Discovering California Nebbiolo

I knew they were out there. I just wasn’t sure how or when I’d find them. But as luck would have it, they found me!

A couple of years ago I received a comment on my blog article, California Nebbiolo, from a man named Ken Musso, who happens to be the owner and wine maker of Due Vigne winery in the Sierra Foothills. Due Vigne is a winery that produces wines made from Italian grapes grown here in California. As a fellow fan of Nebbiolo, he benevolently informed me of an annual Nebbiolo event in which California producers gather to talk about and taste Nebbiolo grown and produced on California soil.

Nebbiolo grapes, actually from Rocche vyd in Barolo Oct 2 2012

I had no idea this was happening! I was definitely missing out! I only knew of a handful of wine makers who dared to attempt such a feat (and a few who had since jumped off the bandwagon) but I knew there must be more out there! So finally just a couple of weeks ago I was able to attend one of these California Nebbiolo events. For logistical reasons, I sadly had to miss the tour of the Luna Matta Nebbiolo vineyard in Paso Robles but was able to attend the tasting at the 15 Degrees C wine bar in Templeton, California.

I have to say, I think I’ve been to bigger tastings in peoples’ own homes! The men and women who are making Nebbiolo in California are true trailblazers.* I wonder if the first Rhone Rangers events were like this. Imagine two buffet tables with a line of about 10-15 wine bottles on each, and only a handful of wine makers to talk to. With a tasting that “small,” I decided to try to taste through all the wines, even though one of the first things I learned about Nebbiolo is that you can’t hurry it. But I couldn’t afford to let any gems pass me by. As a result, in this article I only review the standout wineries’ wines in a general sense. This will act as a baseline impression for the future. One day soon I hope to give all of these wines more time and attention.

Represented at this fourth annual California Nebbiolo event were wines from the Paso Robles area, Santa Barbara County, the Sierra Foothills (El Dorado, Tuolumne, and Amador Counties), Green Valley (part of the Russian River Valley), Yolo County, Santa Cruz Mountains, and of all places—Arizona.

As a quick side note, if you’d like to read how I use stars to rate wines, check out this little explanation.

Castelli

I had no idea there was someone in Sebastopol making such amazing wines from Italian grapes! I was truly impressed by the wines of Emilio Castelli, an Italian-born California winemaker.

Castelli Stolpman 08 Nebbi

Most outstanding was his 2008 Stolpman Nebbiolo but I liked all of his wines (even the Pinot noir, which he accidentally opened). The Castelli 2008 Stolpman Nebbiolo ★★★ is a pretty wine with a bouquet of pot pourri and ripe red cherry mingled with a hint of cellar floor. The tannins and acidity of this wine integrate with the fruit and other nuances, making a well-balanced and impressive California Nebbiolo. Only ambient yeasts are used. Maceration takes place over about 18 days. The wine ages for 48 months in neutral French oak barrels and 6 months more in bottle.

Castelli Sisquoc Nebbi in the glass

Castelli Sisquoc Nebbi

The Castelli 2008 Sisquoc Nebbiolo ★ reminded me most of a Barolo on the nose: intense aromatics, dried fruit, flowers, earth, and elegance. But on the palate it seems a little hot. Both are from Santa Barbara County.

Emilio Castelli‘s 2011 Rose ★★☆ from Green Valley (a part of the Russian River Valley AVA) is a blend of Nebbiolo, Pinot noir, and Sangiovese. This wine really reminded me of a Chiaretto ‡ wine that one would find around Lake Garda. There’s a lot of minerality and the fruit is light and sweet like watermelon (but the wine itself is not sweet). There is no over-abundance of florality or acidity. It is just a pleasing rose.

Due Vigne

Even though we’d been conversing about Nebbiolo for a couple of years, this was actually my first opportunity to try Ken Musso’s wines. While I didn’t get to meet him, his wines spoke for themselves.§ The Due Vigne 2008 (Nebbiolo 92%, Barbera 8%) ★★ expresses dusty and dark cocoa powder with rose nuances throughout. It has a well structured mid-palate with good tannins.

