Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

In Memoriam: Lucio Caputo

July 29, 2019

Earlier this month, Lucio Caputo died at the age of 84. His passing didn’t attract a lot of attention outside the wine world, but within that micro-universe it reverberated enormously.

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From 1974 to 1982, Caputo was the Italian Trade Commissioner in New York, at that time a position of incredible importance for Italian products in the United States, and most especially for Italian wine. He left the Italian civil service in 1983 (declining a fat government pension) to stay on in New York to found the Italian Wine and Food Institute, an agency he successfully headed for the next 30 years. The IWFI did a tremendous job over that period of promoting the best of Italian wines and food products. Its annual tastings and awards dinners were always highlights of the season for wine professionals.

But for those of us who remember what the situation of Italian wine was in this country before Lucio Caputo, his greatest accomplishments came in his years as Italian Trade Commissioner.  Before then, Italian wine in America was largely “Soavebolla” – the popular portmanteau term for what was often pale, watery, nearly flavorless, overcropped, and overproduced plonk. After Caputo’s stint as trade commissioner, Italian wine in America had become a broad spectrum of many kinds of wine from many sorts of grapes from all over Italy. Caputo didn’t simply promote Italian wine – though he did, actively and passionately: But in terms of the American market, he could be said to have invented it.

Big claim, eh? But here are the stats: Before his campaign, Italy was exporting 362,000 hectoliters of wine a year to the United States. In 1983, the annual export reached 2,400,000 hectoliters, an almost sextupling in volume. Initially, as I recall, the big increase was in inexpensive wines, but as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, higher-quality wines increasingly made their mark.

By the end of Caputo’s term as trade commissioner,  Italian wine imports to the US had surpassed French wines – the market leader for decades before – first in quantity and then in value.  These were the years when many now-famous Italian wines, then small-market cult wines even in Italy, began appearing on shelves in New York, Boston, and Washington; then in Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. The great wines you now can get easily and regularly first showed up then.

This all came about because of Caputo’s tireless efforts. Wine journalist old-timers will remember as fondly as I do the regular tastings at Italian Trade Commission headquarters on Park Avenue. This was a spacious, stylish venue, sporting an extensive wine library and a museum-quality Di Chirico oil painting.
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The tastings, which occurred every week (and sometimes twice a week), were every bit as stylish and extensive. They were also thorough, informative, and often quite intensive. You could always sit and taste comfortably, often at your own pace, and you had ample space to take notes – luxuries not always available today to the assiduous taster.

The Trade Commission tastings might be of a wine type, or a region, or a grape variety. Whichever they were, you were sure to taste and learn about some grape varieties and wines that were new to the American market or still hoping to get there, because not just journalists attended these tastings: retailers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, distributors, and importers also came. Those sessions opened the door to this country for many of the wines we can now take for granted, and they were Lucio Caputo’s finest achievement.

In the past few years, we have lost a lot of the pioneers and masters of Italian wine. Lucio Caputo was not a great winemaker like Bruno Giacosa or Beppe Colla or Antonio Mastroberardino, but his contributions to Italian wine stand in the same range of importance. One more giant is no longer with us.

On the Fourth of July, We Drank America Great

July 18, 2019

This year’s Fourth of July frolic made a bit of a challenge for me. I’m happy to say that I – and the wine resources of the USA – rose to it.

Diane’s blog has already recounted the saga of the all-American dinner that we put together for the good friends who guided us around Venice. My role in the festivities was to arrange wines to match with those dishes: not a simple task, especially for one whose palate and whose cellar (I use the word loosely) run more in the direction of Europe than toward the great continent that lies just across the Hudson. That’s right: I don’t even live in continental United States, so you can see the depth of the challenge.

