Passion for Italian Grapes in California

Last year, I toured around California with author Robert Camuto as he promoted his book South of Somewhere. In between events, I suggested to Robert that we visit wineries. And, because he lives in Italy, I thought it would be fun to take him to wineries that focus on Italian grapes. Some of these wineries I already knew but I also discovered many others. I loved meeting so many producers who are passionate about making wine in California with Italian grape varieties and I wrote about these producers for Monarch.wine, which I share here.

There are estimated to be 7,000-10,000 different grape varieties around the world. France is home to nine wine regions and has 250 officially authorized grape varieties. On the other hand, Italy is home to 20 wine regions and has approximately 350 authorized grape varieties, but as many as 2000-3000 more indigenous varieties that have yet to be authorized. But, in California, where a lot of wine is produced, only nine grape varieties make up 90% of all viticultural production and include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris, all of which originate from France.

Where are the Italian grape varieties in California? Italian immigrants were the first to plant Sangiovese in California in the late 19th century. Italians were the first wave of immigrants to populate California, especially San Francisco. Today if you head to Sonoma, you will find wineries with Italian names, including Gallo, Pedroncelli, A. Rafanelli, Foppiano, Martinelli, Rochioli, Sebastiani, and Seghesio, who were established in the 1800s and early 1900s. While they produce Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and many other grapes, it is also possible to find a Sangiovese or Barbera as well.

In the 1980s, a small movement called the Cal-Ital movement started as a lot of Sangiovese was planted by Robert Mondavi and Piero Antinori. But “Sangiovese is hard,” says George Unti of Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. “You have to plant it in the right spot.” Unfortunately, Sangiovese was not planted in the right spots. Instead, it was arbitrarily planted and over cropped and the result was a story in the Wine Spectator circa 2000 in which Sangiovese was “deemed overcropped, over-oaked, and overpriced” by Napa bureau chief MaryAnn Worobiec. The story said Cal-Ital should be illegal and the movement was short-lived.

While the movement did not take off, there are producers across California who have a passion for Italian grapes. As Steve Clifton, formerly of Palmina wines and now Vega Vineyard and Farm, explained, “People dabble in Italian gapes, but it is a different mindset to work with Italian varieties. They are meant to be enjoyed with food.”

Heritage is one reason Italian grapes are planted in California. For example, Bernie Orsi of Orsi Family Vineyards has 600 acres, of which he sells 90% of the fruit produced. But the 60-acres planted around his home property in Dry Creek Valley are planted exclusively to twelve Italian varieties, including Biancolella, which is originally from the island of Ischia where his family is from, and Aglianico.

Aside from heritage, passion for Italian grapes is what is driving some winemakers who believe California is the perfect climate to grow these Mediterranean grapes. From the Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles, to Sonoma, Mendocino, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Napa, there are producers who are producing almost exclusively Italian grapes. “The goal is to make wines that are varietally correct,” explained Steve Clifton, “so that you identify them. These are translations, not emulations.”

SANTA YNEZ VALLEY

The Santa Ynez Valley is home to the only transverse mountain range in North America. The mountains run west to east, instead of north to south, allowing the cool winds and fog from the Pacific Ocean to run through the valley. This is why cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay succeed on the western side of the valley, Rhone varieties thrive in the middle where temperatures are warmer, and heat-loving Cabernet Sauvignon grows in the warmest eastern part. Due to this diversity of temperatures, Italian grapes have also found their home in the Santa Ynez Valley. This has been the primary focus of two producers, Louis Lucas of Lucas & Lewellen and Toccata and Steve Clifton of Vega Vineyard and Farm (formerly Palmina).

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

LOUIS LUCAS, LUCAS & LEWELLEN AND TOCCATA

Louis Lucas, one of California’s premier grape growers, began purchasing vineyards and planting grapes in the Santa Ynez Valley in the 1970s, making him the first commercial grape grower in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. The Los Alamos vineyard he purchased in 1996 had been planted to Italian varieties by Joe Carrari in 1974. Lucas decided to keep the Italian varieties because of the climate. He explained, “I thought this was the perfect place for Italian varieties like Nebbiolo, Barbera and Sangiovese, because it’s not too hot and not too cold.”

Louis Lucas, along with partner Royce Lewellen, started Lucas & Lewellen in 1975. And in 2011 they started the Toccata label which focuses on Italian grapes. “We are proponents of Italian wine,” Lucas expressed. “I am my most authentic self when in Italy.” They grow 80-90 acres of Italian grapes including Pinot Grigio, Muscat Canelli, Malvasia Bianco, Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo, and even Freisa.