Due Vigne Nebbi

The Due Vigne 2009 Nebbiolo ★★ bursts with aromatics of rose bud and cherry candy. It is lighter on the palate than the 2008—a more delicate wine. The Due Vigne 2010 Nebbiolo is still figuring itself out. Nebbiolo needs time. All of the Due Vigne Nebbiolo come from El Dorado County (Musso Family Vineyard) and are aged for about 24 months in 30% new Hungarian hogshead barrels and 70% neutral French oak barrels.

Harrington

The Harrington Nebbiolo comes from Paso Robles and is sourced from two vineyards in the Templeton Gap area, Luna Matta and AJP. Both south-facing, their soils consist of calcareous rock and sand. Aging in neutral French oak barrels (for about 16 months) allows a pleasant expression of Nebbiolo’s ephemeral aromas.

Harrington 2010 Nebbiolo

Each vintage has remarkably different bouquets: the Harrington 2009 Nebbiolo ★★ most prominent with fresh tobacco, smoke, and red fruits. While the oldest of the bunch, it still seemed the most tart but the tannins weren’t too harsh. The Harrington 2011 Nebbiolo stood out most for its aromas of cellar floor, rose, and minerals while the 2010 struck me as the ripest. Overall I detected a great expression of red fruits in the wines and other subtleties still developing.

Lone Madrone

The Lone Madrone 2007 Bollo ★★ has a lovely perfumed nose of roses and violets. Raspberries and pomegranate fruit round out the spicy flavors and tannins on the palate. And even with a hot “Paso” finish, the wine struck me by its quality. The winery doesn’t specialize in Italian grapes but makes a wide variety of wines. This 100% Nebbiolo comes from the Glenrose Vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles. After a 30 day maceration, the wine ages for 3 years in 500L French oak puncheons (about double the size of a regular wine barrel), followed by 6 months in the bottle.

Lone Madrone Nebbiolo

Rosa d’Oro

Rosa d’Oro makes all manner of Italian wines. Both the Rosa d’Oro 2011 Nebbiolo ★☆ and 2012 Nebbiolo ★☆ come from Yolo County (Nova Vineyard), which borders Napa County to the east. With pretty aromatics of rose petal, citrus rind, and a hint of vanilla, they reminded me most of Roero Nebbiolo. The Nova Vineyard is indeed mostly sandy (like Roero soils), however, as the climate is not particularly ideal for Nebbiolo, they will be sourcing from a new location starting with 2013. With the 2013 harvest the fruit will come from the estate and should give us a fairly different wine.

Rosa d'Oro Nebbiolo

Giornata

The Giornata 2010 Nebbiolo ★☆ from the Luna Matta vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles expresses fine aromatics: cocoa, vanilla, rocks, dark red cherries. Raspberry interlaces with cinnamon and dusty tannins. The winery employs minimal handling of the grapes so as to preserve the innate finesse of Nebbiolo. The Nebbiolo ages for about 20 months in 50% new and 50% neutral French oak barrels. This young vineyard—about 8 years old—produces a remarkably fresh wine. (Unfortunately for me, I had to miss meeting these vines!)

Giornata Nebbiolo

Toccata

The Toccata Nebbiolo wines are consistently pretty good. This was one of the only wineries at the tasting I had tried before. The 2008 Nebbiolo ★☆ from the Los Alamos Valley Vineyard has a perfumed bouquet of wet moss with light red fruits. A little simple in flavors and structures, this wine reminded me of a standard Langhe Nebbiolo—true to the Nebbiolo character but not a whole lot to ponder. All in all, the wines are certainly worth a try. I didn’t care for the Toccata 2009 Nebbiolo Barbera blend this time, however. The Toccata wines come from Santa Barbara County. The Nebbiolo ages 16 months in French oak, while the Nebbiolo Barbera blend ages 18 months in French oak barrels.

Toccata wines

Other wineries represented at the tasting included: Caduceus from Arizona, Tre Anelli, Clenendon, Bernat, Berardo, Thomas Fogarty, Gianelli, and Domenico. While I loved the Caduceus Tempranillo that I tried at the TAPAS tasting back in June, their 2011 Nebbiolo, in my opinion, is nothing to write home about.

