Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Marco Cappelli and angelica, a wine from early California history

Marco Cappelli is pouring six wines into six glasses lined up on a counter at Miraflores Winery in the Pleasant Valley district of El Dorado County, just southeast of Placerville.

He is about to give a visiting wine writer a lesson in the making of angelica, which just may be California’s rarest wine and almost certainly its most historic.

“This wine, or rather this grape product called wine, dates from the earliest mission period. It was nothing more than unfermented grape juice run off into casks containing spirit. The spirit brought in alcohol to prevent spoilage and the grape sugar gave sweetness and flavor,” wrote Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti in the chapter he contributed to the thick University of California/Sotheby “Book of California Wine,” published 30 years ago. “Some of the finest examples of old California wine that I have tasted have been very old angelicas. Silky, harmonious, and elegant, they have been paragons of liqueur wines.”

Each glass that Cappelli has arranged holds a splash of wine fermented from mission grapes, with five of the six representing a different vintage over the past decade. The sixth contains a taste of the first angelica that Cappelli is releasing under his own eponymous label.

“Angelica is a wine without broad general appeal,” Cappelli is saying as he continues to pour. “It appeals to people who like sweet wines and who appreciate California history.”

Cappelli, the winemaker at Miraflores, as well as consulting winemaker to several other wineries in and about the foothills, has been fond of sweet wines since growing up in a family that largely eschewed wine except for cream sherry.

“I love tawny wines,” he adds. “From a historical standpoint, there’s a beauty to walking into an old cellar and seeing wines that have been aging so many years. Watching them develop with time in barrel is a lot of fun. They live longer than we do.”

Angelica – pronounced “ahn-jell-e-cah” – starts with the mission grape, the vernacular name the variety acquired simply because it was versatile enough and hardy enough to tolerate the arid heat where New World missions were built starting in the early 1500s.

Introduced to what now is California in 1778, the mission became California’s dominant wine grape for nearly a century. Now it’s down to around 700 of the nearly 500,000 acres of wine grapes cultivated in California. Only within the past decade did DNA profiling show that the mission was identical to the variety listan prieto, an ancient Spanish grape now pretty much restricted to the Canary Islands.

The glasses stretching before Cappelli gleam with the colors of a mineral collection. One is deep amethyst. A couple are varying hues of garnet. The 2010 is a dark amber.

Their smells and flavors run to various members of the berry family, with an orange rind here, a ripe plum there, a toasted nut, a caramel. What they share is sweetness, complexity, power and length.

We get to the sixth glass, the one holding Cappelli’s completed angelica. It smells and tastes of berries and figs, with notes of toasted walnuts, molasses and coffee. It’s viscous yet doesn’t lay as heavy on the palate as port or even a late-harvest dessert wine. Its sweetness lingers persistently yet lightly. The wine carries 18 percent each of alcohol and residual sugar.

“It almost smells to me like you’d expect an old miner’s camp to smell – earthy and smoky,” Cappelli says.

Little is known of the history of angelica. A Frenchman, Emile Vache, visited California in 1891 and wrote out a recipe for angelica, presumably given him by Franciscan friars. He makes clear that the sweet juice of crushed mission grapes wasn’t to be fermented before it was fortified with brandy and left to age.

Cappelli makes his angelica similarly, with one significant departure. Since the mission days, federal authorities who oversee the wine trade have decreed that for a beverage to be wine it must be at least partially fermented.

Why the wine is called angelica remains open to speculation, though the name generally is seen as having been inspired by Los Angeles, which early on was the epicenter of fortified dessert wines in California.

Cappelli sees the origin of the wine as a way for mission fathers to preserve grape juice by strengthening it with brandy so it would be perpetually handy for Mass and possibly for commerce. “It was a practical approach to preserve fruit,” he says.

Cappelli uses a solera system of many oak barrels to continually blend newer vintages with older. “Mission doesn’t have much character on its own. It needs slow oxidation to give it character,” he says.

His first release is made from four vintages of mission, from the harvest of 2005 through the harvest of 2008. He initially bottled 50 cases and will bottle an additional 100 cases this month.

Because of the vagaries of each vintage, as well as changes that develop in the wine as it ages in barrel, Cappelli recognizes that no two batches will be identical. With each release, however, he expects the wine to maintain a family resemblance while becoming more concentrated and more complex, with the spirits and sugar ever more integrated.

He harvests mission grapes for his angelica from the Rinaldi Vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley of neighboring Amador County. There, mission vines scattered through a 25-acre block of mostly zinfandel stand out for their height and their dark, thick and twisting trunks. Looking more like small oak trees than customary vines, the mission vines are believed to date back 112 years, says vineyard owner Gino Rinaldi.

Cappelli made his first angelica in 1995, when he was winemaker for Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley. Winery owner Clark Swanson had bought five tons of mission grapes from Deaver Vineyard in Amador County and asked Cappelli to make a version of angelica to be donated and sold in the gift shop of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. Before long, Cappelli, who remains consulting winemaker at Swanson, was making a commercial interpretation that subsequently became a staple in Swanson’s portfolio.

Cappelli moved to El Dorado County a decade ago and has been farming his own 15-acre vineyard since then. He isn’t growing any mission, but he does make angelicas for others, notably Miraflores Winery and Deaver Vineyards.

The label for his own brand bears a fanciful crest from a ceramic fruit bowl that his parents bought while visiting Italy in the 1950s. “I come from a family of farmers. We weren’t nobility, so this is our defacto family crest,” explains Cappelli.

The label also bears the inscription “familia sacra est”– “family is sacred” – to recognize the closeness of his Italian family. Those family ties, he expects, will be responsible for seeing his angelica through to its ultimate fruition.

“This is a project that probably won’t be fully realized in my lifetime. I hope at least one of our children has enough interest in it to market it,” Cappelli says. He and his wife, Belinda, have two children, 3 and 1. By the time they are ready to sell it, if they so choose, the angelica should be even more kingly than it already is.