Bringing the Mediterranean to Northern California

Italian Grapes in California, Part 2: Portraits from Sonoma and Mendocino

Bringing the Mediterranean to Northern California
George Unti and son Mick Unti have experimented with Rhône and Italian varieties in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, and are particularly enthusiastic about Aglianico, Montepulciano and Vermentino. (Robert Camuto)
Apr 26, 2022

More than 30 years ago, George Unti—the son of a logger and farmer who emigrated from Tuscany—began planting his Mediterranean wine dream in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.

Unti, who had learned to prune vines and make wine with his dad in grade school, had a successful, decades-long career as a California supermarket executive.

But when he bought a house in wine country surrounded by Zinfandel vineyards and raw land, he wanted to return to his family’s agricultural roots. He and his son Mick began regrafting and replanting with a vision drawn from trips to France’s Rhône Valley and Italy.

“In California, if you’re going to select grapes from anywhere in Europe, you’re better off selecting Mediterranean wine grapes,” concluded Unti, now 83.

Today, the Untis organically farm 60 acres and produce about 9,000 cases of wine annually. In addition to Rhône varieties like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, the Untis have succeeded with Sangiovese, Barbera, Vermentino and Montepulciano and, in the past decade, have also planted lesser-known Fiano, Aglianico and more.

Their method of experimenting with vines in different positions and exposures has paid off. From the 2015 through the 2020 vintage, the Untis released 16 bottlings scoring 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.

The Untis, who (like all the winemakers in this column) aim for good levels of natural acidity in their crop and don’t acidify their wines, have by trial and error come to several conclusions.

Chief among them is that the “Cal-Ital” movement of the 1980s and ’90s failed because of indiscriminate planting and cropping of Sangiovese.

“Sangiovese is hard,” says George, who predominantly planted clones of Sangiovese Grosso. “You have to plant it in the right spot. On hillsides with afternoon shade, it does the best.”

“It’s possibly not the best thing for California,” echoes Mick, 64, standing in the family’s modest winery, set among their first vineyards. “It’s got great potential, but it’s really for the dedicated only.”

Father and son have found promise in reds made with Montepulciano (“We need to get it planted on our best sites,” says George) and Aglianico (Mick: “If you’re looking at a variety that can tolerate heat, it can be awesome in California.”)

The Italian grape they believe has the greatest potential? Vermentino.

“Vermentino is such a no-brainer. It loves heat, and you can crop it at high levels and still get great levels of flavor and acidity,” Mick enthuses. “Ten years from now, I think it will be the most widely planted white in California. I’ve never seen a category trend that has such potential to exceed expectations.”

 Martha Stoumen standing next to an old, head-trained vine in a plot of Nero d'Avola on Bricarelli Ranch in March before the vineyard has begun to leaf
Martha Stoumen, who leases more than 5 acres of head-trained Nero d’Avola and Negroamaro on Bricarelli Ranch in Mendocino County’s Ukiah Valley, believes that farming without irrigation benefits vine health and wine quality. (Robert Camuto)

The next generation of Mediterranean-inspired, organic producers is embodied by Martha Stoumen, a 38-year-old Sonoma area native who leases vineyards and buys fruit mostly in Mendocino County to the north.

Stoumen’s label, which launched in 2014 and quickly became hip in Bay Area natural wine circles, has made an impressive run. Her fifth vintage included a juicy Sicilian inspired Nero d’Avola (2018, 91 points, $40) and an unusual, delicious barrel-aged rosato from Puglia’s rustic Negroamaro variety (2018, 90 points, $42).

Stoumen stumbled into wine when she was a just out of college 16 years ago. An environmental sciences major, she took an internship at Tuscan farmstead Tenuta di Spannocchia to learn about full-circle farming.

“They put me in the vineyard and the cantina,” says Stoumen. She quickly became hooked on winemaking amid “all those big bubbling vats of wine.”

Stoumen got her master’s degree in winemaking from the University of California at Davis and, over eight years, worked internships around the world, including at Domaine Leon Barral in Southern France’s Faugères appellation and Sicily’s COS.

“Coming back to California, I was interested in working with Mediterranean varieties,” Stoumen says. “I was looking for grapes that have some elegance in a hot climate, and Nero d’Avola had made an impression on me at COS.”

