San Francisco’s Italian immigrants brought their love of wine from their native land. During Prohibition, red wine was churned out in makeshift basement wineries often consisting of no more than a rudimentary press and a single wood barrel. Sometimes Barbera was available, but more often than not, zinfandel and petite sirah replaced Italian grapes in the new land.
Some of these families moved to the surrounding agriculture areas and went into winemaking early on. Over time, many of their descendants championed Italian grape varieties in a place dominated by French grapes, where dolcetto and tocai friuliano had a hard time fitting in.
Luckily, enough people were thinking outside of the French box, and now Italian grapes are becoming more popular.
There were always folks like Louis Martini making the odd Italian-style wine, but one of the original champions was Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climate fame who made barbera, teroldego and other wines under the Il Podere dell’Olivos label launched in the 1980s. Now under the Clendenen Family Vineyards umbrella, his Cal-Ital wines have reached new heights.
Greg Graziano started Monte Volpe in 1991 as an Italian offshoot of Saint Gregory in Mendocino County. The Enotria label came next — and together, the two labels, both offering good value, have given Graziano a foothold in their market.
Since its inception in 1995, Palmina in Santa Barbara County has focused exclusively on Italian grapes. Owners Steve and Chrystal Clifton work with a range of Northern Italian varietals, including Piedmont’s nebbiolo to tocai friuliano. Authentic both in varietal character and terroir, the wines are more expensive than Graziano’s, but they’re worth it.
Way across the country, Palmina’s kindred spirits Christopher and Alison Tracey of Channing Daughters have been pursuing a similar passion with Italian grape varieties grown on eastern Long Island. I’ve written about both of these producers before. Channing Daughters focuses on friulian varietals and typical blends, but also offer a few oddballs like a Lagrein. Pricewise, they are similar to Palmina.
Even at the high end, most of these wines are fairly affordable. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to find them. Here are three worth the search.
Ponzi Vineyards Arneis, 2009 (Willamette Valley, Ore.): Inspired by their winemaker friends in Piedmont, Dick and Nancy Ponzi planted arneis in the Willamette Valley in 1991. From the get-go, it was a winner. Now, with a few years under its belt, Ponzi’s arneis has become one of its signature wines. Medium-bodied with pear, kiwi and mineral notes, it is lively and very tasty. Suggested retail: $19.99
Uvaggio Barbera, Schatz Vineyard, 2005 (Lodi): Founded in 1997 by winemaker Jim Moore and barrel guru Mel Knox, L’Uvaggio de Giacomo redefined itself in 2005 as just Uvaggio, a greener version of its former self. Rich with plums, cherries, a hint of bitter almond and vanilla, this wine is likely to appeal to California wine drinkers as well as those who enjoy Italian wines. Suggested retail: $19.99
Acorn Sangiovese, Alegria Vineyards, 2007 (Russian River Valley): Acorn’s first release was its 1994 sangiovese. That was in 1996, and now, 15 years later, it has become a standard-bearer for this grape in California. Though not certified, owners Bill and Betsy Nachbaur practice what amounts to organic viticulture. With the addition of 1 percent each of canaiolo and mammolo, this is typical of a wine found in Tuscany, with traces of tobacco, cherry, plum, spice and vanilla. Suggested retail: $24.99
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant.