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Cal-Ital Wines, Where Logic Meets Reality
By Ed McCarthy
Dec 9, 2008
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When you think of it, it makes perfect sense that quite a few California wines are made from Italian varieties.

First of all, so many California wineries were founded by first or second-generation Italian-American families -- Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Sebastiani, Simi, Seghesio, Foppiano, Trinchero, Rochioli,  Martinelli, and Rafanelli -- to name some of them .  Secondly, the rise in popularity of Italian wines in the U.S. during the past twenty years has spawned a new interest among consumers for 'Cal-Ital'  wines, as these California wines made from Italian varieties are commonly known.

But, truthfully, Italian-inspired varietal wines have enjoyed limited success in California, up to this point.  Whereas most French varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc have had few problems adapting to California  terroir  (although some might argue about Pinot Noir) the Italian varieties -- Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and company -- have been a bitch for California vintners, to put it mildly. 

Pinot Grigio, which is actually a French variety (Pinot Gris), has done moderately well as a California  white wine.

The Italian red varietals have not fared as well.  Barbera, one of the more adaptable Italian varieties, has probably performed best, even in California's fairly warm Sierra Foothills region.  But I have yet to taste a really great California  Barbera.

Sangiovese has been extremely difficult to grow successfully in California's climate -- although I have found two that I liked.

Nebbiolo, the Piedmontese variety that has continued to challenge winegrowers all over the world, has never really done well outside of its native Piedmont region and the Valtellina  (a small area in Italy's northern  Lombardy region).  It has been practically impossible to grow in California, but -- stop the presses -- I did find one (okay, for those of you who read last week's 'On My Table' column, Mary Ewing-Mulligan has scooped me).

Another real surprise was that I even found two California Aglianico wines that are quite good!  Aglianico, Southern Italy's greatest red variety -- think Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture -- is  a tannic, high-acid variety, somewhat like Nebbiolo in this regard, that I would have guessed would have been untamable outside of its home regions, Italy's Campania and Basilicata.

Why have Sangiovese and Nebbiolo been so difficult to grow successfully in California?   I've asked around, and I've received several answers.  Both varieties were not really understood by California vintners, and were often grown in the wrong areas.

Wine producers, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, often planted Sangiovese in areas where Cabernet Sauvignon thrived.  It didn't work.  Sangiovese does well in warm (but not too warm), dry climates, as in Tuscany, and grows best on hillsides.

Also, many winemakers say that the wrong clones were used, especially for Sangiovese.  Nebbiolo seems to need the kind of climate in which it thrives in Piedmont -- long, warm growing seasons (it's an extremely late-ripening variety) with mild, dry autumns.

In researching Cal-Ital wines for our upcoming book, I came across some interesting wines that I had not tasted, and made a few discoveries.

The two wineries that I was most impressed with were new to me, Martin & Weyrich and Caparone Winery, coincidentally, both in Paso Robles.  Actually, I did know Martin & Weyrich's predecessor, Martin Brothers Winery, which was founded in 1981 (in 1998, Mary Martin and husband Dave Weyrich purchased the winery from their siblings).  But the Martin & Weyrich Winery of today seems vastly improved to me. 

Thanks to a tip from colleague Tom Maresca, I stumbled upon Caparone Winery.  These two wineries are making the most 'Italian' style wines in California today, in my opinion. They also produce a range of other wines, but it's their Cal-Ital wines that are  the most fascinating.

Three other California wineries that make a minor specialty of Cal-Ital wines are Seghesio and Sausal, both in Sonoma's fairly warm Alexander Valley, and Jacuzzi  Family Vineyards, which has a great new winery in Carneros.  All three wineries are making good wines, but I thought that their Cal-Ital wines generally tasted more Californian  (a bit too fruity) than Italian. 

Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley occasionally makes a small amount of very good Sangiovese that it sells only at the winery ($75). Staglin Family Vineyards used to make a small amount of Sangiovese, but is no longer producing it.  And after 13 vintages, Shafer Vineyards also stopped making its "Firebreak" Sangiovese.  Shafer sent Piero Antinori  a bottle of its last vintage wrapped in a white flag.  In addition, California's efforts at duplicating Super-Tuscan wines, usually Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blends, have not been successful, in my opinion.

Because Italian varieties in California  have been so challenging, the success of Martin & Weyrich and Caparone Winery is even more amazing.  And both wineries' prices for their wines are  extremely reasonable.  For my reviews of some of my favorite currently available Cal-Ital wines, go to the Wine Reviews section.