Californian Mark Shannon has worked in just about every major wine-producing region in the United States, but instead of sticking around his home state, the outgoing winemaker has ended up in the Apulia region of southern Italy. There, from ancient vines, he is producing a reasonably priced wine often thought of as a California original -- Zinfandel, called Primitivo in Italy.
Apulia (known locally as Puglia), on the Adriatic coast, is one of Italy's largest wine-producing regions. It is also the heartland of Primitivo, which DNA testing indicates is the same grape variety as the Zinfandel of California. While Primitivo was long thought to be the ancestor of Zinfandel, current research holds that the variety originated in Eastern Europe and was grown in California before making its way to Italy, where many of the old plantings still remain.
"Can you imagine a California winemaker landing in a region with 70,000 acres of old head-trained Zinfandel -- the real and original stuff?" said Shannon, 41, who has worked for such California wineries as Bogle, Fess Parker and Beringer, as well as various vineyard operations in Washington and Texas. "It's a dream."
So far, Apulia has been known only for making average to good wines at reasonable prices. The best-known wine of the region is Salice Salentino, which is a blend of local grapes called Negromaro and Malvasia Nera. Although Primitivo is one of Apulia's most important grape varieties, until recently it has primarily been used for blending because the varietal didn't have a big following.
Shannon, who has been in Apulia for about three years, has begun producing a Primitivo wine called A Mano, which means "handmade" in Italian. The 1998 A Mano (88 points) is rich and fruity, with all the Zinfandel character you could hope for. It sells for $10 per bottle, and about 20,000 cases were made. The 1999 A Mano is equally as good, and Shannon is also coming out with a Sangiovese, called Promessa, from the same vintage, which should retail for slightly less than $10.
"In a zone as big as Puglia, you can always find a small percentage of seriously good wines," he said. "That's why I live there." Shannon, who has a wife and two teenage daughters, splits his time between Seattle and Laterza -- a 24-hour commute by plane and car. "It's not easy because my family is in Seattle and I am here, but I think that it is worth it. I am really breaking new ground."
"If you remember the great Dry Creek Zinfandels of the 1970s," Shannon added, "that's what we can do in Puglia. Just wait and see."
To learn more about Zinfandel, Primitivo and Apulia: