If my math is correct, this year marks the silver anniversary of Jim and Suzy Gullett's entry into the wine trade. In 1987, in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, where three years earlier they'd bought 21 acres planted in part to walnut trees, the Gulletts put down about an acre of sangiovese wine grapes.
They hadn't been rural folk, nor had they been in the wine trade, and while they may have seemed hopeless dreamers planting a strange grape in a wine region dominated by zinfandel, the Gulletts had done their homework.
At the time, sangiovese was largely an untested child in California, but it had a long and proud history in Italy, especially Tuscany, where it provides the foundation for one of the world's truly noble if generally underappreciated wines, Chianti Classico.
Two years before they started to plant sangiovese, the Gulletts visited Tuscany. It was a study tour more than a vacation. They toured the vineyards and cellars of such respected Chianti Classico producers as Castello dei Rampolla and Badia a Passignano. Those visits, coupled with the advice of Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, whom the Gulletts had retained as a consultant, persuaded them to base their wine-business gamble on sangiovese.
It's paid off. Over the past quarter century, the Gulletts' Vino Noceto winery has become the most respected producer of sangiovese wines in California, and that's not overstating their impact. Their first two-thirds of an acre of sangiovese has grown to 24 acres. The 110 cases of sangiovese they produced their first vintage in 1990 has grown to 9,000 cases annually.
With any given harvest, the Gullets are apt to make as many as eight takes on sangiovese, ranging from their lean and cheery flagship Shenandoah Valley sangiovese to a fiery sangiovese grappa. While their lineup also includes several individualistic non-sangiovese wines a spritzy moscato called Frivolo and a complex and assertive old-vine zinfandel, among others Vino Noceto primarily is the state's go-to house for sangiovese-based wines.
They make so many styles largely because over the years they've planted several different strains of sangiovese on so many different plots of land. Thus, they aim to seize the distinctiveness that the varied clones and the mixed settings provide.
They look to Tuscany for stylistic inspiration, hoping to capture the freshness, quiet authority, intricate complexity and endurance for which Chianti and Chianti Classico are celebrated. At the same time, they recognize that growing conditions in California don't exactly duplicate Tuscany's. They appreciate the ample fruit that California's abundant sunshine and balmy temperatures help develop, and they grab it while also retaining a litheness very much in keeping with the traditional Italian approach to the grape.
Their emulations are respectful of Tuscan traditions, their consequences true to the region's goals of making spirited and clear wines. Take, for example, the Vino Noceto Winery 2008 Shenandoah Valley Riserva Sangiovese. The "riserva" is meant to indicate that this sangiovese is "bigger and fuller" than his mainstream interpretation of the varietal, says Jim Gullett.
He and his winemaker, Rusty Folena, adhere to a painstaking and patient regimen to produce the wine. They typically start with 15 to 20 separate batches of sangiovese, representing different clones, settings, maturity levels and the like. From this array, they select lots that will give them the added weight, muscle and expression they seek in the "riserva."
The subsequent handling of the juice is complicated, some of it fermented in puncheons, some of it in stainless-steel tanks. Some has extended maceration the time juice and skins seethe together and some not so much.
The Gulletts' inspiration for the riserva is Cepparello, the signature sangiovese from the Tuscan estate Isole e Olena, one of the properties the Gullets visited in 1985. In being made solely with sangiovese, Cepparello is a departure from traditional enological practices in Chianti Classico; thus it generally is referred to as a Super Tuscan. Stylistically, Cepparello is beefier than Chianti Classico generally, but nevertheless reinforces the region's reputation for wines immediately approachable, graceful and long.
Logically, then, Vino Noceto's riserva sangiovese is more powerful than other takes on the varietal in its portfolio, yet it still conveys the grape's easygoing nature, sunniness and balance. Its structure is more solid, its tannins more evident, but it has the telltale liveliness that characterize other sangioveses in the Vino Noceto lineup. It is readily drinkable with food right now, especially dishes that include husky cuts of meat. It will be even smoother in another three years, and should continue to develop handsomely for a decade.
Speaking of time, the Gulletts aren't sure how they will recognize this year's 25th anniversary. "Nothing's planned, but we should start talking about that," said Jim Gullett.
Vino Noceto Winery
2008 Shenandoah Valley Riserva Sangiovese
By the numbers: 14.5 percent alcohol, 750 cases, $24
Context: Owner Jim Gullett recommends that the riserva be poured with grilled or roasted meats, pastas with a rich sauce, a classic "red spaghetti" or one of Rick Mahan's sophisticated pizzas from his Sacramento restaurant OneSpeed.
Availability: Check with your local branch of Whole Foods Market or Nugget Markets, some outlets of which customarily stock the riserva. It also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.noceto.com.
More information: The tasting room at Vino Noceto, 11011 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.