil: valley floor. If you put sangiovese on a fertile site, you get huge berries, huge yields.”

There’s an old saying: The more a grapevine grows like a weed, the more it tastes like a weed. And that’s the problem with sangiovese. A naturally vigorous vine, its growth must be tamed with repeated pruning, fastidious canopy management, and soil-poor sites on rocky slopes. Few Californians bothered to put in the effort or hand over their best vineyards—not when cabernet or pinot noir could fetch far greater returns. What’s more, California’s heat and lack of haze hasten sangiovese’s ripening, which leaves its phenolics undeveloped and flavors truncated.

“Sangiovese is incredibly challenging,” says Seghesio. “Both the Italians and California growers struggle with the same thing: Sangiovese can be a doughnut wine. How do you get the middle? Most Californians just blend cabernet. But if you get the yields low enough and do the right maceration techniques with fermentation, you can make a full wine.”

During sangiovese’s heyday, however, “everybody came out with a $35 sangiovese and it was very mediocre or blended with cabernet,” Seghesio continues. Consumers balked; why pay $35 when you can get a good Chianti Classico for under $20? “The whole category got poisoned, and the market turned against it,” he sums up. “I’ve seen those early plantings of sangiovese all come out. I mean, even Antinori gave up.”

The Antinori impact

If there’s one name associated with the sangiovese boom, it’s Antinori. By most accounts, their Atlas Peak Vineyard (now called Antica Napa Valley) launched the 1990s juggernaut. But when I sit down with Glenn Salva, longtime estate manager of Antinori’s Napa property, the story is more complicated. “A lot of people would say that Antinori was responsible for sangiovese’s rapid climb,” he says. “It wasn’t.”

Florentine vintners since 1385, the Antinoris have been tied to sangiovese for 26 generations. When Piero Antinori took the reins in 1966, he began traveling the wine world, coming frequently to Napa and befriending such pioneers as Robert Mondavi.

PIERO ANTINORI first planted sangiovese on Atlas Peak as a curiosity. But that triggered an explosion of followers in the 1990s. Photo courtesy Antica Napa Valley 

PIERO ANTINORI first planted sangiovese on Atlas Peak as a curiosity. But that triggered an explosion of followers in the 1990s. Photo courtesy Antica Napa Valley 

In 1985, an investment opportunity arose. British brewer Whitbread, which owned Antinori’s importer, Julius Wile, decided to get into the California wine business. They invited Antinori and champagne house Bollinger (another subsidiary) to become minority partners.

Piero Antinori led the search for a vineyard site. Like a true Tuscan, he sought a high-elevation mountainside location (the exception to the rule in Napa at that time), settling on a remote, undeveloped property on Atlas Peak. They planted cabernet, chardonnay, and in 1987, enologist Renzo Cotarella and viticulturalist Andrea Paoletti brought in sangiovese budwood from Il Poggione winery in Montalcino and T-budded two acres as an experiment.

Three years later, Whitbread sold its 85% stake to British liquor company Allied-Lyons (which later became Allied-Domecq). Enter Terrence Clancy, one of the first executives to bring sophisticated marketing techniques to the wine business. He spied a golden opportunity. 

As owners of Clos du Bois winery, Allied-Domecq Wines had done a lot to make merlot fashionable. “Clancy said, ‘Ah-ha! We have Antinori, we have sangiovese. Let’s make sangiovese the next great variety for California,” Salva recalls. “I remember Clancy had a slogan: ‘If you like merlot, you’ll love sangiovese!’ ” (The fact that the two are worlds apart hardly mattered.)

 “We went from a few acres of sangiovese to 120 acres almost overnight,” says Salva. “It was like telling the baby to run the 100-yard dash before allowing it to crawl. As that was happening, the rest of the industry was saying, ‘Ah-ha! Antinori. Sangiovese. It must be a variety with some magic to it.’ ”

The bandwagon began rolling. “People started to plant sangiovese not only in coastal California, but even Freddie Franzia planted a whole boatload in the Central Valley for his ForestVille label,” says Salva. “But it was never put on the best sites. Why would Mondavi take cabernet out of To Kalon when you’re making the best cabernet there?” Echoing Seghesio, he says, “Sangiovese is a prolific producer, so if you put it on deep, rich soil, you’ll have clusters that fill a bushel basket. Open the cluster up, and the interior is all lightly colored, maybe even green. How can you make a great wine when you have clusters like that?”

In 1993, Allied-Domecq decided to sell Atlas Peak in a “sale lease-back” scheme (changing it from a capital expense to an operating expense, to benefit shareholders). Antinori told them, “I’m your buyer.” But the deal obligated him to lease the land back to Allied-Domecq for 15 years. “We were a landlord, but weren’t the manager of the land,” says Salva. “Antinori didn’t really have any input. They started to make more and more sangiovese, and it just got to be the worst push. At the end, I think they had the price down to $9 a bottle. You just couldn’t give it away.”

When the lease expired, Antinori rechristened the winery Antica and shifted its emphasis to cabernet. That now comprises half the plantings, while sangiovese has been reduced to five percent. But its two remaining plots are the winery’s best, at the top of gravelly, well-drained slopes.

 “The sangiovese has become what Piero intended it to be: a curiosity,” says Salva. Sold only at the winery, “it’s a way for us to tell the Antinori story.” Made for passion, not profit, the Antica sangiovese ($35) is a delight. Varietally correct, it has sangiovese’s red-fruit flavors and bright acidity and is laced with a minerality that speaks of site.

Ones to watch

Few California wineries make sangiovese as their top wine. Two bravehearts that do are Vino Noceto and Petroni Vineyards.

High in the Macayamas mountains, Lorenzo Petroni has been producing Poggio alla Pietra ($60) since 1998. Made from sangiovese grosso, this flagship wine strives to emulate the dark, brooding style of Brunello di Montalcino—a goal announced at the winery’s gate, where the signage reads “Brunello di Sonoma.” This pure sangiovese offers raspberry fruit with an undercurrent of tobacco leaf and meat. But it also has a California character, says winemaker Martin Mackenzie: “It’s the richness, the voluptuousness, the body.”

Also worth seeking out are the sangioveses from Vino Noceto in Shenandoah Valley, up in the Sierra foothills’ Amador County. Founded in 1987 by Suzy and Jim Gullett, Noceto offers a basic sangiovese ($18), a reserve ($24), and four outstanding single-vineyard cru ($28). These are spot-on specimens, each beautifully balanced and ready to dazzle at the dinner table.

All these wines show that sangiovese can excel in California. But the grape seems destined to remain a niche category. “The overplanting that happened 25 years ago really set us back,” says Seghesio. “We’re just coming out of that now. But we are at a new beginning with other Italian varietals.”

And that’s where we’ll pick up next time—with a look at ribolla gialla, fiano, greco, barbera, and all the other varieties breathing new life into the Cal-Ital scene. 

Published in the May/June 2013 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.

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