What solved the problem for me and made our Fourth of July drinking great was, once I realized it, quite simple: immigration. Just about every single wine grape in the United States is an immigrant, naturalized against the native plagues of this continent by being grafted onto the roots of indigenous American varieties. And many of the people who convert those once-foreign grapes into American wine are immigrants too, first- and second-generation citizens adapting an Old World skill set to American circumstances, producing wines with discernible European ancestries and unmistakable American accents. Is that a fable for our times?  You tell me.
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We started with a wine that is a Champagne in everything but name: Gruet Brut, a lovely sparkler made in New Mexico (yes!) from the traditional Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot meunier – by the traditional méthode champenoise. Gruet is a family-owned and -operated winery, founded in 1983 by the late Gilbert Gruet, whose family made Champagne in his native France. The original vineyard (it has since been joined by two others, all now run by Gilbert’s son and daughter) lay over 4,000 feet up in the windy hills near Elephant Butte Reservoir.

All the Gruet wines show the classic Champagne characteristics, so this is the wine to use if you want to have some fun with a know-it-all friend. The one we drank with hors d’oeuvres launched our evening perfectly – cool, brisk, elegant, and refreshing on a warm and humid July Fourth evening. The thing that will really astound your know-it-all friend is that all the Gruet sparklers, even their brilliant Blanc de Noirs, retail for about $20.
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With a delicious and almost stultifyingly rich Crabmeat Maison, we drank a wine a bit more local (and not from mainland America either), the 2016 Minimalist Chenin blanc from Paumanok Vineyards, on Long Island’s North Fork. Also founded in 1983, and family-owned by Ursula and Charles Massoud, Paumanok specializes in several French varieties. Long Island has no hills to speak of, but it does have breezes from both ocean and sound, and those, combined with dense plantings of 1,100 to 1,400 vines per acre, give Paumanok’s wines all the concentration and character they need.

For my palate, its greatest successes are two Loire valley varieties, the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. In France, the latter grape makes Vouvray and the great Savennières, which the chalky minerality of Paumanok’s Minimalist Chenin suggests to me. This is a lovely wine – made, alas, in limited quantities – that worked wonderfully with the crabmeat, its complex leanness playing beautifully against the sweetness of the crab.
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With our lordly rib roast and profusion of farm-fresh salads, we turned to the west coast and Ridge Vineyards, perched 2,300 feet up in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. By American winemaking standards, Ridge is practically an old-timer:  It got started in the 1960s, and from 1969 onwards, for more than 40 years, its winemaker was the masterly Paul Draper, a genius of what Ridge now proudly calls “pre-industrial winemaking.”

Ridge is famous for its great Monte Bello Cabernet, but what it does with Zinfandel and other less regarded varieties is equally remarkable. Our 2010 Petite sirah (actually probably Durif, a variety now not much grown in California and almost entirely neglected in its native France) showed amazing complexity and subtlety, with many different elements emerging from its basso profundo of bitter chocolate to mesh with the varying flavors of our main course.
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With four very distinctive cheeses, we drank a 2010 Ridge Geyserville – a blended wine named for its vineyard because no one of its several varieties is present in sufficient quantity to justify a varietal name under California law. This lovely bottle contained 64% Zinfandel, 20% Carignane, 12% Petite sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 2% Mataro (as Mourvèdre is commonly called in California).

This was a big wine – 14.3% alcohol – but nevertheless supple and elegant. It played wonderfully with the cheeses, which differed widely in texture, flavor, and intensity, adapting itself quite comfortably to each. I’ve always loved Ridge’s Zinfandels, and I prefer to drink them at around ten years of age. This gorgeous example was a perfect illustration of why.

Zinfandel has become so established in California that many people think of it as a native American grape. This capstone wine of our Fourth of July feast is a perfect example of an Old World variety (it’s closely related to Italian Primitivo and allied Croatian and Slovenian grapes) transformed into a classic New World wine. Happy Fourth of July indeed! Thomas Jefferson would have enthusiastically approved.

The Grinch Strikes Again: Lament for Lost California Field Blends

April 25, 2019

I try to like California wines, I really do. On the face of it, they have so much going for them – multiple microclimates and terroirs, amazing variations of elevation and exposure, some of most advanced wine science and technology in the world, and access to just about any grape variety from anywhere in the world to work with. The Golden State’s winemakers should be able to produce at-very-least-drinkable wines in every conceivable style and price range. But no, it isn’t so. With a few very honorable exceptions, almost every new California wine I try is the same disappointing, brashly fruited, over-alcoholic monster.