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

STEVE CLIFTON, VEGA VINEYARD AND FARM (FORMERLY PALMINA)

Steve Clifton was working in the music industry when he went to visit his sister who was living in Milano, Italy. He visited Piedmont, Alto Adige, and Fruili and fell in the love with wine. He found that the cooling factor from the Alps and the warmth from the south resulted in the most interesting wines. The trip was in 1988 and it changed his life. He was living in Laguna Beach and met Stephen Bedford who offered him a job. He would drive up to Santa Ynez and would stay at a friend’s house in Goleta. Her name was Paola. By 1991, Clifton had moved to Santa Ynez to get involved full-time with wine.  Clifton was the first winemaker at Beckmen Vineyards and in 1996 he started Brewer Clifton.

In 1995, Clifton also started Palmina, focusing on Italian grapes, and named after Paola who had since passed away. Clifton started with Sangiovese purchased by Joe Carrari and two vintages later he was able to get some Nebbiolo, which he really wanted to make. It was a crazy idea as it would not be easy to sell Italian grapes made in California. And Clifton found challenges making Nebbiolo which defied what he knew about red winegrowing. “Nebbiolo is not for the faint of heart,” Clifton shared. But he persevered.

In 2000, the U.C. Santa Barbara’s Italian Studies Department invited Clifton to participate in an event and tasting program focusing on Nebbiolo. “By default, I was the one asked because no one else was dumb enough to do Nebbiolo in the area.” Clifton continued, “I remember carrying a couple cases into the place on my shoulder, and in the room were Luciano Sandrone and Roberto Conterno, two of my idols.”

Clifton became close with these two Barolo icons who would offer Clifton advice and answer any questions. In the years since, Clifton has taken his Nebbiolo to Italy where it was tasted blind with 150 wines, and his California Nebbiolo was ranked in the top 20.

In 2022, Clifton shifted Palmina Wines into Vega Vineyard and Farm, where he is the winemaker. Owned by Karen and Jimmy Loizides, who purchased the property in 2022, Vega Vineyard and Farm, originally a Spanish land grant, had been Mosby Winery since the early 1970s. Mosby had planted the vineyards predominantly to Italian varieties in the late 1960s and the vines on the property are the oldest self-rooted vines in the county. Clifton has come full circle to work with these original plantings of Italian grapes.

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

Alison Thomson, L.A. Lepiane Wines  

Alison Thomson spent a semester of her sophomore year in college studying in Siena, Italy. This is where her love for Italian wine, especially Barolo and Barbera was born. She returned to UC Santa Barbara and after graduation, she worked in tasting rooms at wineries. She went on to earn her master’s degree in Viticulture from U.C. Davis and in 2006 worked harvest in Barolo for a top wine producer. 

She returned to Santa Barbara and worked with Steve Clifton as the assistant winemaker at Palmina. And, in 2013, she created L.A. Lepiane Wines. The name of the winery honors her great grandfather Luigi A. Lepiane who came to the US from Piane Crati in Calabria, Italy. He was a grocery store owner in Hollister, California, and in 1935 he started a winery, L.A. Lepiane.

More than 80 years after her great-grandfather, Alison reestablished the winery. She works with three Italian grapes, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Moscato Bianco, and loves the Santa Ynez region’s unique ability to grow these grapes. And, internationally-known wine and food expert Darrel Corti has said that “the Lepiane Nebbiolo is the most expressive and best varietally typical Nebbiolo wine I have tasted in California.”

PASO ROBLES

Paso Robles is a region known for its warm climate, but it is also home to some of the largest diurnal shifts in the state. And according to Brian Terrizzi of Giornata Wines, “Italian and Southern Italian varieties are the most suited for Paso Robles.”

There are a handful of winemakers in Paso Robles working with Italian grape varietals, such as Valia from Desparada. Valia first came to Paso Robles looking for wines to import into Canada and ended up starting Desparada in 2009 with four barrels of wine. While Italian varieties were not her first choice, she decided to focus on them because that is what she likes to drink. In 2010, she started with Sangiovese from White Hawk Vineyard and continues to take small quantities as she can find them. But other producers in Paso Robles are exclusively focused on Italian grape production.

