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California Sangiovese Losing Ground

Despite high hopes, Tuscany's prime red rarely thrives in the Golden State

Tim Fish
Posted: February 17, 2004

When Atlas Peak planted its first vineyards in the mountains above Napa Valley back in 1987, Sangiovese seemed poised to become the next classic European grape to find success in California. The state, after all, had already proven itself with the noble wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy; why should California winemakers not expect to excel with the dominant grape of Italian Chianti?

Sixteen years later, however, Sangiovese is still struggling to find its way in California. Like a boxer languishing on the ropes, it could come out swinging, or end up on the canvas. It's too soon to tell, but while many in the industry believe Sangiovese will continue to thrive as a niche varietal, few think it will ever live up to its promise as the next Merlot.

In Chianti, Sangiovese makes a range of wines, from everyday table reds to classic Brunellos and super Tuscans (in which it's frequently blended with either Cabernet, Merlot or, on occasion, Syrah). There's no shortage of California wineries that continue to produce Sangiovese. The California trade organization Consorzio Cal-Italia lists 62 members who bottle the variety, mostly on a small scale (fewer than 500 cases).

And yet the bloom is definitely off the rose. Top producers such as Dalla Valle and Heidi Peterson Barrett's La Sirena have recently dropped Sangiovese from their lineups, while Swanson, another key player, has cut production to a mere trickle. Moreover, Atlas Peak, the biggest producer of Sangiovese in California and a collaborative project between drinks giant Allied Domecq and Tuscan vintner Piero Antinori, a champion of the grape in Italy, is rethinking its commitment. And while the state's overall acreage has grown from 770 acres in 1994 to 2,727 acres last year, new plantings peaked in 1997 at 859 acres. Last year, only 6 new acres of Sangiovese were planted.

Where did California Sangiovese go wrong? Put simply, wineries haven't yet been able to produce consistently compelling wines. Many of the wines blind- tasted by Wine Spectator editors have come up shy on varietal character, concentration and complexity. Moreover, many are lean, thin wines that make one wonder whether Sangiovese is really worth the effort. Since 1990, only 11 California Sangioveses out of 335 reviewed have earned outstanding marks (90 or more points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale), with only 34 more scoring 88 or 89 points, leaving the grape's ability to produce great wine in California a real question mark.

Some of the more successful Sangioveses include Shafer's Firebreak and Ferrari-Carano's Siena, both of which have Cabernet Sauvignon playing a crucial role in the blend, making the wines more super Tuscan than Chianti-like in style. Other producers have been more sporadic, producing successes one year and disappointments the next.

"I like Sangiovese, but it's super-challenging to make," says Peterson Barrett, who still produces Sangiovese for Showket but who stopped La Sirena's bottling with the 1999 vintage. Her experience, in many ways, is emblematic. While she was pleased with her La Sirena grape source -- Juliana Vineyards in Napa's Pope Valley -- it was a struggle to make the wine every year. When that site was sold, she decided to pack it in. "I kind of used it as an opportunity to jump on the Syrah bandwagon."

Mia Klein first made Sangiovese for Robert Pepi in the late 1980s. "I certainly learned a lot about winemaking from Sangiovese over the years," says Klein with a laugh. Klein is winemaker for Dalla Valle, which dropped Sangiovese with the 2000 vintage. Dalla Valle's 2-acre Sangiovese vineyard is being budded over to Bordeaux varieties. "I think we made some really nice Sangioveses, but the vineyard is really better suited for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc."

Atlas Peak, which pinned its reputation on Sangiovese, may follow suit. About 110 of the winery's 490 acres are currently planted to the variety, but owner Allied Domecq is repositioning the brand to emphasize its location (1,500 feet above Napa Valley) and its mountain-grown Cabernet. Jim DeBonis, COO of Allied Domecq Wines USA, says Atlas Peak will continue to make Sangiovese -- it currently produces some 25,000 cases a year -- but the question is, how much? "I don't know if it makes much sense for an entire brand to be a niche market as it is currently," he says.

Sangiovese in California offers many challenges. "More than any other wine, Sangiovese is made in the vineyard," says Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez. "I say Sangiovese wants to commit suicide, because the vines put out so much fruit that they can't take it."

Large crops also lead to diluted flavors if the vines aren't severely thinned. And Sangiovese is naturally high in acidity, which means the vineyard needs lots of heat and sun, and even so, growers have to push the ripeness envelope. "I had to deacidify the wine every year," Klein says. The wine is also prone to oxidation and the color is quick to turn orange or brownish. Finally, Fernandez calls the wine "an oak sponge."

All this adds up to one thing: Sangiovese is expensive to produce. Trouble is, consumers are typically reluctant to pay the price. The 1989 Atlas Peak, the winery's first Sangiovese, sold for $24, while the 2000 costs $16. Even at that price point, Italy delivers far more variety, complexity and quality. That said, California Sangiovese has an adequate following within a niche market, producers maintain. While it's nothing like the support they give Tuscan wines, many Italian restaurants around the country continue to stock the California versions because chefs argue that they are food-friendly.

A few wineries have found and maintained success with the grape, particularly Shafer. While Fernandez was getting a handle on how to grow Sangiovese at Shafer, he also realized how crucial Cabernet was to the blend. Sangiovese brought cranberry fruit, bright acidity and what Fernandez calls "bittersweet tannins" to the wine, while the Cabernet fills in with color, roundness and length and also more elegantly integrates the oak. Shafer's Firebreak 1991, the first release, had 39 percent Cabernet, but eventually Fernandez learned that the amount of Cabernet was less important than how it was integrated. Today, Shafer ferments the Sangiovese and Cabernet together, using 6 percent Cabernet and 30 percent new oak for the 2000.

That Shafer has figured out how to make Sangiovese work consistently is encouraging. How many others will follow remains to be seen.

"I think we're in it for the long haul," Fernandez says of Shafer, which makes about 2,500 cases annually. "It's a niche but it's not going to be the great niche that everyone thought it was going to be. It's not going to be the next Merlot."


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