Once upon a time I loved California field mixes – old-fashioned, everyday wines from before the monovarietal-Cabernet and -Chardonnay craze. Most of these came from old vineyards that had been planted in the European farmer tradition of several varieties together – a precaution so that if one failed, you could still make wine. The grapes came from all over: a field might grow Zinfandel and Barbera and Syrah or Petite Sirah (what California called Durif) or any number of other Rhone or Italian or Spanish varieties. From any given vineyard, the proportions of each variety might change from year to year, but the character and style of the wine remained reasonably consistent – easy, pleasurable drinkability being its most prominent quality.

I remember I used particularly to enjoy Trentadue’s Old Patch Red, which was exactly the unpretentious drink the name described. For some years, I haven’t seen any on the shelves here in New York, but recently I received an offer for it over the internet. My initial excitement faded quickly as I read the wine’s description: Now it’s predominantly Zin, with a mix of two other grapes, neither of which is the Barbera I remember as being a large portion of the wine I loved. It’s not the dry wine I remember either: It’s now described as semi-sweet. (Ugh!) And it’s up to 14.5 degrees of alcohol. That’s no longer a quaffing wine – it’s a getting-high wine, and no longer my tipple.
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This is not to say that there are no field-mix wines coming out of California. There are still some – probably more than I’m aware of – but the ones I know best have moved up several notches in elegance and price, so that they no longer qualify on my budget as everyday wines. Many of Ridge’s collection of Zinfandels, most of which I love, would qualify as field mixes. In fact, several of them contain too little Zinfandel in their blend (California law mandates minimally 75%) to bear the name Zinfandel on their labels.

Hence wines like the place-named Geyserville, my favorite, which is always a blend, from Ridge’s Geyserville vineyard, of a major proportion of Zinfandel with reciprocally varying percentages of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro (aka Mourvedre). This is an elegant wine, claret-like in its attack and aging ability as well as price, but I’m not aware of any California field-blend wines at an everyday-drinking price point that the word elegant could even remotely be attached to. Rather, their emphasis now seems to be big fruit and big alcohol and that’s all. It’s a great loss.

This whole fulmination came about because I recently ate lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, where I was offered a list of about 30 Mexican wines, mostly from Baja and all unknown to me. (I clearly have a big research project in front of me.) The one I chose, in consultation with the barman, turned out to be exactly the kind of genial, food-friendly, inexpensive field blend that California used to produce abundantly, but now seemingly can’t.

I have only one question: Why?  Of course I know the answer: The big monster wine sells. But wouldn’t a better balanced wine at the same price point sell too?  Has anyone tried?  I guess I had three questions.

The Case of Cases

September 20, 2018

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

A Cabernet Franc Face-off

August 30, 2018

When it comes to scenery, Long Island is no match for the Loire Valley. The flat former potato fields of the North Fork bear no resemblance to the steep vineyards and castellated towns that punctuate the shores of the Loire and its tributaries. Moreover, the soils of Long Island’s vineyards differ greatly from those of the middle Loire, home territory of Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc: If anything, the North Fork soils come closest to the low-lying, sandy gravels and clays of Bordeaux, where Cabernet sauvignon is king..

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Loire Vineyard

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Paumanok Vineyard

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But despite all those differences, Loire grapes do very well on the North Fork. White varieties particularly thrive: Almost every grower on Long Island cultivates Sauvignon blanc, the star of the upper Loire, and Paumanok Vineyards particularly has had startling success with Chenin blanc, the prized white grape of the middle Loire.

Given that, I wondered how well Cabernet franc, the chief red grape of the middle Loire, which makes such charming dinner wines as Chinon and Bourgueil, would fare on the North Fork. To find out, I decided to taste a representative Loire Cab franc from a classic appellation against Paumanok’s Cab franc – Paumanok because of its achievement with the middle Loire’s Chenin – and check out the similarities and differences. Easy and fun: my ideal combination for all chores. And made all the more fun when Beloved Spouse opted to make a classic Loire dish for us to taste the wines with: the perfect way to spend a rainy Sunday, eating and drinking our own personal sunshine.