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

ADRIENNE AND CHRIS FERRARA, CLESI WINERY

Adrienne and Chris Ferrara met while working together at Wild Horse Winery. Chris was the viticulturist and Adrienne was a marketing intern. After Wild Horse was sold in 2003 to Fortune Brands, the new owners started cutting the Dolcetto and other Italian grapes from their program. But Chris wanted to make it anyway and in 2004 started with 3 barrels.

In 2015, Chris and Adrienne bought a 30-acre goat ranch on the banks of the Salinas River in the Templeton Gap. Chris’ family is from Sicily and the winery honors his family legacy, as his maternal great-grandmother’s name was Clesi

The Templeton Gap is a cool area, influenced by the coast and the Salinas River. Ocean bed soils, heat, and a long growing season make this an ideal area for Italian grapes. “We are not trying to replicate anything. We are trying to utilize the attributes of the grapes here in Paso Robles,” explained Adrienne.

They began planting in 2017 and the first six acres the Ferraras planted were to Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Sagrantino, and Montepulciano. They also source Aglianico from a warmer site and Malvasia Bianco from Monterey, as well as Negro Amaro, Nero d’Avola, Barbera, and Greco. The next vineyard blocks that they plant will focus on varieties from Southern Italy.

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

STEPHY AND BRIAN TERRIZZI, GIORNATA

Brian Terrizzi, whose grandparents immigrated from Sicily, was working in finance when he was bit by the wine bug. He left the corporate world and worked harvest in 2002 at Rosenblum Cellars and then worked at Tuscany’s Isole e Olena in 2003. He returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Fresno State in 2004 to study enology. This is where he met Stephy who was studying viticulture.

Both Stephy and Brian have a passion for Italian wines and were drawn to Paso Robles as they believed it offered many of the same attributes of top wine-growing regions in Italy. “Italian and Southern Italian varieties are the most suited for Paso Robles,” Brian said but added that they “are the least suited to marketing.” But Brian “had this revelation that with all these farm-to-table restaurants opening up in San Francisco, if I made a true-to-Italy wine they would have to carry it.”

They launched Giornata in 2005 with a barrel of Nebbiolo and today are working with Vermentino, Fiano, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Aglianico, and Sangiovese. And a decade ago, Stephy and Brian bought an 11-acre abandoned almond farm in the El Pomar District. They planted 4 acres with Nebbiolo, Friulano, Sangiovese, and Ribolla Gialla, varieties from Central and Northern Italy. And they are looking to plant an all-Sicilian vineyard.

NAPA

In Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon rules. “Napa Valley is king,” expressed Dan Petroski of Massican, “but Cabernet is not.” Petroski thinks that climate change will affect Napa’s reliance on Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, he sees the potential of Italian varieties in Napa.

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

DAN PETROSKI, MASSICAN WINERY

Dan Petroski grew up in an Italian American family in Brooklyn. He worked in sales and finance for Time Inc in the 1990s and early 2000s. During this time, he had a business expense account and learned about wine during lunch meetings. Petroski then received his MBA from NYU and in 2005, he spent a year in Sicily interning at Valle dell’Acate. Following Sicily, Petroski moved to California to work the harvest at DuMol in the Russian River before taking over at Larkmead in 2007 and becoming a winemaker in 2012.

While working at Larkmead, Petroski was inspired by some old vines of Tocai Friulano that were planted in the 1940s in Chiles Valley. In 2009, Petroski started Massican, named for the Massican Hills north of Naples, which is where his great grandparents were from. Massican produces exclusively white wines, making Petroski the only white wine-only producer in Napa Valley. Petroski makes Mediterranean-inspired white wines that he describes as “salty, floral, citrusy, and fresh white wines.” Today, Petroski works with 15-16 acres across Oak Knoll, Chiles Valley, and Mt Veeder to Carneros and Russian River Valley to source Italian white grapes including Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Biano, and Greco.

SONOMA

Sonoma, located west of Napa, sits at the same latitude as Campania and Sicily. Sonoma is also 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean and benefits from the cooling winds. And, according to George Unti of Unti Vineyards, “In California, if you are going to select grapes from anywhere in Europe, you are better off selecting Mediterranean wine grapes.”

