I briefly reconsidered the title of my story in Wine Spectator's April 30, 2016, issue, “Under the Volcano.” Would readers think I was implying a connection between archaeologist and California vintner Michael Thomas and the protagonist of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel of the same title, an alcoholic shell of a man prone to delusions? Ultimately, I felt the headline appropriately evoked Thomas' excavation project in Italy's Campania region—uncovering elusive truths buried in the ashes of Vesuvius.
Yet there was something delusional about one of Thomas’ new winemaking endeavors, inspired by his time in Italy. In 2012, at Wrath's San Saba estate vineyard, across the street from the eastern boundary of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Thomas decided to plant grapes indigenous to Campania—a departure from the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah on which Wrath and the area have made their name.
The decision came down to Fiano or Falanghina, but some Californians were already growing Fiano. “I said I think that Falanghina is more of a wildcard, so let’s go with it,” Thomas explained. What made him think his vineyard could grow a variety that refuses to budge on acidity until late fall and becomes a magnet for bees? “To be honest, we didn’t know it would. Falanghina tends to grow in pretty warm climates,” even for Campania. “So the question was, will it get ripe?”
In the first bearing vintage, 2014, it did, but the acidity was so high Thomas wasn’t sure the wine would make it through fermentation. A few techniques beloved of winemaking iconoclasts—most the result of lucky finds and snap decisions on Wrath's part—helped shaped this potential ugly-duckling wine into a perfectly tasty pour.
The 2014 Falanghina was separated into two regimens: One full-bore funky, with fermentation in 500-liter terracotta dolia—the same type of vessel the Romans used—that winemaker Sabrine Rodems saw for sale at a trade show earlier in 2014. Two weeks of skin contact. No fining or filtering. Little sulfur dioxide added. This treatment “helps oxidize it a little bit and mellow it,” said Thomas.
Though a fan of the movement generally, “I didn’t want some stinky natural wine,” he said, nor was he seeking an orange wine, though he risked that with extended skin contact in terracotta. Thomas acknowledged the wine came from a place “a little out there,” but with Rodems’ assistance, he went all in and came out with a wine rated 88 points at $29 on his first try.
The other lot of Falanghina was pressed immediately and put in neutral oak barrels like any well-behaved white wine. That didn’t quite do the trick and the wine ended up as a tasting room-only pour. So the weird won out for the 2015 vintage and forward.
One can see the Fates smile over this unlikely project in California, where winemakers have often struggled or failed with other varieties particular to parts of Italy, from Nebbiolo to Sangiovese. But as a weird wine, it was an experiment informed by experience, foreknowledge and even temperament. As veteran Santa Lucia Highlands and Wrath viticultural consultant Steve McIntyre put it, “Sabrine will push the boundaries. That’s what I like about her winemaking: She’s willing to take some risks, and the reward tends to be better aromatics and more exciting, bright wines.”
For those interested in seeing the results of Thomas’ Pompeii-area archaeological digs up close: “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii” exhibition is now on the road, in Ann Arbor until May 15, Bozeman, Mont., from June through Dec., and Northampton, Mass., Feb. to Aug. 2017.
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.