Jim Gullet is on stage, strolling about the tasting room of his Vino Noceto winery in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. He’s pouring tastes and answering questions about sangiovese, the wine that’s been his mission for nearly 30 years.
It’s a role with which he has become increasingly comfortable since he and his wife, Suzy, planted their first acre of sangiovese in 1987 and released their first 110 cases of the varietal from the 1990 vintage. They now tend 24 acres and make up to 10,000 cases a year, most of it sangiovese.
Gullett is playing before a critical audience, which includes Todd Bolton, owner of Tuscan Trails, a wine-tour company in Florence, Italy, where sangiovese flourishes and where it expresses itself most profoundly as Chianti Classico or as its modern offshoot, a Super Tuscan.
The Gulletts’ foray into winemaking after unrelated careers in the financial sector – he was a computer scientist who developed banking software, she was a system analyst for Bank of America – was inspired in large part by visits to Tuscany and their fondness for the region’s mastery of sangiovese. But while Chianti Classico remains the model after which they style their sangiovese, they recognize that Northern California’s sunshine, aridity and heat put a spin to the grape that yields a wine that while similar is different.
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“Our goal is the Chianti style, but with California sun,” Jim Gullett says as he circulates the room pouring samples of the latest version of his flagship wine, the Vino Noceto 2011 Amador County Sangiovese ($18), which accounts for nearly half the winery’s yearly output.
By Chianti style, Gullett means a wine lightly colored, leanly built, distinctly fruity, easy to drink and versatile at the dinner table. His sangioveses measure up to those standards, but in their occasionally reserved fruit, acidity and persistence, they aren’t likely to be taken for Chianti Classico.
Still, Vino Noceto is recognized widely within the commercial wine trade for producing most consistently the best sculpted sangiovese in California. Granted, there aren’t many, with little vineyard acreage planted to the variety and with some early producers dropping out after disappointing results in cellars and sales.
Yet, the Gulletts doggedly believe in sangiovese. Make that sangioveses. In any given vintage, they and their longtime winemaker, Rusty Folena, may make as many as eight kinds of wine based on sangiovese, including a playful rosato and a bracing grappa.
The Gulletts’ success with sangiovese both commercially and critically has taken patient and precise study, and continues with adjustments and experiments virtually every vintage. Methods of fermentation are apt to change, and each harvest they are apt to find themselves working with as many as 20 separate lots of sangiovese.
Their current lineup includes seven versions, reflecting two crucial lessons at Vino Noceto. One is that the Gulletts have learned just how site-specific the grape is; that is, a single strain of the variety can vary markedly in its expression from setting to setting. Secondly, Jim Gullett is tireless in his exploration of various strains of sangiovese, where they best are cultivated, and how they perform with other grape varieties or on their own in wines.
To my palate, the 2011 Amador County Sangiovese was adequately fruity, wiry and dry, and would be a quietly welcome companion with a meal, but others were more animated and provocative.
For one, the Vino Noceto 2011 Shenandoah Valley “Misto” Sangiovese ($28), which the Gulletts say is their ongoing trial to make a California wine that most closely mimics traditional Chianti, had much more cherry and tropical fruit flavors and more bright lift to its acidity. As in Tuscany, the 90 percent sangiovese that forms the wine’s foundation was supplemented with the white grapes malvasia and trebbiano and the black grape canaiolo nero, all of which add delicate nuances of other fruit and spice to the cherry smack of sangiovese.
Secondly, the Vino Noceto 2011 Shenandoah Valley “Dos Oakies” Sangiovese ($28), which takes its name from the estate’s two original signature oak trees, one of which has died, was dry yet sweetly and lushly fruity, with more freshness and complexity and a more substantial structure than other sangioveses tasted. The selection of sangiovese that went into the wine comes from the Il Poggione estate in Tuscany, one of the three original producers of Brunello di Montalcino, an unusually dark, firm and forward wine from the grape.
In the past, I’ve been surprised by the vivaciousness of older sangioveses from Vino Noceto, which have shown a lucidity, vitality and grace exceptional for a wine so light in color and lean in build upon release. That message came through again when Gullett opened a magnum of the 2007 Amador County sangiovese, which was delightfully aromatic, sweet with fruit and fleshy in texture, with both tannin and oak far in the background.
Vino Noceto’s sangioveses sell well at Corti Brothers in Sacramento and in other markets in California and Nevada, but overall the wines remain a challenge to promote, even with the respect the winery has developed for the varietal. Americans tend to like their red wines deeply colored and ripe with fruit, but sangiovese is more delicate, with light hues and fine flavors.
“Americans associate fine red wine first with dark ruby to purple color. Europeans much less so. If one looks at a wine first as a food, this is less an issue,” Jim Gullett says.
His sangioveses also tend to be lower in alcohol than other red table wines popular in the United States. The “sweet spot” he’s found for alcohol in sangiovese is around 13.7 percent, a low target often difficult to hit in the wake of California’s torrid summers.
Todd Bolton, the wine guide from Florence, complimented the Vino Noceto wines as “some of the cleanest sangioveses I’ve tasted from California.” He appreciated their restrained oak and “nice minerality,” but found that they weren’t as high in freshness, acidity and length as the Chianti Classico he has come to admire. They also tended to be warmer with alcohol than Chianti Classico.
“Jim takes great care to make some wines not too alcoholic, but they reflect that terrain, and it’s hot up there,” Bolton says. “It’s a little warm for sangiovese in general, but he does a phenomenal job.”
As if to reinforce their confidence in sangiovese, the Gulletts are preparing to release a much heartier version that has been five years in the making. Code named “AX1” after a series of experiments with grapes grown on vines originally sourced from the Brunello producer Altesino, the wine is an uncommonly dense, robust, juicy and solidy constructed take on sangiovese, at least by Vino Noceto’s usual standards.
Expected to be released this fall, the wine also will bear an uncommonly high price for the varietal, around $50. In short, the Gulletts feel that they’ve learned enough and become accomplished enough at working with the grape that the time is right for a statement sangiovese.
The Gullets are departing from their usual buoyant and lithe style for several reasons, largely because this is the style of wine that the grape, the site, the vintage (2009) and their patient stewardship has given them.
Grapes for “AX1” were grown in shallow soil over fractured granite on the crest of a slope previously occupied by a walnut orchard for more than 70 years. (In Italian, “noceto” means walnut grove, and walnuts were a prime crop on the site when the Gulletts bought the property. The Italian settlement of Noceto, near Parma, also is a sister city of Walnut Creek, the home town of Suzy Gullett, who long has directed Vino Noceto’s marketing and sales.)
The strain of sangiovese used for “AX1” customarily gives the Gulletts one of the fruitier, sharper and more highly structured versions of the varietal from their estate. Nearly all of the wine was fermented in 500-liter oak puncheons rather than the usual 225-liter oak barrels. “That fermentation regime seems to ‘fix’ the color, flavors and tannins, while retaining good sangiovese fruitiness,” Jim Gullett says.
The overall result, he adds, is “a wine that stood out on its own as a sophisticated California wine that still is a representative sangiovese.”
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 email@example.com.
The tasting room, 11011 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. “Farm-to-glass” tours – 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. daily – typically include a stroll through the estate vineyard, a visit to the winery and a taste of six wines.
Cost: $10 per person