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

GEORGE AND MICK UNTI, UNTI VINEYARDS

George Unti learned to prune vines and make wine as a child thanks to his father, a farmer who emigrated from Tuscany. Following a decades-long career as a supermarket executive in California, Unti purchased a property in 1992 in the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. The property had 10 acres of Zinfandel planted and 6.5 abandoned acres. “I thought lots of varieties would do well here”, Unti explained. “I planted Syrah in the abandoned vineyard and Sangiovese in the 3-4 acres around the house.” Unti was selling grapes to Kendall Jackson and made a little wine in the garage.

Joined by his son Mick, the Unti’s were selling grapes to KJ and made a little wine in the garage. In 1997 they bought a 39-acre vineyard and planted 35 acres. While Rhone varieties are a significant aspect of their production, Italian grapes including Sangiovese, Barbera, Vermentino and Montepulciano, as well as lesser-known Fiano, Aglianico, and more also thrive in the dry heat but cool nights of the Dry Creek Valley. They also planted Primitivo, a sibling to Zinfandel.

After the failure of the Cal-Ital movement in the 1990s, the Untis understand that Sangiovese is challenging. “You have to plant it in the right spot, George shared. “It does the best on hillsides with afternoon shade.” Mick added that Sangiovese has “great potential, but it’s really for the dedicated only.” And they have found Barbera is a more versatile grape. George and Mick have also found promise with Montepulciano because, as Mick explained, “if you are looking at a variety that can tolerate heat, it can be awesome in California.” Mick is also optimistic about Vermentino’s potential as it loves the heat and can be cropped at medium and high levels and still get great flavor and high acidity.

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

SAM BILBRO, IDLEWILD WINES

Fourth generation winemaker Sam Bilbro, whose great-grandfather emigrated from Lucca in Tuscany, grew up in the wine world. His father Chris Bilbro was the founder of Sonoma’s Marietta Cellars in the 1970s, most famous for the non-vintage Zinfandel blend called Old Vine Red. But it was not until Sam tasted an Italian Nebbiolo that he felt a connection to wine. “I had zero connection to wine,” said Sam, who was playing guitar in a punk rock band in Oregon. “Then I tasted a bottle of Barbaresco. It changed my life. Suddenly everything my dad did in his life made sense.”

At the age of 23, Sam went to Italy for two months and rode a bike around the hills of Piedmont. He returned to California and worked at Marietta and Healdsburg’s biodynamic Front Porch Farm. He also traveled from the foothills of Santa Barbara to Oregon, looking for the right location to grow Piemontese grapes. He found what he was looking for at York Farm, a 900-acre property his father bought in 1998. “This is our Alps,” Sam exclaimed due to the 1200-1500 feet in elevation and the continental climate influenced by a massive cold source. 30 acres were planted on the property and Sam regrafted them to Piemontese varieties. Sam also manages Mendocino’s Fox Hills Vineyard which is an Italian vine museum with 60 acres planted in the 1990s to everything from Nero d’Avola to Nebbiolo.

In 2012, Sam launched Idlewild Wines with a focus on Piemontese grapes, including Arneis, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Grignolino. But, he says, “pretending you are still in Italy is an error.” Sam makes wine from California that respects Italian tradition and at the end of the day, he says it is “joyous to watch people smile and drink your wine.”

Passion for Italian Grapes in California

MARTHA STOUMEN, MARTHA STOUMEN WINES

Martha Stoumen grew up in Sebastopol but her family was not in the wine industry. She had no idea that wine was a viable career as the presence of winemaking was not prevalent in her life. She studied geography and environmental sciences at UCLA where she fell in love with agriculture. As part of her studies, she interned at Tenuta di Spannocchia, a Tuscan farmstand, to learn about full-circle farming. They had her feed the animals and work in the vineyard as well as in the cantina and she fell in love with wine. And when she was asked if she wanted to be a winemaker, the question stuck.

Martha went to UC Davis, got her master’s degree in enology and viticulture, and spent the next eight years working internships around the world, including in New Zealand, in the South of France at Domaine Leon Barral, and in Sicily at COS.

Returning to California, Martha was drawn to Mendocino, a center for organic farming. She was also interested in working with Mediterranean varieties which had been planted in Mendocino by Italian immigrants. Her first vintage was in 2014. She bought fruit from Fox Hill, which is managed by Sam Bilbro, and made Nero d’Avola which had been planted in 1992 from a suitcase clone. Today she sources fruit from 15 vineyards and makes more than 20 different wines. In 2015, she leased the Bricarelli Vineyard which has five aces, with a sixth acre coming, planted to Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola, and Petite Sirah.