Stoumen was also drawn to Mendocino, a center for organic farming, where Italian immigrants had established the kind of vineyards she wanted to work with: mature, head-trained and often dry-farmed.

For her first vintage, 2014, she purchased grapes from the Italophile vineyards of Fox Hill, on Mendocino’s Talmage Bench, and also made locally sourced Carignan.

From 200 cases, Stoumen has grown to about 9,000 cases annually—including more than 20 bottlings and some unheard-of French-Italian blends—and sources from 15 vineyards.

Since her second vintage, Stoumen has leased more than 5 acres of head-trained vines, including Nero d’Avola and Negroamaro, on the dry-farmed Bricarelli Ranch in the Ukiah Valley.

On a rainy day in March, she walks through her Bricarelli plot of Nero d’Avola with a visitor, explaining the positive effects of dry farming on wine quality despite its lower yields and general unpopularity among California growers.

“You get deeper root structures. And the roots are exposed to higher mineral content. It has to have an effect,” she says. “I think if it’s possible in Mendocino, which is dry-dry, it should be possible anywhere.”

 Idlewild founder Sam Bilbro stands in front of rows of vines on Lost Hills Ranch overlooking forested hillsides beyond
After taking over his family’s Lost Hills Ranch property, at an elevation of about 1,500 feet in Mendocino’s Yorkville Highlands, Sam Bilbro regrafted 30 acres to red and white Piedmont varieties. (Robert Camuto)

Stoumen’s friend and Italophile contemporary, Sam Bilbro, 38, came into wine by the family route.

Bilbro is a fourth-generation California grower and winemaker whose great-grandfather emigrated from Lucca, Tuscany. His father, Chris, founded Sonoma’s Marietta Cellars in the 1970s, where he produced the wildly popular non-vintage Zinfandel blend called Old Vine Red.

Yet, despite growing up around Marietta’s converted barn of a winery, neither Sam nor his elder brothers Scot (who now runs Marietta) and Jake (of Limerick Lane Winery) initially sought to follow in family tradition.

“I had zero connection to wine,” says Sam, who at 22 was playing guitar in a punk rock band in Oregon. “Then I tasted a bottle of Barbaresco. It changed my life. Suddenly everything my dad did in his life made sense.”

Sam toured Italy, including Piedmont, and returned home to California to work at Marietta and Healdsburg’s biodynamic Front Porch Farm.

In 2012, he launched his Idlewild Wines with 700 cases from Piedmont grapes Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, as well as the white varieties Cortese, Arneis and Muscat, sourced from Mendocino’s Fox Hill vineyard, which he came to manage. Five years later (before their father’s death in 2019), the family divided their holdings and Sam got the Lost Hills Ranch in Mendocino’s Yorkville Highlands. There he regrafted 30 acres of high-altitude vineyards to Piedmont varieties.

Lost Hills is as evocative as its name, with a green-in-spring rolling landscape where sheep had traditionally grazed. Its relative proximity to the Pacific Ocean, less than 20 miles away, makes for a relatively cool climate that Sam likens to Northern Italy.

“The Pacific is our Alps,” Bilbro says. “At 1,200 to 1,500 feet, you get this kind of sub-Alpine climate.”

At his winery in the Sonoma town of Healdsburg (where Idlewild also has a salumi and wine bar), Bilbro uses traditional methods—from foot trodding and native yeasts to large oak casks for fermentation and aging—to create wines that are bright and angular even by Piedmont’s standards.

Still, despite his focused inspiration, Bilbro (as well as the others I interviewed on a three-week tour of the state) insists he is about making a new category of wine on his home turf and not a knock-off of Italy. That is reflected in his choice of a winery name.

“I didn’t want to name an Italian variety–based winery something like Bella Vita Cellars,” he says. “The idea was to respect Italian tradition but have two feet on the ground here in California.”

Read Italian Grapes in California, Part 1: A Slice of Southern Italy in Paso Robles. The next installment will appear in Robert Camuto Meets… in about two weeks.

People Red Wines White Wines Nebbiolo Sangiovese Barbera Dolcetto California Sonoma Mendocino

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