Caparone Vineyards: Great Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – from California!

This is a post I never thought I’d write: I’m about to go bananas over a California winery that isn’t Ridge, and over wines other than Zinfandel. Surely the Rapture is upon us, and we are entering the end of days.

I’ve known about Caparone Vineyards for a long time, and I’ve always thought that it made the most successful versions I’d ever tasted of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo from California, which many of my readers will probably identify as pretty qualified praise. I visited the vineyards in Paso Robles back in the late ’80s, when Dave Caparone was not only a pioneer in the Paso Robles area but a voice crying in the wilderness about the potential of Italy’s great red grapes there.

I was impressed both by what he had already accomplished and by what the future might bring, but Dave Caparone wasn’t in it for fame or fortune (neither of which I could have provided, in any case) but for the love of the land, the grapes, and the wines. So when he asked me not to write about him or his wines, I complied – reluctantly. One more item entered my already bulging files, and I shamefacedly confess I then forgot about Caparone.

Somewhere in the early years of this century, a friend put me back in touch with Caparone, and Dave’s son Marc, now active in the company, sent me a batch of samples. I tasted, liked, remembered how I had been impressed by my visit, and resolved this time to write up the winery. No such luck: I couldn’t rouse any editorial interest anywhere. Antinori was then conspicuously failing in its attempt to produce Sangiovese-based wine at Atlas Peak, and the feeling seemed to be that if Antinori couldn’t do it, then Italian grapes probably had no future in California – so once again the data went back into the files and out of my memory.

Until this month. I was scrabbling through my wines, looking for something for dinner, when, in a remote bin, I found three Caparone bottles that I had totally forgotten I had: an Aglianico, a Nebbiolo, and a Sangiovese, all of the 2002 vintage. I more than half suspected that at 15 years old they would be over the hill, but I had to try them – and I assure you, I am very, very happy I did.

All three are superb examples of their variety, although not Tuscan, not Piedmontese, not Campanian, and not what I normally think of as the brash California style either. But richly fruited, balanced, restrained, and elegant wines they emphatically were. They remained extraordinarily fresh despite their almost 15 years of very mediocre storage with me. These were thoroughly enjoyable wines of a kind and quality I could happily drink every day, if California would make more of it. There is gold in them there hills, and Caparone is vinifying it.

Wine making in Paso Robles has exploded since I long ago visited Dave Caparone. There are now several named American Viticultural Area subdivisions within the Paso Robles appellation, and – I believe – upwards of 200 producers working there. The zone has become a homeland for what are by Napa standards maverick varieties: More than 40 different wine grapes are grown there. Only a few growers are trying the three great Italian red varieties, and that’s because, even in Paso Robles’ highly varied soils, they are difficult. Think about it: They thrive in Italy in three very different parts of the country, with widely different soils and microclimates, and even within their home turfs these are cantankerous varieties. The challenge to grow all three within the confines of a single California AVA is impressive, to say the least. Think how much more so in a single small estate!

I remember that in my long-ago visit, Dave Caparone stressed how crucial it was to site each variety appropriately, to fit the grape to the soil and the microclimate as perfectly as possible. No one who knows how cranky Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese can be will be surprised to hear that, and from what I’ve tasted, it seems he’s done that job spectacularly well.

I tasted the Sangiovese first, with a simple dinner of good grilled meat and fresh Greenmarket vegetables.

From my first sniff, the wine had my attention: a rich, complex aroma of sottobosco and mint, raspberry and red currants. The color showed as lovely pale garnet, looking properly but not excessively aged. In the mouth, it was delightful – light, balanced, and round, tasting of berries and red fruits, still fresh and vigorous, but well-bred and restrained. It loved food, all sorts of food. What struck me above all was that it showed excellent Sangiovese character without being in the slightest respect Tuscan. That fruit was pure California in its vitality, but without any of the bold, jammy style that I dislike in so many California wines.

A few days later I tried the Aglianico.

If anything, this wine was even better than the Sangiovese. It sported a lovely deep garnet color, very live looking. The nose was powerful, deeply vinous, slightly acetone, but mostly black fruit. On the palate, deep dry plum, leather, tobacco, and more fresh fruit – all very live. It finished long and complex – licorice, plum, and leather. This was a big, mouth-filling wine, very elegant and extremely persistent: The flavor went on and on. It loved food: It just sang alongside a soft, young Gorgonzola dolce – in fact, at that point, it tasted a lot like a great Piedmont Nebbiolo. I have noticed before that Taurasi and Barolo grow to resemble each other as they mature, so that didn’t completely surprise me – but it is a great testimony to how completely the Caparones have captured the essence of this great, tricky variety.

Finally, a day or so later, I tried the Nebbiolo.

