Sunday, July 19, 2009

California Dreamin' ~ Full Immersion Italian

There’s something about the influence Italy has had on California. In fact the influence continues. It goes both ways. The New World has loosened up the way Europe looks at wine, sometimes to the dismay of the purists. But California has a young, often irreverent, sexy aspect to it. Italians have been attracted to California for some time now.

Driving through Sonoma, Bob Pellegrini told me of early campaigns in Lucca, Italy to draw the locals to work in the wine country. In fact, Bob says, Sonoma is populated with many Italians from Lucca, while up the road in Asti people were recruited from Piemonte to work in those vineyards. But that was many years ago. Nowadays, not many of Italian extraction retain their Italian-ness. The American Melting Pot has indeed melted many of them into the big blender.

But for those who have been seduced by the guile of the Italian mistress, the idea of making wine inspired by Italy in America persists.

“Have you seen the castle?” I must have heard that a half dozen times in the few days I was in Napa and Sonoma, telling folks I was in the area researching a project. Finally as we drove up the hill I thought maybe I had translocated to Tuscany. Castello Banfi it wasn’t. Castello Amorosa is the California dream of Daryl Sattui and is a Neverland homage to his vision of Italy. Hey, some folks insist on Parmiggiano on the linguine con vongole.

Bob Pellegrini and Dave Rafanelli

Heading over to Sonoma, we had an appointment at A.Rafanelli winery. Amerigo Rafanelli was a wonderful guy and his son Dave and his family are continuing Am’s work. No pretenses here at being an Italian influenced winery, no Sangiovese or Dolcetto offered here. Zinfandel and Cabernet. The essential confluence is in the unstated philosophy on a molecular level, passed down from generation to generation. All is well at Rafanelli; no castles, no Pinot Grigio. Only the essentials, along with the irreplaceable winery dogs, the ones who really call the shots.

At the nearby Seghesio winery, there is a different vibe. Here, Fiano and Arneis seek sanctuary from Chardonnay and Merlot. And on a day when the temperatures hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, cool white wine, with a revealing fragrance and come hither flavors, was as energizing as sitting in a pool in Positano watching the sunset.

Leaving the bees to their work, we took a run up to Asti, where an ancient winery now sits in waiting rotation for its renewal to begin. Italian Swiss Colony, anybody remember the catch phrase, “You can’t miss with Italian Swiss”? And for a while it was hit, but now it is missing in action. The growers have blended into the countryside, they are indigenously American now. The chapel and the cemetery still hold memory and shelter for the spirit of those Italians now conjoined to history.

Rolling down the road to Santa Rosa and a quick stop at the library, a goldmine of oral history, photographs and documents. How did the Italians make it through Prohibition? Through the grace of God and the purchase orders of the archdiocese of San Francisco. Long time merchants like the Traverso family span the decades and carry the torch forward. Michael Traverso is the latest generation of ambassadors of Italian culture – food and wine – in Sonoma.

Sangiovese, Fiano, Zinfandel, Sagrantino. Sattui, Seghesio, Rafanelli, Pellegrini. Open-top. Full immersion. With pleasure. More to come.


Mattie John Bamman said...

I love seeing the Italian varietals in California. And Anderson Valley, just up the road, also features plenty, including wines labeled "Primitivo." I wonder if the vines were brought from Italy or if it's like what the winemakers here in Puglia are doing: Swapping names.

Tracie P. said...

how are they treating/vinifying these wines? i am molto curiosa about that sagrantino...

Kevin Hamel said...

Tracie, I can speak for the Sagrantino, as we are making it at Pellegrini Vineyards, where I am the winemaker.

If you want a blow-by-blow, you can read Alice Feiring's NYT blog

And her most recent evaluation

We are giving it a very hands-off treatment and were gentle with it during fermentation/maceration, even though it had a total of 32 days from destemming to pressing. Both alcoholic and malo-lactic fermentations were native and the wine is now in neutral oak (let's start by getting to know the fruit). As this is a new variety for me, we are learning as we go, but it's pretty interesting stuff.

If you're interested in more, contact me at


Kevin Hamel

Alfonso Cevola said...

Hey Mattie:
Thanks for stopping by, more to come

Tracie B: Wanna know more? Looks like Kevin is chiming in below you.

Kevin- thanks for chiming in. I brought the tank sample home so I'll share with the kids. Thanks

Tracie P. said...


kevin--thx for the info, sounds like our kind of wine! i can't wait to try...

Mark said...

Made me miss Lucca itself. Such a beautiful little town with the castle walls. If anyone is ever there in Sept they do an amazing precession with the carving of Jesus they have at the church.

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