Jason Carlen, Wine Director and Sommelier
This is a letter from the late, great Henry Bishop, the first Sommelier at Spiaggia, to Luca Paschina, winemaker for Barboursville Winery in Virginia. It is a rare look into the mind of this groundbreaking Sommelier. The topic is nebbiolo in the United States.
Some thoughts and personal histories with the elusive American Nebbiolo:
According to Dick Rosano, author of "Wine Heritage, The Story of Italian American Vintners" and a guy who you should know, the first North American Nebbiolo vines were planted in Brookside, Colorado by Piedmont transplants Joseph Vezzetti and Domenic Balagna in the 1880's. Today, it would be hard to locate any Nebbiolo in the state (although Plum Creek Cellars in Palisade, Colorado makes some pretty tasty Sangiovese). Oddly enough, Balagna's grandson John is presently growing Nebbiolo at Los Alamos, New Mexico and bottling it under his "Il Santo Cellars" label.
According to Leon Adams, author of "The Wines of America" and a guy who you should know, the first extensive planting of Nebbiolo in California was in the San Joaquin Valley where a guy named Horace Lanza cultivated 500 acres (!) of the stuff from 1956 to 1968 and bottled it under his Cal-Grape brand. Horace and his Nebbiolo vines are long gone and forgotten and the Lanza name only conjures up the singer Mario who played "The Great Caruso" in Hollywood.
My first encounter with California Nebbiolo was the 1974 vintage made by the legendary Cary Gott at the original Montevina Winery in Plymouth in Amador County. Gott made some of the first vineyard-designated, old vine Zinfandels in the state including the mythical 1968 Deaver Ranch Amador Zin. I tried the '74 Neb when it was ten years old and it was a tad "vecchio." I never saw a subsequent vintage.
Today there are about 200 acres of Nebbiolo in California although this figure could be as nebulous as the true acreage of Marijuana in the state.
The new Sutter Home-driven Montevina is currently producing Nebbiolo d'Amador in the precocious Nebbiolo d'Alba style; light, fresh and quaffable. (Their extensive Cal-Ital program also includes more than four dozen varieties including Aleatico and Freisa!)
In Mendocino County my old buddy Greg Gracciano makes snappy Nebbiolo under the Enotira label of his Monte Volpe series. It is typically nicely varietal and rather inexpensive.
In Sonoma County, another Piedmont family, the Seghesio's formerly of Monforte d'Alba, are growing it at Healdsburg. The Sebastiani family Viansa label includes a rather anemic version of "California Nebbiolo" in the line-up (which includes a California Vernaccia and a California Tocai Friulano Dolce.)
In Napa County, Jim Moore makes an impressive version of the grape called "Il Leopardo" for his L'Uvaggio di Giacomo brand. His former place of employ, La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi, attempts to interpret the varietal with underwhelming results. Coentino Winery, in Yountville, makes a thing called "The Neb" and the source seems to shift from Sonoma to Napa and elsewhere but can usually be referred to as "The Delicious." Frank Altamura, producer of one of the truly great California Sangioveses, introduced Nebbiolo with the 2001 vintage but production was about 75 cases so don't expect to find in at Enoteca Pinchiori in Firenze.
A couple of guys from Acacia in the Carneros used to make a thing called Amethyst Vinalia, a blend of 60% Nebbiolo and 40% Sangiovese, and it was impressive enough that I used to bring it in to Chicago exclusively but I think it has gone the way of Pompeii.
The nice folks at Barghetto Winery in Soquel grow Nebbiolo in the Santa Cruz Mountains and it ends up in a blend with Dolcetto and Refosco called La Vita. Very tasty and definitely a leader in the Super-Cal-Piemonte-Friulano category.
Nebbiolo has certainly cozzied up to the Central Coast of California where the Martin Brothers, in Paso Robles, were pioneers and whose 1994 version got Three Glasses from Enrico Vescovo in Chicago. The label, of course, morphed into the Martin & Weyrich label you are familiar with. Others Nebbiolo growers of note in la Costa Centrale: Lucas & Lewellen (Buellton), Bill Mosby (Buellton), Palmina (Lompac), Arciero (Paso Robles), Caparone (Paso Robles), Justin (Paso Robles), and (Mastantuono (Templeton).
Special mention should go to Jim Clendenen of Il Podere dell'Olivos (and Au Bon Climat) who has made some great Nebbiolos and blends over the past two decades. Last December I opened my last bottle of his Nebbiolo "Parabola" from the 1988 vintage and it reminded me of an old Gaja.
Special mention also to a vineyard called Stolpmen in the Santa Ynez valley of Santa Barbara County. This designation has appeared on several of my favorite California Nebbiolo labels including those of di Bruno, made by Bruno d?Alfonso of Sanford, and Steve Beckman, whose 1997 Nebbiolo is for me Da Capo.
Outside of California, Peter Dow's Cavatappi label certainly has an established track record for his Washington state Nebbiolo from Red Willow vineyard. Years ago I had a strange Nebbiolo from Tefft Cellars of Outlook, Washington that was pink, semi-sweet and strong. It may not have changed my outlook but I still think upon from time to time.
In Oregon there's Abacela Vineyards & Winery in Roseburg and Cuneo Cellars in Carlton but their Nebs remain strangers to me.
The aforementioned New Mexico Nebbiolo from Balagna Winery is new to me but I always say innocent until proven guilty.
A guy named Ross Proctor grows Italian varieties at his farm in Springfield, Tennessee, AKA just about the middle of nowhere. (Hey, Nebbiolo likes to live on the edge.) I tried his 2001 vintage at the "Chateau" a couple of years ago and was quite impressed. Total production was nine cases so this probably qualifies as the most obscure and elusive Nebbiolo in the US.
I discovered a Pennsylvania Nebbiolo on our eastern road safari was summer grown at the town of North East on the Lake Erie shore and made at Mazza Vineyards. The first vintage, from the 2001 harvest, was expensive but miserly. But vines are young and time holds al the cards.
In Pylesville, Maryland, Mike Fiore is growing Nebbiolo but the jury is still out.
The Virginia guys you know, of course. I enjoyed Horton's (albeit bastardized with a goodly dollop of Tannat) but I have not experienced the stuff from Breaux Vineyards. However, when it comes to Nebbiolo from Virginia specifically, and the United States of America in general, you know where my heart lies.
As a final note, L. A. Cetto winery, in Tijuana, Mexico, has been making North American Nebbiolo longer than anybody. Luigi Cetto arrived from Alba in 1926 and planted Italian varieties in the Baja Penninsula. Today they make Nebbiolo (and Barbera and Zinfandel) that easily competes with the gringo's stuff. I guess American Nebbiolo is not such a novelty after all.