Ben Zeitman and Katie Quinn, the husband-and-wife winemaking team of Amador Foothill Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, first visited the southern Italian region of Campania in 2001.
During their tour of wine estates, a bottle of wine distinctive to the area was opened by their host family over lunch in an old farmhouse, recalled Quinn.
"We were just blown away by how good it was," she added.
The wine was made from the thick-skinned black grape aglianico, which thrives in the volcanic soils and warm temperatures of Campania and its neighboring region of Basilicata, just to the east. In Campania, aglianico largely is responsible for wines labeled with the commune name Taurasi, while in Basilicata, its wines are labeled Aglianico del Vulture.
The memory of that wine lingered with Zeitman and Quinn, but they didn't give serious thought to planting aglianico on their own spread until two years later, when they pondered what to do with a troublesome portion of their sangiovese vines.
"The top of that vineyard had a poor clone (of sangiovese), and we wanted to replace it with something else. Besides, we had more than enough sangiovese," Quinn said.
"We thought about putting in barbera, which would have been the smart thing to do," said Quinn, referring to another black Italian grape that was starting to generate buzz in the Sierra foothills.
But Zeitman and Quinn didn't jump on the barbera bandwagon.
"We talked with (representatives of the Santa Rosa grapevine nursery) Novavine, which works with a nursery in southern Italy, and learned that they had available two clones of aglianico. We figured, what the heck. I loved that wine, and we wanted to do something different. People had learned how to say 'sangiovese,' so we decided to give them something harder to pronounce," Quinn says. (Aglianico, incidentally, is pronounced ah-LYAHN'-ee-koh.)
The 2 acres of aglianico they planted yielded its first commercial crop in 2005. They got just enough fruit to make 27 cases.
"We opened a bottle (of the 2005) last winter. It had matured so nicely. It smelled Italian. It reminded me of some aglianicos we tasted in Campania," Quinn said.
Whether from Italy or California, aglianico in its youth is a fairly rigid wine, high in tannin and acid. While wines made with aglianico live long, they come around to something appealingly approachable fairly quickly, which was evident when I tasted the 2007 and 2008 aglianicos from Amador Foothill Winery side by side.
Both were deeply colored and lush with suggestions of boysenberries, cranberries and cherries, most of them fresh, but some dried, giving the wines an element of unanticipated complexity. They aren't fat wines, nor are they long in the finish, but they have depth.
The 2007 was more accessible up front, its structure more yielding yet still sturdy. The 2008 tasted less of oak and more of minerality and licorice. Quinn expects another year of age to soften the 2008 so at a comparable age it will be as approachable as the 2007.
California has only about 50 acres planted to aglianico, and its vineyards are scattered, though concentrated in warmer regions such as the Sierra foothills, Temecula Valley and Paso Robles. (Italy has nearly 25,000 acres.)
Aglianico long was thought to have originated in Greece, with its name a corruption of the word "Hellenic." But as British wine writer Jancis Robinson noted in a column for the Financial Times of London last summer, DNA analysis has found no close relationship between aglianico and any known Greek grape varieties.
In writing of mostly Italian interpretations of aglianico, Robinson says it customarily exudes the kind of class traditionally associated with Cary Grant and Catherine Deneuve.
The Amador Foothill Winery 2008 Shenandoah Valley Aglianico doesn't yet have the grace for that kind of company, but with a bit more aging, it almost certainly will, given its equilibrium even in its youth.
Amador Foothill Winery
2008 Shenandoah Valley Aglianico
By the numbers: 14.7 percent alcohol, 175 cases, $24
Context: Co-owners Ben Zeitman and Katie Quinn suggest that the aglianico be poured to accompany a well-marbled steak, braised short ribs, lamb sausage, or a hearty winter stew ample with vegetables and mushrooms.
Availability: The 2008 was released recently, available at the winery. The 2007 was carried by restaurants Bar Tartine, Zuni Café and A-16 in San Francisco, Taste in Plymouth and Biba in Sacramento, and can be ordered through the winery's website, www.amadorfoothill.com.
Information: The tasting room at Amador Foothill Winery, 12500 Steiner Road, Plymouth, is open noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Special event: Zeitman and Quinn will celebrate their 32nd annual open house featuring new releases and complimentary Southern-style appetizers from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 21-22 at the winery.