Italy, By Way of California

Only a few of Italy’s hundreds of indigenous grape varieties can claim success in California. Here’s your (short) shopping list.

Back in the 1980s, some wag came up with the term “Cal-Ital” to describe the phenomenon of vintners planting Italian grape varieties throughout California. 

At the time, the search was on for “the next big thing,” a (preferably red) variety that would be as eagerly embraced by consumers as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Robert Mondavi got into the act with his La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi offshoot, but perhaps the most dramatic moment was when the famous Italian producer, Piero Antinori, installed vast Sangiovese plantings on Atlas Peak.

The Antinori wines were tannic to the point of being dry and raspy, courtesy of the mountain’s cool climate. As for La Famiglia, the Mondavis eventually pulled the plug and the Cal-Ital movement lost momentum.

Yet, those grapevines didn’t disappear. 

Today, a handful of vintners continue to explore the possibilities. Among reds, fewer than 200 acres of Nebbiolo—the great grape of Barolo—exist in California. Its most successful expression is Clendenen Family Vineyards’ bottling from the Santa Maria Valley.

Sangiovese acreage has barely changed, as the marketplace just hasn’t proved hospitable. Nonetheless, a few dozen producers continue to craft it. The best wines, from Niner, Stolpman and a few others, are dry, tannic, silky and intensely cherried. 

Then there’s Barbera. Most of it is in the Central Valley, but some boutique wineries, especially Sierra Foothills ones like Easton, do a creditable job. You can find more recommendations in Virginie Boone’s article, “California’s Ultimate Food Wine.”

Among whites, there’s a wide range of varieties. Vermentino, Malvasia Bianca, Arneis, Fiano, Greco di Tufo and a few others make crisp, dry wines from scattered plantings around the state. 

But the big news in Italian whites is Pinot Grigio. Planted acreage has risen 600 percent since 2003, making it the third most-widely planted white variety in California (after Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). 

Pinot Grigio does best in cooler climates, from Santa Rita Hills north to Anderson Valley. But it can excel from Lodi up to the Sierra Foothills. Chamisal, Handley, Joseph Swan and Longoria are dependable producers.

One of the nice things about these varieties is prices are generally moderate. That’s sure to change as the best producers gain traction, so don’t be afraid to jump in now.

3 Italian Varietals to Try Tonight

Bailiwick 2012 Vermentino (California). Great value in a bone-dry, minerally white, with crisp acidity, citrus and tropical fruit flavors (90 points, $15).

Clendenen 2005 Bricco Buon Natale Nebbiolo (Santa Maria Valley). Monumental, filled with dried fruit, tar, rose petals and white pepper (95 points, $50).

La Folia 2011 Barbera (Sierra Foothills). Baked cherry and cinnamon flavors pair great with spaghetti carbonara (92 points, $30).

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