As he approaches his 41st harvest, California winemaker Jim Moore is as questing and optimistic as ever, though a little beaten down by the unusual path he cut for himself in the state’s highly competitive wine trade.
“You can’t be static,” Moore is saying over dinner at Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa Valley, where he has lived and worked since 1976. “You don’t grow if you don’t change, adapt and evolve.”
As if to reinforce that philosophy, he’s brought along two of his wines, a white blend and a red blend. Bottled under his Uvaggio label, the wines are fresh and balanced, distinctive and soothing, but the labels are a jolt. They bear the appellation of Napa Valley’s nearby Carneros district, although Uvaggio is more closely identified with the grapes and wines of Lodi.
Since he and his business partner, barrel broker Mel Knox, introduced in 1997 what originally was called L’Uvaggio di Giacomo – or “the blends of James” – Moore has championed Lodi fruit. “For volume and value, you can’t beat Lodi,” Moore says. “It’s also close and it offers the diversity I want.”
Their goal was to make wines that delivered more interest than their price would suggest, nowadays usually in the $14 to $20 range. They calculated that Lodi would provide the value, volume and variety they needed to fulfill their vision of exceptional wines cheap enough for consumers to savor with weeknight meals.
“You shouldn’t have to wait until the weekend to have a good wine, and you shouldn’t have to spend an arm and a leg for it,” Moore says.
For almost two decades, the formula has worked, but not without struggle, in part because of their exclusive focus on traditional Italian grape varieties such as vermentino, moscato and barbera when the wine-drinking populace was more interested in wines of French heritage, such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.
“I was never truly motivated by making conventional or predictable varieties,” he says. Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay just weren’t his cup of wine. But, he now realizes, he was “probably more than a little overly confident” that wine enthusiasts would jump for unfamiliar varietal wines from a region not widely recognized for fine wines.
Moore is a former assistant winemaker at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. While there he developed his fondness for Italy’s winemaking traditions via Italian-style wines he made under the brand La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi and through Mondavi’s collaboration with Italy’s Frescobaldi family to create the SuperTuscan wine Luce.
His zeal for Italian varieties abides. Stylistically, he doesn’t try to replicate the wines of Alto Adige, Tuscany and other Italian regions, though he does shoot for similar accessibility both economically and aesthetically, and he’s insistent that they fit at the dinner table. As a consequence, his wines tend to be relatively low in alcohol, crisp with refreshing acidity, and clean and clear in their expression of fruit.
“I want my wines to be very spherical and harmonious, with nothing angular or out of whack. If anything stands out as edgy, I’ve failed,” Moore says.
In the Sacramento area, his wines have enthusiastic followings at such retail outlets as Corti Brothers, some Nugget Markets, the Lodi Wine & Visitors Center and Amador 360 in Plymouth, as well as restaurants such as Mulvaney’s B&L, Hook & Ladder, Hot Italian, Matteo’s, Magpie and Grange, but he acknowledges that he hasn’t achieved the commercial success that he and Knox envisioned early on. By his reckoning, economic recession, consolidation of distributorships, the proliferation of other brands and his continuing insistence on largely undiscovered grape varieties from under-appreciated Lodi all have thwarted his hopes to see Uvaggio secure a more frequent presence on the American table.
One especially bright spot on the horizon, however, is that his wines look to be developing an enthusiastic following in the United Kingdom. “Last year I sold more of my wine in the UK than in California, even with all of Europe at their doorstep,” Moore says. For one, the airline carrier Virgin Atlantic in England bought 750 cases of his flagship wine, the Uvaggio vermentino, which accounts for 40 percent of his production.
Lodi is still a favored source of fruit, especially for his new brand, a’Campo, which he is devoting largely to wines made with grapes from old-vine vineyards, in particular zinfandel but also barbera, cinsault and even chenin blanc. (The name “a’Campo” translates as “of the countryside” or “in the field,” but it’s also a sly wink at the Lodi grape and wine area Acampo.)
With the new label, he is cutting back on Uvaggio, expecting output to shrink from around 5,000 cases annually to about 2,500 cases. He also expects to shift Uvaggio’s focus from largely white wines to red, and to supplement Lodi as a source of grapes with fruit from other appellations, including the Napa Valley and especially El Dorado County. Prices for Uvaggio wines going forward will stretch from $16 to $30, while a’Campo wines will occupy the $14-to-$20 value niche.
His long-range plans are uncertain. He and his wife, a school librarian in Napa, have two daughters, one of whom has indicated interest in maybe joining the business. In the meantime, Moore and his wife are pondering the possibility of moving to Ventura County to be closer to their daughters. Because he makes his product at wineries owned by others, he doesn’t have a facility to tie him down in Napa Valley, Lodi or anyplace else.
“I don’t know what will happen,” Moore says of his brands. “I’d hate to have done all this work for nothing, but Uvaggio may be too personalized to sell. On the other hand, there may be Uvaggio wine out of Santa Barbara; you never know.”
Jim Moore’s wines
You can find Jim Moore’s wines poured at the collective tasting room Ma(i)sonry in Napa Valley, 6711 Washington St., Yountville, open for tasting 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations not required but recommended: 707-944-0889 or www.maisonry.com.
The Uvaggio and a’Campo wines that most impressed me were:
- Uvaggio 2014 Napa Valley Carneros Zelo Bianco ($24): A blend of pinot grigio, traminer and the rare golden muscat grape, Zelo Bianco is an exceptionally robust white wine, delivering floral, fruity and spicy aromas and flavors that pair well with a wide range of foods.
- Uvaggio 2013 Lodi Vermentino ($14): Not your usually shy vermentino, but a rendition rich and complex, with aroma and flavor ranging from pollen and pears to oak shavings and lemon zest.
- a’Campo 2015 Lodi Old Vine Cinsault Rosé ($20): Not just another pretty pink wine, but one with unusual energy and grip, its smell and flavor evocative of stone, spice and assorted members of the berry family.
- Uvaggio 2015 Lodi Dulce Moscato ($14): Yes, a decidedly sweet wine, viscous and intense enough to pour over a bowl of vanilla ice cream on a hot summer night, but if you fret about calories it is just as rewarding entirely on its own.
- Uvaggio 2012 Lodi Primitivo ($16): Only about the most rugged and layered primitivo you are apt to find, its fruit drawn from candied cousins of the cherry, berry and plum families, but not without a beguiling thread of kale and other robust greens.
- a’Campo 2014 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($20): “Old vine” need not mean pinched and pruney, as this interpretation shows with a lean structure, snappy acidity and fresh berry flavors that dwell insistently on the palate.
- Uvaggio 2014 El Dorado Radix Vine Zinfandel ($24): The first general-circulation Uvaggio wine to break the $20 ceiling – the Zelo Bianco is only at the brand’s tasting room in Yountville – this release confirms El Dorado’s reputation for zinfandels that while concentrated and hearty need not be impolite and bruising; it’s really quite the agile athlete, at home on the balance beam. In a word, classic.
- Uvaggio Lodi Vermentino Passito ($20 per 500-milliliter bottle): A dessert wine in which the sweetness is balanced pleasantly with acidity, allowing its bright suggestions of citrus and apple to dance and shine. “Passito” refers to an old Mediterranean technique of drying harvested grapes before their juice is extracted.