For this experiment I had on hand a 2016 Domaine de la Haute Olive Chinon and a 2014 Paumanok. It turned out to be just as interesting and enjoyable as I had hoped. Both wines smelled and tasted authentically of the variety – light fruit aromas, perhaps a little raspberry, with earthy, herbaceous notes and even a hint of smoke, soft on the palate, with moderate acidity and subdued black fruit: not powerhouses but charmers. Those are classic Cabernet franc characteristics.

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Tasted by themselves, in the sort of isolation that so often marks professional tastings and judgings, they seemed unexciting, but sound and well made. A hint of what they were capable of as dinner wines showed in the way both got the digestive juices flowing. They wanted food, and made the tasters want it too.

As a textbook illustration of everything that’s wrong with formal wine tastings and their resulting scores, these wines changed dramatically when dinner appeared: Both just blossomed, opening complex, soft flavors that interplayed differently and beautifully with each dish. Their differences from each other, almost invisible in the formal tasting, showed more clearly with food, the Chinon slightly lighter bodied and more elegant, the Paumanok fuller, earthier – but both interacted splendidly with the dinner. (You can read about our dinner dishes on Diane’s blog, here.) It’s no wonder Rabelais loved the wines of Chinon: They played his game.
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It was abundantly clear from this little experiment that Paumanok Vineyards has gotten Cabernet franc right, verifying in my mind that it has a vocation for Loire grapes. The question it raises for me is, how much of the North Fork shares that vocation? The predominant red grapes planted there are, unsurprisingly, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, just as in California. The prestige of Bordeaux wines has largely straightjacketed American winemaking since the 1960s, and the small amount of Cabernet franc grown here is almost always used only in Meritage wines and other replications of the orthodox Médoc blend – so Paumanok deserves praise for having the courage to bottle a monovarietal Cab franc, and even more praise for getting it so right.

The Cabernet franc red wines of the middle Loire make wonderful drinking, without being overly expensive: Sunday dinner wines you could call them, if families still made Sunday dinner a weekly special occasion. They don’t demand long aging, though they can take it, and they don’t require reverence or ceremony in their consumption. Though, come to think of it, they can probably take that too: I am just remembering that humble Cabernet franc constitutes about two-thirds of the blend of the fabled Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines. I do hope some Long Island grape growers will also remember that.

Caparone Wines Among Friends

August 9, 2018

People who really love wine enjoy sharing their best bottles with others who understand and appreciate them. I’m certainly one of those: I hate opening a good bottle for people who would prefer a white Zinfandel or a cola, but I relish the chance to pour some of my best stuff for knowledgeable friends. So when I had the chance recently to introduce some fellow winos to the Caparone family’s Italian varietal wines, I jumped at it...

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Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone, and Michele Scicolone are in my opinion among the small handful of “experts” in this country who truly understand Italian wine, both in what it does well and why, and what it doesn’t succeed at and why. I thought a Caparone tasting would be as interesting and enjoyable for them as it would be for me.

Mary is an MW and head of a wine school here in New York, and she and Ed are co-authors of the Wines for Dummies series of books. Michele and Charles are experts on Italian wines and foods. A few years back Ed had tasted and liked Caparone’s Sangiovese, which impressed him at the time as the only moderately successful California version of an Italian variety, but that was all he knew of the wines. Charles and Michele had never had the opportunity to taste the Caparone wines at all, and Charles was deeply skeptical about what California does to Italian grapes – as indeed I had been until I tasted Caparone’s.
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We all convened at the restaurant La Pizza Fresca, which provides a very welcoming space for such an event, with excellent service, fine and appropriate glassware, and good food to sustain the hungry winebibber. Ed brought a lovely bottle of Clouet’s Pinot noir-heavy NV Champagne and a bottle of Benanti’s 2010 Pietra Marina, probably Sicily’s finest white wine, to start us off.

The we got down to the business of the day: Caparone Italian varietal wines.