I was not disappointed of my by now-high hopes. A properly orangey-garnet color, slightly paler than the preceding two wines. A huge nose of blackberry, cherry, and roses. In the mouth, big, round, and soft, with elegant tannins and fruit following through on the promise of the aroma. Raspberry and leather in the long finish. All in all, an elegant and restrained wine of lovely, pure varietal character.

These three wines to me represent the best sort of winemaking, where nothing has intervened to alter or disguise what the grapes have to say. Wines like this give me great hope for the future of California winemaking: They set what I consider a benchmark for other California wines to aspire to.

And, as far as I can tell, they are very reasonably priced – at last look, under $20 for new releases. You’ll just have to be patient and let them mature. Believe me, it’s worth it.


9 Responses to “Caparone Vineyards: Great Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – from California!”

  1. Allan & Lorraine Harris Says:

    We have been members of Dave & Marc Caparone’s wine club for more than 20 years and have never regretted one bottle of their only 100% varietal offerings. Amazing quality and longevity in the cellar at more than reasonable pricing even with shipping. We visited the winery in 2010 to pick up our club shipment once (as we normally have it shipped to Ferndale, WA) and were pleasantly surprised at the family operation (which now has a couple of more winemakers in training we hear). Dave also has a small classic car collection which he showed us proudly and we enjoyed immensely as we have a couple of those ourselves (life can’t always be about wine, you know). All in all, Caparone Winery is one of the finest producers of the hard to find 100% varietals that originated in Italy.

  2. Magda Gilewicz Says:

    Finally a CA wine you like, Tom. I’m glad because this recommendation will give me a good reason to drive to Paso Robles this fall, as Marc Caparone informed me that their wines are available only from them – either at their tasting room or their website. Tasting room sounds better to me. And a little addition to your post about the Paso Robles region: It appears that it was none other than the famous Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski who started grape growing in the area. He would make frequent train trips to the resort, known for its mineral baths rich in sulphur compounds, to take the cure for his arthritis while giving concerts in San Francisco. He liked the area so much that he purchased 3,000 acres of land there and was first (or one of the first?) to plant wine grapes and make wine. It can be argued that he is the father of wine-making in the Central Coast region. A music festival in Paso Robles commemorates his presence there each year and the Paso Robles Hotel still has his piano, though in a neglected state. (My little connection to this state and its wine)

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Hi, Magda: Nice to hear from you. I had known there was a Paderewski connection to Paso Robles, but not that it was so strong and tied to wine. Thank you for that information: another reason to visit Paso Robles. Please try the Caparone wines: I think they’re fine. My best to you and yours (your daughter must be a grown woman by now, no?).

  3. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Thanks to your tip, Tom, I’m one of the very few New Yorkers who have visited Caparone, and tasted the three varieties. I am completely in agreement with you, and with Kerin’s reactions to these amazing wines at ridiculously low prices and low alcohol.. I too had given up on Italian varieties in CA until I visited Caparone. The Aglianico is amazing, the Sangiovese the best by far from CA. The Nebbiolo, probably the most difficult to grow out of its home region, Piedmont, was quite good, imo.but not quite up to the Aglianico or Sangiovese. It was a noble effort, and I enjoyed it, but probably my standards for Nebbiolo are too high. (I did drink the whole bottle of each one, however. The Nebbiolo was still drinking well the next day). Thank you for turning me on to Caparone (I visited about five years ago). At that time, Dave Caparone was not shipping to other states; not enough wine. But I do strongly encourage your readers to visit Caparone when they visit CA. A pilgrimage you will not regret.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      And the whole area around Paso Robles is beautiful. Lots of reasons to visit, of which the wines are far from the least.

  4. John Cunningham Says:

    Tom – Very interesting article – your conclusions are different than I expected when I open your note. Are you aware of availability, particularly the nebbiolo in CT or NYC? Thanks again for a fascinating find!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      At the moment, I don’t know about Caparone’s east coast distribution (I’m trying to find out). I do know you can order directly from the vineyard: Just google Caparone Vineyards.

  5. Kerin O'Keefe (@KerinOKeefe) Says:

    Great article Tom – it definitely has me interested in trying these wines and others from this producer. I’m impressed by the balance you report, and by the restrained alcohol levels declared on the labels: 13.2%-13.6%. Not only are these surprising for California, they are now almost unheard of for these varieties in their respective growing zones here in Italy, with the exception of some of Alto Piemonte Nebbiolos. I’d love to know how the recent vintages compare in style to the ones you just tasted from 2002. If you do try more recent vintages, please be sure to let us know. Cheers!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks, Kerin. I do plan to try some more recent vintages, with an eye toward updating this post. I think this is a very important small producer.

      You are of course completely right about the significance of those alcohol levels: They account for a great deal of the perceptible restraint and elegance of these wines. And all of those — low alcohol, restraint, elegance — are rarer and rarer qualities these days, in Italy as well as California. As I’m sure you know even better than I.

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