The Arduous Quest to Bring Rare Grapes to California

Bryan Harrington is on a mission to single-handedly change California wine by hunting down rare grapes, little seen outside of Italy, and growing them here.
The first Nerello Mascalese grapes to be grown in California

During the mid-1990s, after he worked 15 years as an artist, San Francisco native Bryan Harrington fell into the restaurant business. At one point, he worked for five different establishments just to pay the mortgage.

“Wine was really a respite from a lot of the stresses of that era,” he says. It would soon become his vocation.

By 2002, Harrington was making a variety of Pinot Noirs, which he continues today. A few years later, he began to explore more uncommon grape varieties, from Nebbiolo and Corvina to Mission and Charbono.

Thirsty for more, he asked nurseries to import other grapes from southern Italy. They declined.

So Harrington connected with the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) at UC-Davis, a nearly 60-year-old department that collects, cleans and manages various fruit and vegetable species for use by farmers around the country. Its robust wine grape library is always on the lookout for newly imported varieties, and the group was happy to have Harrington join the hunt.

In 2015, he embarked on his first official mission to Italy to collect cuttings of Nerello Mascalese, Carricante and Frappato. He’s returned each year in pursuit of Rossese Bianco, Malvasia Instriana, Pecorino and other grapes that are completely foreign to many of the most wine-savvy Americans. He’s enlisted brave growers to plant these varieties, and an increasing number are becoming open to the idea.

Harrington spoke to Wine Enthusiast about his great grape adventures.

What turned you on to making lesser-known varieties in California? 

I did nothing but Pinot from 2002 to 2008. That’s when I started working with Nebbiolo, and then I really got into approaching all those odd varieties with the same love and care that is lavished on Pinot normally. I tried to deliver the same amount of love that I give to Pinot into things like Charbono.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who suitcase things in, and there is something fundamentally wrong about that. I didn’t want to be the Typhoid Mary of the viticultural world who spread all this potentially damaging virus.

So some of these varieties aren’t getting enough attention?

In the example of Charbono, there are some people who really are doing it with a lot of attention and care, certainly in Napa.

But take Mission, for example. Mission has been farmed out there in the Central Valley, and it’s sold for $400 a ton. When I first started working with it, I said [to a grower], “That’s too little. I’m gonna pay you more, but I want you to do a really good job.” He really responded to that, and we’ve been making some interesting wine from Mission, not only Angelica [a fortified version], but a carbonically inspired one that I think is delicious.

Another one is Corvina. That hasn’t really been planted in California at all, and it just really responds beautifully to the sandy soils in Lodi. We’ve just planted it again down in San Benito County in limestone. It’s gonna provide a whole different flavor profile. This is the first year that I’m getting grapes from that vineyard.

A priest in the Veneto blesses the Lacrima di Morro d'Alba vine cuttings before shipping
A priest in the Veneto blesses the Lacrima di Morro d’Alba vine cuttings before shipping

How did you start importing cuttings yourself? 

I’ve talked to a lot of people who suitcase things in, and there is something fundamentally wrong about that. I didn’t want to be the Typhoid Mary of the viticultural world who spread all this potentially damaging virus.

Once I met the people at FPS, I was entranced by their commitment to doing great things. What pushed me over the top to do it legally was that, if I bring it in as an open source, they’ll pay for all of the quarantine to clean it up. That’s a $10,000 commitment on their part, so they have a vested interest in having people bring in these other varieties and providing them ultimately to growers.

It’s open source, so when I bring it in, anybody can get it. You pay a small fee to FPS, but when you [try to] buy it from a nursery or company, they may or may not sell it to you. You may have to sign all kinds of agreements not to propagate or sell to anyone else. That’s when corporate bullshit gets involved.

There’s many Sicilians and Italian-Americans in California. You think someone would have brought it along. I thought maybe it was because the people didn’t really want to give it up.

Is there another advantage to working with FPS? 

Since we’re making this stuff available to everyone, that’s good for the marketplace. It’s great for other growers to work with these things. I’ve just brought in Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, and I’m gonna give it out once we get enough budwood. We’ll build the market together.

Tell me about your first trip in 2015.

The first trip was a little scary, because I was after Nerello Mascalese, Frappato and Carricante. These are Sicilian varieties, and it turned into a nightmare/dream because I started wondering, “Why hasn’t Nerello ever come to America before?” There’s many Sicilians and Italian-Americans in California. You think someone would have brought it along. I thought maybe it was because the people didn’t really want to give it up.

Plus, I had met a woman here in San Francisco who is from Sicily, and she hooked me up with a number of people there. One was an individual who she said was very well, ahem, “connected.” She’d only been in America a couple months, so I don’t know if she knew what that meant to me.

Worlds of difference. Left to right: Nebbiolo, Charbono and Trousseau leaves.
Worlds of difference. Left to right: Nebbiolo, Charbono and Trousseau leaves.