2014 Sangiovese
2014 Nebbiolo
2014 Aglianico
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1996 Sangiovese
1996 Aglianico

That was the service order, the Sangiovese being the lightest-bodied and the Aglianico the fullest. We talked a lot about freshness and varietal character, and we agreed that all the wines showed the unique qualities of each variety very well. There was also universal agreement that these were the most successful California versions of Italian grapes that any of us was aware of. The disagreements concerned nuances and precise comparisons: Charles, for instance, thought the young Sangiovese slightly over-oaked, like a Super Tuscan, while I wasn’t bothered by oak flavors at all.
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I’ve written about my admiration of these three 2014s before, and both Charles and Ed have published admiring accounts of the whole tasting, so I’ll spare you most of the details – except to emphasize that both 96s, at 22 years old, still tasted fresh, with mature and developed flavors playing side by side with still-young fruit flavors. Both seemingly have years of life ahead of them – and that would be no mean accomplishment for any of those grapes in their home territory.
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An informal vote for the wine of the day ended in a toss-up between the young Nebbiolo and the old Aglianico. I could see the reasons for both, but when push comes to shove I am a person of mature years, and I like my wines the same way.


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Postscript:

A few days after this tasting, I opened at home a bottle of Caparone’s 2012 Zinfandel, the first of Caparone’s non-Italian varietal wines I’ve tried. It was lovely, full of classic Zinfandel brambly, berry-ish flavors, but restrained and polished rather than exuberant and in-your-face. The bottle’s back label describes it accurately as a “rich, complex Zinfandel,” “aged for 24 months in small oak barrels” and “racked rather than fined or filtered.”  It further claims that the wine “will continue to develop in the bottle for 25 years or more” – and I believe every word of that.

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The Caparones, father and son, are clearly New World producers with a wonderfully Old World technique and style. The comparisons that spring to my mind are masterful family producers like the Chave family in Hermitage, or the Clape family of Cornas. If Paso Robles had the prestige of the northern Rhone, a lot more attention would be being paid to what’s happening at Caparone.

One Fine Wine: Ridge Geyserville 2010

May 10, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I don’t enjoy much California wine. I’m not crazy about many New World wines, for that matter, but I’ve always made an exception for Zinfandel, a grape that has acclimatized itself so thoroughly as to be legitimately considered a native variety, especially in California. And for my money, nobody in California makes it better than Ridge.

All that being so, when, a little while back, two successive days of sunshine and no rain prompted hopes of spring in me and thoughts of an American spring-ish dinner in Diane, the idea of drinking a Ridge Zinfandel followed hard on their heels. Of the several Zinfandels Ridge makes, Geyserville has always been one of my favorites.

It’s an old-fashioned field mix of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro – the kind of mixed grapes from all over Europe that used to be the staple of many small California vineyards before the homogenizing blight of Cabernet hit. In fact, since there is only 64% Zinfandel in this bottle (that’s roughly normal for Ridge’s Geyserville), it can’t be labelled Zinfandel, so it’s just Geyserville. For those of us who love it, ‘nuff said.

Our American-ish, spring-ish dinner started with a few crackers topped with fresh cream cheese and wasabi-infused flying fish roe. The main course was a thick, bloody-rare NY strip steak,  fried shoestring potatoes, asparagus (still not local, alas) and – especially – the first morels of the year. After that, two cheeses with which to finish the wine: Podda and Boucheron.

We were very, very happy. The Geyserville enjoyed everything, even the wasabi fish roe; and with the steak and morels, it opened wide and tasted like a berry-filled forest, all brushy and dark-fruited with over- and undertones of leather and tobacco and even a little juniper.

This is where I have to stress the vintage, 2010. This is not a newly released wine, but a seven-year-old. Not ancient, by any means, but anyone who thinks that Zinfandel is all about big, in-your-face, youthful fruit would have been surprised/shocked/distressed/bowled over by what Ridge made of it. Even though this Geyserville is still in the process of maturing, its fruit has evolved into a complex blend of restrained flavors. It’s an intensely civilized wine, very claret-y (does anyone still remember claret?) in style and texture, flavors and attack. On the bottle’s back label, the winemaker says “Rich, elegant, and structured, this fine zinfandel will provide enjoyment over the next decade.” That’s not hype: That’s understatement.

All Ridge Zins evolve roughly this same way, and I think they’re at their best around 10 years old, if you can hide them from yourself for that long. They just keep getting more and more elegant, demonstrating just how much power and fruit they have by the grace with which they rein it in.

Radical Simplicity: The Caparone Way with Italian Grapes

March 28, 2018

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.

