Radical Simplicity: The Caparone Way with Italian Grapes

I’ve marveled here before about Dave and Marc Caparone’s unmatched success with the three great Italian red grape varieties – Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – in California. It made me wonder what they know and do that other California growers seemingly don’t. Dave Caparone is essentially publicity-shy. He is passionately committed to his craft, however, and when his son Marc suggested he write down some of what he has learned about growing those grapes, he complied.

Marc gave me a preview of Dave’s remarks, which are now available on the winery’s website.

Aglianico *

I was bowled over by the simplicity and directness of Dave’s approach to the three varieties, all which have a reputation, even in Italy, for being difficult to cultivate. He doesn’t go into the arcana of soil analysis and root stocks – though obviously he paid attention to those issues, since he was scrupulously careful about choosing his vineyard sites and about the sources and origins of the vines he chose to plant. (See his earlier-written remarks about his winemaking history.)

Rather, he cuts through the whole thicket of issues the concept of terroir has become entangled with. His working premise starts with the most critical element of microclimate: the amount of heat each geographical area provides for vines – which determines whether a particular variety will mature properly or not.

Some varieties such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon seem to work well over a wider range of microclimates. Others, such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico do not. In the Paso Robles region, Zinfandel will mature properly in places where Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo do. Zinfandel will also mature properly where there is not enough heat for Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo…. Heat requirements are inherent in the grape and are the same whether the grape is grown in California or Europe.

It’s difficult for me to make clear the radical directness of those seemingly simple statements. The Caparones’ experience in Paso Robles has shown them that many different varieties will do well in their soils and climates. If the soil and exposures are suitable for growing grapes, the microclimate seems to them to be the key determinant of what varieties will do well there. The Caparones’ remarkable several decades of success with Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese amply demonstrate that their position in one of the warmest stretches of the Paso Robles appellation provides the proper microclimate for all three varieties.

Nebbiolo *

Not entirely by the way: That accomplishment – that a single locus could succeed with all three of those great red grapes – would, in Italy, be a priori deemed impossible, and I think in most of California it would be judged improbable.

Quoting Dave again, “If a grape variety is grown in an area that is too warm for it, the wines produced will lack balance and proper varietal character. If the area is too cool, it may not reach full maturity at all.” This seems to him to be the major source of difficulty in growing and vinifying grapes of almost any variety in California – or almost anywhere else, for that matter.

In California with its lack of rain during a long growing season, there is very little annual variation. In all my years of winemaking I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature. In Europe, the situation is much more variable and grape maturity is an ongoing problem. No grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky, although weather and climate often are. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico are as easy to grow in our vineyard as Zinfandel.

Let me underline that. Dave’s saying “no grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky” amounts to a major heresy in terms of wine-growing orthodoxy. I can’t count the number of times, over my journalistic career, that I’ve been told this or that variety is very difficult and requires lots of special attention. What Dave is saying is that the problem isn’t the variety but where you’ve planted it. If he’s right about that – and he certainly has the field experience to back up that contention – then a lot of professional enologists have been talking through their hats for the last 50 years.

Sangiovese *

The other thing that strikes me about Dave’s words is his saying “I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature.” First, that’s amazing in itself, and second, look at the alcohol levels of Caparone wines in that light. They almost never exceed 13.5 degrees, and often fall as low as 13 – this at a time when alcohol levels of red wines all over the world, but especially in California, are soaring. So full ripeness doesn’t have to mean huge sugar levels and consequently huge alcohol levels?  This ought to be big, big news to a lot of people – growers, winemakers, and consumers alike. It means that balance and restraint are intrinsically compatible with the fullest expression of fruit. The runaway train that was rushing all red wines in the direction of Port just got derailed, and I for one am dancing with joy on top of the wreckage.

Dave Caparone’s conclusions about his experience growing Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese for 40 years in Paso Robles are among the most important reflections on the cultivation of those varieties that I have ever encountered. His experience ought to be a wake-up call for winemakers everywhere. His remarks deserve further publication in a journal of note – which my blog certainly isn’t – and the widest possible circulation. I hope they may receive that, and soon.

.
* Grape images: Aglianico from Jancis Robinson et al., Wine Grapes, Ecco, 2012; Nebbiolo from Atlante delle grandi vigne di Langa, Arcigola 1990; Sangiovese from Il Chianti Classico, Vianello Libre e Fulvio Roiter, 1987.

8 Responses to “Radical Simplicity: The Caparone Way with Italian Grapes”

  1. fromthefamilytable Says:

    I just rode the train through Paso Robles and it’s many beautiful microclimates. Thanks for your excellent narrative of the Caparone wines. I always learn much from your posts.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      And thank you, Darrell, for your appreciation. I’m an old teacher and I can’t curtail the impulse to instruct, but I try to do so entertainingly. Do give a taste to those Caparone wines: they really are excellent, and not at all expensive.

      Not entirely by the way: If that was the train from hell that you described in your last post, I’m amazed you were even able to notice the landscape. You have all my sympathy for that ride.

  2. Philip H Christensen Says:

    Tom, this is a quote of the year: “The runaway train that was rushing all red wines in the direction of Port just got derailed, and I for one am dancing with joy on top of the wreckage.” In the same way that I shied away from supermarket chicken, or pies, without the requisite lard crust (which my grandmother always used), I found myself no longer remembering why I ever enjoyed many reds.

  3. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, I am happy that you write about Caparone Winery in the Paso Roles region because, as you know, they do no publicity, and the winery is only known through word of mouth. I completely agree with your assessment of the authenticity of their Italian red varietal wines (the big three). I don’t think there is another winery outside of Italy that I know of who can come close to them. They survive because enough people in the region come to the winery to buy their wines, at really low prices, I might add, plus the handful of people who have their wine shipped to them (minus the 14 states that don’t allow that, which is ridiculous). I found Dave Caparone’s explanation for his success enlightening. Good job!

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