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California's Delicato Vineyards Goes from Bulk to Boutique


James Laube
Posted: August 27, 1999

One of California's largest wine producers and vineyard owners is turning its sights to the boutique wine market. Delicato Vineyards, founded in 1924 by Sicilian immigrant Gaspare Indelicato, has made its first high-end varietal wines, which it will sell to commemorate its 75th anniversary.

Using select lots of grapes from its sprawling 8,100-acre San Bernabe (BER na BAY) Vineyard in Monterey County, Delicato is channeling some of its energy away from inexpensive wines into higher quality Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah. For the first wines, from the 1998 vintage, Delicato made about 400 to 500 cases of each varietal -- very small quantities for a winery known for doing things on a gigantic scale.

The family-owned winery, which is based in Manteca in the Central Valley, processes about 5 percent of the entire California wine grape crop, and crushes, vinifies and bottles about 12 million cases of wine per year. Most of that wine is custom-made and sold in bulk for a variety of clients, including Beringer, Canandaigua, Fetzer, Robert Mondavi, Sebastiani and Sutter Home. About half of that production is Chardonnay and White Zinfandel. Another 2 million cases appear under different, mostly inexpensive, Delicato brands.

For its new line of finer wines, Delicato has a tremendous resource in its San Bernabe Vineyard, which is planted with 27 different grape varieties, according to Tom Smith, vice president of winemaking and production. Smith, 41, worked at The Hess Collection in Napa Valley from 1988 through 1994 before signing on as chief winemaker with Delicato. In charge of Delicato Monterey, he is fine-tuning its vineyards and pinpointing the very best grapes.

"The winery owners have given us winemakers carte blanche to make the best possible wines," he said. "The premise is to find the best vines, from the best rows from the best vineyard blocks." He added that with San Bernabe's 8,100 acres of vines -- making it the largest contiguous vineyard in the U.S -- he and his staff have identified many ideal locations. The winery has also added new winemaking equipment and purchased new oak barrels, with the goal of joining California's best wineries with first-class wines, he said.

For the first wines in its new line, Delicato has focused on grapes that excel in Monterey, including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Merlot, though, is the richest and most complex, while Syrah may end up being the most pleasant surprise, as indicated by the 1998 barrel samples.

"We think the two great red wines for Monterey are Merlot and Syrah," said Smith. Heat-seeking grapes such as Cabernet can struggle to ripen in the area's cool, windy climate, but Syrah, said Smith, seems to favor the breezy atmosphere and may end up being the best red wine grape in Monterey. He commented, "I don't think anyone knew Syrah could be as good as it is in Monterey."

As for Pinot Noir in the region, "We're all on a steep learning curve," Smith admitted. "I think 90 percent of [the Pinot Noir] is the wrong clone for this area. We're looking to make a Pinot with more color, concentration and extract."

The Delicato Monterey wines will be released in 2000 and sell in the $25 range. A special commemorative wine, Nonno's Traditional -- a blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Zinfandel -- will also be released to honor winery founder Gaspare Indelicato.

Even though the winery has waited for years to enter the fine wine arena, Smith says the company hasn't lost sight of its values. He commented, "I like to surprise consumers with quality and value."

To learn more about winemaking in Monterey:

  • June 15, 1997
    California's Sleeping Giant
    Monterey County awakens to the challenge of making great wine

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