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* 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.

More Splendid Caparone Cal-Itals

January 15, 2018

Caparone Vineyards, in Paso Robles, continues to impress me mightily. Some time back I wrote in praise of its 2002 Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, the most delicious and elegant California versions of those varieties I’ve ever tasted. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to taste bottles of the same grapes from the 2014 vintage, and I was almost reduced to a barely articulate Oh wow!  (Be assured: My normal verbosity quickly reasserted itself.)

Naturally, these younger wines were not as complex or developed as their older relatives – but the vines are older too, and that adds dimension to even a newly released wine. These were all beautiful specimens of their varieties. They seemed perfectly worthy of standing on the table with the best young examples of their kinds I’ve had in Italy, though patently different from them in the character of their fruit and their balance.
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Sangiovese

The Sangiovese showed a brilliant light garnet, very pleasing to the eye. The nose came across as all underbrush and fresh red fruit. The palate tasted youthful – bright cherry – with medium body and a lively acid/tannin balance. The overall impression was freshness and elegance, spot-on for young Sangiovese. This wine differed from a young Chianti, for instance, in being not so markedly acid-forward: It was also slightly fuller-bodied, with more generous fruit. The latter quality I think of as quintessential California.

It’s worth noting, since this is a young wine, that it got better and more interesting as it opened in the glass. What it will do with some years of maturity makes for very pleasant speculation. The Caparones aren’t given to exaggeration or over-hyping their wines, but their back label claims that this wine (and its sibling Aglianico and Nebbiolo) “will continue to age for 25 years or more.”  I’m not likely to be able to test that statement, but I sure hope some of you will.

It’s also worth noting that the alcohol level of this wine is a modest 13.3 degrees — by current California standards, almost a soft drink.
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Nebbiolo

I enjoyed the Nebbiolo just as much, but it was an animal of different stripe. Its color was a pale garnet, with a thin orange edge, perhaps to an eye unused to Nebbiolo suggesting it’s already old and fading. Far from it: this wine was an infant, tasting of fresh berries (strawberries kept peeping out) and earth. It had good acidity and very soft tannins, with low – by California standards, very low – alcohol: 13 degrees – and a long licorice and leather finish. But what really grabbed my attention right from the start was the aroma: Damned if it didn’t smell delicately of tar and dried roses and earth. That’s textbook Alba Nebbiolo, folks, and I am in awe of a New World wine capturing that quality of this great, cantankerous grape.

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One major difference between Caparone’s Nebbiolo and any young Barolo or Barbaresco I’ve experienced: No Piedmont Nebbiolo would be as pleasant drinking as this wine at first release. In many vintages, a Piedmont Nebbiolo’s tannins would rip your throat out. Even 2004, which was – and is – a great vintage and a very forward one, was much sterner and more sharply tannic at a comparable age. We’ve all always assumed that such early toughness was a necessary concomitant to the structure that made long aging possible – but if David and Marc Caparone are right about the aging potential of their wine, then received wisdom has been dead wrong about that. And that should give us all – consumer, critics, and producers alike – a lot to think about.
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Aglianico

The 2014 Aglianico certainly gave me a lot to think about. The darkest, most deeply colored of the three varieties, it also had the most intense aroma: earth, toasted nuts (hazel? almond?), and rich, black, plummy fruit. The earth and black plum flavors emphatically followed through on the palate – just huge fruit flavors, understrapped by lovely acid/tannin balance. The tannins were abundant, but soft, making a well-structured and long-finishing wine, but also a very accessible, enjoyably drinking wine, even so young.

With food, the flavor components rounded and broadened and deepened remarkably, revealing an extraordinary balance and structure, yet still soft and open. Diane and I were bowled over: We thought this a wine destined for greatness. And, oh, by the way, it was only 13 degrees of alcohol, which ought to be a slap in the face of all those overblown California wines that substitute big alcohol for any real winemaking quality.
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I’ve never particularly wanted to live to any great age, but the way the Caparones make wine is causing me to think again about that. .

Dave Caparone at his tasting room, with Tom’s whilom student and old friend Magda Gilewicz. Photo by Mike Chen

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

August 28, 2017

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.