Dunne on Wine

For Italian grape varieties, hope persists in the foothills

Viticulture professor Vittorino Novello visited the foothills to share his expertise on growing Italian grapes.
Viticulture professor Vittorino Novello visited the foothills to share his expertise on growing Italian grapes. Mike Dunne

For California wine enthusiasts, the Columbus Day weekend used to mean a big San Francisco tasting focused on wines made from Italian grape varieties grown in the United States.

That went away more than a decade ago, sunk when organizers conceded that domestic wines based on Italian grape varieties just weren’t resonating with consumers. The wines also couldn’t measure up to imports from Italy in value and interest and were more difficult to master in both vineyard and cellar than anticipated at the outset.

Since then, however, domestic takes on two Italian grape varieties – pinot grigio and barbera – have seized the attention of American wine consumers.

Less apparent is that many of the grape growers and winemakers who believed early on in the potential of Italian grapes in California still are quietly but diligently trying to get a hand on such melodiously named varieties as sangiovese, vermentino, aglianico, nebbiolo, dolcetto, fiano and arneis.

Many of the growers and winemakers who remain most optimistic line the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, clustered especially in El Dorado and Amador counties. They not only are stubborn, but eager to learn and improve. They jumped at a chance in August to hang out for three days with Vittorino Novello, a professor of viticulture from the University of Turin in northern Italy, whose whole career has involved grape-growing research at home and abroad.

The intent of his visit, coordinated by Lynn Wunderlich, farm adviser for the Central Sierra region of the University of California Cooperative Extension, was for Novello to study “the opportunities and challenges” of growing Italian grape varieties in the foothills and to swap information with farmers and vintners who tagged along on his tour of vineyards.

I also joined Novello’s first outing, involving four vineyards in the Apple Hill, Pleasant Valley and Fair Play areas of El Dorado County. Despite the heat and the sunshine, he was a game tutor as he ambled up and down rows of nebbiolo, aglianico and dolcetto, among other varieties.

He examined soil composition, questioned pruning methods, talked about clone selections, mused about irrigation protocols and cautioned against the aggressive removal of leaves from vines during the growing season, a common practice in California.

Novello was upbeat from the start, remarking, “Most Italian varieties can grow well here. The weather and the soil are compatible.”

He even had encouraging words for a grower who fretted that the technique he used to plant blocks of fiano and arneis could make them susceptible to an infestation of the deadly root louse phylloxera. Look at the bright side, suggested Novello: When vines age and die in Italy, their deadwood is salvaged to make outstanding furniture.

After his three days, which included a similar tour of vineyards in neighboring Amador County, Novello remained optimistic about the prospects of Italian grape varieties in California.

“My impression is that the California foothill grape growers know very well the Italian varieties. Sometimes the canopy management was not very well done, and I gave some suggestions on that. I think the most promising varieties, besides those already existing, are montepulciano, negroamaro, nero di troia, nero d’avola and the new cross albarossa,” said Novello by email after his tour.

His criticism of canopy management refers to the cover of leaves that flourish with grapes during the growing season. The ratio of vegetation to fruit wasn’t always in equilibrium, he felt, either obstructing sunlight on clusters of maturing grapes or allowing too much, which risked sunburn and desiccation of berries.

California growers and winemakers keen on Italian grape varieties long ago abandoned any thoughts they might have entertained about emulating Italy’s greatest wines, such as Chianti Classico, Barbaresco and Barolo. Many of them, however, remain confident that grape varieties responsible for those kinds of classics still can yield exceptional wines in California.

One of the tour hosts, Sheila Bush, recalled how she and her husband, David, became smitten with the Italian wine Barolo during a European visit. The couple farm their Sumu Kaw Vineyard in Pleasant Valley, one of the stops during Novello’s trek.

“We came back loving nebbiolo,” she said. “We knew it wouldn’t be Barolo, but we would like to get close if we could.”

The grape has been a challenge, both in vineyard and in cellar, and at times they discussed pulling it out. “I wasn’t seeing wines I liked coming from the vineyard, so why keep it?”

Years of experimentation, including by David’s brother Paul Bush of the winery Madroña Vineyards on Apple Hill, are paying off now with more appealing nebbiolos. However, a catch remains: Because of its stubbornly fierce tannins, nebbiolo takes years of aging to become approachable, and because wineries can’t afford to hang on to inventories indefinitely, they customarily release wines before their time, risking the unhappiness of customers who open them too soon.

On the other hand, suggested Novello, California wine producers have something going for them that they might not fully appreciate. In Italy, viticultural and winemaking practices often are regulated by laws to preserve traditions and quality. The wines Barbaresco and Barolo, for example, which take their names from the northern Italian towns where they flourish, are to be made only with the grape nebbiolo.

But California winemakers can be as creative as they want, freely blending one variety of grape with another with no one monitoring their behavior.

At the end of the first day of Novello’s tour, a tasting of foothill wines made with Italian grape varieties indicated that the potential for nebbiolo, fiano and the like in the state could rest on just that freedom.

Hank Beckmeyer of the vineyard and winery La Clarine Farm in El Dorado County, for one, poured his 2014 Piedi Grandi ($27), a terrifically earthy, spicy and persistent blend of 52 percent mourvèdre and 48 percent nebbiolo. The wine, indicated Beckmeyer, was an act of desperation that became a happy surprise. He simply didn’t see any alternative to dealing with the two lots other than to blend them. The resulting wine is complex, balanced, relatively low in alcohol (13.8 percent) and immediately accessible, contrary to the usual reservations about drinking nebbiolo young.

“It isn’t nebbiolo, but it has a lot of nebbiolo in it, and I don’t have to sit on it for four years,” said Beckmeyer.

He’s been getting nebbiolo from Sumu Kaw Vineyard since 2011. “I knew I should stay away from it,” he recalls telling himself when he and his wife first visited. “But the clusters we looked at were so gorgeous that my wife convinced me to buy a ton.”

Other winemakers must be drawing the same conclusion. Though tempted at times, the Bushes didn’t pull out their nebbiolo, and now demand for it is rising. “When we first planted it, no one wanted it. Now we have to turn away buyers. I guess it’s come around.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.