We met at a restaurant up on the side of Mount Etna. It was one of the best restaurants in Sicily, and I walked in on Saturday night, went to the guy at the front podium, and he said, “Are you Mr. Harrington?” I was shocked he would know me. I followed him into the main room, and it was completely empty except for one guy over in the corner. I shat in my pants. This was beyond belief.

But when I sat down at the table, bottles started arriving and he was the nicest guy. They pulled out old, very beautiful vintages of Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, things I would never have had the chance to taste in America. The next day, we’re up on his 150-year-old vineyard of Nerello Mascalese and Carricante. They were mixed vineyards, so it was hard to tell in the middle of winter what was what, but the vineyard manager knew each and every vine.

Here was the amazing thing: these were 150-year-old vines, and they got through quarantine in two years, which means that had no viruses. That was absolutely miraculous.

It’s a great adventure to bring these things back and put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find the right place for the right grapes. This is what winemakers should be doing in California. We should continue with experimentation.

I understand that the process can be extremely labor intensive, and it can take years to get grapes out of quarantine.

Which is one of the reasons why it’s really important to get hooked up with someone who is really reputable, because you can go out there and meet a grower who just grabs a couple cuttings off a vine and you don’t know what you’re getting….It’s some other thing that makes horrible wine.

It’s really important that you spend time with people who know what they’re talking about, and the place you source from is what it says it is. You gotta do your homework, know what you’re looking for, and know who to trust.

Where did you plant those 2015 vines? 

We just planted it at Sumu Kaw Vineyard, above Placerville. It’s at 3,000 feet, the same elevation from where I got it on Mount Etna, and it’s within 40 miles [in latitude], so it gets almost exactly the same inclination toward the sun, and seasonal humidity and temperature.

I’ve been tracking on my iPhone for the Sicilian town nearby, and it’s like they are bookends of each other. On top of that, it’s volcanic soil. There couldn’t be a more perfect spot for it.

It was one of the best restaurants in Sicily, and I walked in on Saturday night, went to the guy at the front podium, and he said, “Are you Mr. Harrington?” I was shocked he would know me. I followed him into the main room, and it was completely empty except for one guy over in the corner. I shat in my pants. This was beyond belief.

Are vineyard owners open to new varieties? 

Not at first, but now, as things are starting to open up, people are beginning to realize that there is a market for them now. Five to six years ago, it was pretty tough to get other people interested in it. You have to be a bit of a salesman, and you have to sign contracts. You have to make them feel that they are going to be taken care of. It’s a commitment to plant a new vineyard to things that are not really known or take a saw to your existing income flow and lose one to two years of income.

The first budding Nerello Mascalese at Sumu Kaw Vineyard
The first budding Nerello Mascalese at Sumu Kaw Vineyard

Are you making this an annual adventure?

It’s travel, but with a purpose. You get immersed in the culture so much more than just being a tourist somewhere. I’m going to miss going to Southeast Asia and India and China, but, for the next few years, this is really what I want to do. Spain, Crete…I’d love to go to Armenia.

Why is this important for California? 

Part of this is to help build California’s reputation as not just being Cab, Pinot and Chardonnay by showing that we can do so many things really, really well here.

You’ve got all these microclimates, all these different soil types. It’s a joy to be part of the calculus right now. It’s a great adventure to bring these things back and put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find the right place for the right grapes. This is what winemakers should be doing in California. We should continue with experimentation. We are great technicians for change. In 500 years, we’ll have it more down and people will have their traditions. But right now, it’s about innovation and bringing new things to light.

Where Does Wine Really Come From?

This state is an accordion because of all the tectonic activity. It’s got volcanoes in the north, limestone patches in Monterey and Paso Robles, and through the Santa Cruz Mountains. There’s just a cornucopia out there.

Is there history to these obscure varieties here?

Yes. I’m also finding lots of old vine things like Trousseau. There’s a question of whether it’s Trousseau or not, but it does really well in certain areas, and it’s got a long history. And they used to grow Poulsard, another grape from the Jura, all over the Santa Cruz Mountains. It got wiped out by phylloxera, but there’s history to California’s grapes being not just the ones we know now. Spanish, Italian and Greek varieties would probably do better here than French varieties, so that’s another reason to keep asking.

It’s never gonna happen in Napa, for obvious reasons, and I’m out of Sonoma too, because the same thing is happening there. The growers are getting too greedy.

Are growers interested everywhere? 

It’s never gonna happen in Napa, for obvious reasons, and I’m out of Sonoma too, because the same thing is happening there. The growers are getting too greedy. These are all wines I want to sell around $25 a bottle at the most. That limits me in terms of where and who I can work with. I like making wine that is affordable. Let’s just put it that way. I don’t want to make wines just for the few. I want them to be interesting wines for everybody.

Published on September 1, 2017
Topics: World of Wine
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.

Email: mkettmann@wineenthusiast.net.



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