Last month, I had the welcome opportunity to spend nearly three weeks in California—my first visit since moving to Italy six years ago.
As an expat Italian-American, I came to the Golden State looking for Italian wine cousins. Much of California looks, feels and tastes Italian—from the sunlight to the olive trees and sweet tomatoes. Shouldn’t the grapes also be Italian?
Strangely, a handful of French grapes still dominate the landscape, led by Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (and trailed in the distance by Pinot Noir, Merlot, French Colombard, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc). It seems kind of limited to me and possibly shortsighted, especially as growing-season temperatures rise and alcohol levels rise with them.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the California Cabernet juggernaut might have faced a challenge by the so-called “Cal-Ital” movement, during which a lot of Sangiovese was planted by big players that included Robert Mondavi’s La Famiglia and Piero Antinori’s Antica. But that quickly fizzled with underwhelming wines that, according to Wine Spectator Napa bureau chief MaryAnn Worobiec, were “deemed overcropped, overoaked and overpriced.”
Since then, Italian-inspired wines haven’t disappeared; they’ve just gone a bit underground. Some growers continued to experiment, and a new generation of young, non-interventionist Italophiles has established boutique wineries producing the likes of southern-clime Aglianico and Fiano, northern Nebbiolo and Dolcetto and a lot of rare varieties in between.
My first stop was the Central Coast’s fast-growing, free-wheeling Paso Robles region, known for a warm climate with the state’s biggest swings in diurnal temperatures in the summer.
In Paso’s Templeton Gap, I found a first pair of wine kindred spirits in Chris and Adrienne Ferrara of Clesi winery.
“In California, we need more heat-tolerant varieties with higher acidity and later ripening,” says Chris. “That is Italian varieties.”
Chris, 47, in his 26th year of winemaking, grew up on a San Joaquin Valley citrus farm started by his Sicilian immigrant grandparents.
Around the turn of the millennium, he was a viticulturist at Templeton’s Wild Horse winery, where he met Adrienne, a marketing intern. The two fell in love, married and, when the winery was sold to conglomerate Fortune Brands in 2003, they struck out on their own, working in rented facilities.
The impetus, says Chris, was that the new owners started cutting back on the Italian varieties he was fond of working with.
“I had to cut out Dolcetto, but I wanted to make it anyway,” he says.
A decade on, they bought a goat ranch on a plateau on the banks of the Salinas River and built their own small winery. Two years later, they began planting vineyards.
Today, 6 of the ranch’s 30 acres are planted to Sangiovese, Sagrantino, Montepulciano and Dolcetto. The first estate vintage, 2021, will be released next year. With their next vineyard blocks, the Ferraras will focus on varieties from Southern Italy and attempt to dry farm.
“We’re not trying to replicate anything. We’re trying to utilize the attributes of the grapes here,” says Adrienne, 41. “There’s a lot we can learn from Sicily and Southern Italy.”
With production at about 2,500 to 3,200 cases annually of the Clesi label, which is based on the ancient three-legged Sicilian Trinacria symbol, the Ferraras have a healthy direct-to-consumer business. Their lineup includes southern and central Italian varieties sourced from Paso Robles and other Central Coast vineyards: Aglianico, Sangiovese, Sagrantino, Negro Amaro, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano, along with Northern Italian varieties Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and Malvasia Bianca. (They also make Cabernet and a Cab-Sangiovese blend.)
How do they compare to their Old World counterparts? Paso Robles wines are known for their sunny fruit and juiciness, which show in the Italian-style wines here as well.
“I think we make and will make prettier wines,” says Chris.
Not long after Clesi began, their friends Brian and Stephanie Terrizzi launched Giornata in Paso with the dream of making food-friendly wines “employing the sensibility and philosophy of Italian winemaking.”
The couple, both native Midwesterners, met at Fresno State in 2004 where Brian and Stephanie were studying enology and viticulture, respectively.
Brian, 52, whose grandparents immigrated from Sicily, had been working in finance in San Francisco in the early 2000s when he caught the wine bug and quit his day job to work at Rosenblum Cellars. In 2003, notable for a brutal heat wave in Europe, he worked in the cellar at Tuscany’s Isole e Olena during harvest.
“I had this revelation that with all these farm-to-table restaurants opening up in San Francisco,” says Brian, “if I made a true-to-Italy wine they would have to carry it.”
Starting with a barrel of Nebbiolo in 2005, the couple moved on to Aglianico and Sangiovese bottlings from locally sourced grapes.
“Italian and Southern Italian varieties are the most suited for Paso Robles,” says Brian, who oversees their cellar in Tin City, Paso Robles’ hip, artisanal version of an industrial park. “But they are the least suited to marketing.”
Nearly a decade ago, the couple bought an 11-acre, steeply sloped, abandoned almond farm in Paso’s central El Pomar District and began replanting it with varieties from central and Northern Italy: three clones of Nebbiolo along with Friulano, Sangiovese and Ribolla Gialla. They are planning more plantings dominated by Sicilian grapes.
Giornata makes up to 5,000 cases a year. Current releases include reds from Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Aglianico and whites from Vermentino and Fiano, along with a Falanghina-based blend. They make a half-dozen amphora-fermented wines under their Fatto a Mano label, and this year released a skin-contact blend called Orangotango.
“We don’t need to grow anymore,” says Brian. “It’s a very special segment of the market that cares about what we do.”
What is growing at casa Terrizzi is another Italian project the couple launched from Tin City: a line of fresh and dried pastas called Etto, which they began after Brian studied pasta making in Naples and imported machinery from Italy. Etto has boomed in its restaurant, retail and wholesale business and has quickly matched Giornata’s wine sales.
“When we set out to do this, I wanted to be respectful and true to Italy,” says Brian.
Despite their progress, Giornata and some like-minded Paso producers were dealt a blow last year after the new owners of the Luna Matta vineyard—a source for quality Nebbiolo and other Italian varieties—replanted to Bordeaux varieties. Yes, the New World is more dynamic than the Old. But it can also be faster and more fickle.
After just a few days in the Golden State, I became anxious to see where all this is going.
Read the next Robert Camuto Meets… column, Part 2 of Italian Grapes in California, in two weeks.