Nebbiolo from Arizona!

The Tre Anelli Nebbiolo 2011 has off aromas. The Clenenden wines seem to be overly dominated by oak, which I am afraid can mute some potentially lovely Nebbiolo characteristics. Those tasted include the 2004 and 2005 Punta Exclamativa, as well as the 2005 Bricco Buon Natale.

Clenenden

The Thomas Fogarty 2009 Nebbiolo is a little vacuous and I swear I can taste the Santa Cruz Mountains redwoods in there! (A little strange for me, being from the Santa Cruz redwoods and having travelled so far to find Nebbiolo in Piemonte.)

SC Mtns Nebbiolo

The Gianelli 2009 Nebbiolo from Tuolomne County has strange flavors and burns a bit on the palate. However, with Chuck Hovey as their winemaker, I’ll certainly keep an eye on the developments of this Nebbiolo. I’ve had the Domenico Nebbiolo before but this time, while it has good floral elements and some tannins, the Domenico 2009 Nebbiolo from Amador County seemed overly dominated by alcohol.

Either way, I look forward to changing my opinion about the wines that I didn’t much care for and I certainly await the day when I’ll be able to spend more time with the gems I just discovered.

For reasons unknown to me Palmina and Novy Family were disappointingly not represented at the tasting. Most of my California Nebbiolo experience is with those two wineries, along with Bonny Doon Vineyard, who doesn’t make Nebbiolo (right now or anymore—who knows what Randall Grahm has in the works?). I’ve also has good ones from Adelaida (not sure if they still do a Nebbiolo) and Martin & Weyrich (who reduced their production down to Moscato only). I’ve taken Nebbiolo wines from the aforementioned producers to Italy with me over the last couple of years and placed them alongside various Piemontese and other Nebbiolo wines in blind tasting with great success.

I’ve actually written a good deal about California Nebbiolo without having met before most of the producers in this article. If you’d like to read more about these wines and my experiences with them next to Nebbiolo from the homeland, follow these links.

Barbera & Nebbiolo: California vs Piemonte

Old vs New World Nebbiolo

A little California Nebbiolo revelation

California Nebbiolo

Rumor has it that the next Nebbiolo event will take place in February of 2014, perhaps in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’ll be there! Non vedo l’ora! (I can’t wait!)

Paso sunset. Aug 10, 2013

– – –

* Well in a way they are trailblazers, at least in the modern-day California wine industry. But Nebbiolo in California actually dates back to about the 1880’s. We have John T. Doyle and Giovanni Beltramo to thank for this. Doyle established Zinfandel vineyards in the town of Cupertino during the 1870’s and soon hired an Italian (Piemontese) immigrant, Beltramo, to manage those vineyards. Beltramo was able to supply Barbera cuttings directly from Piedmont, which he grafted on to the Zinfandel vines. Over the next few years he also obtained Nebbiolo cuttings and grafted those. In the mid 1880’s they sent samples of the Nebbiolo fruit to the University of California for analyses. With a favorable report, Nebbiolo was seen as having potential in California. Doyle even won awards with his Nebbiolo wines in the late 1890’s. But perhaps due to its difficulty to manage both in the vineyard and the cellar, Nebbiolo did not gain popularity among vine growers and wine makers. The variety has been close to forgotten in California until recent years. (Thank you Thomas Hill for this information.)

† Not all of the wines were Nebbiolo or 100% Nebbiolo. A few related wines were thrown in to the mix: Nebbiolo rosato, Nebbiolo-Barbera blends, and Dolcetto.

Chiaretto is a type of rose wine made in the areas surrounding Lake Garda in northern Italy. It is made in both the Lomabardia and Veneto regions and consists of a blend of the following grapes: Gropello, Marzemino, Sangiovese, and Barbera.

§ And what s sigh of relief! I don’t know what I would have done had I not liked Ken Musso’s wines!

11 thoughts on “Discovering California Nebbiolo

  1. Great Article!
    I am organizing Nebbiolo presentation in Calgary on October 18, 2013 and will present Nebbiolo’s from Washington State, Oregon, New Mexico and California + Canada!
    Looking forward to meet you on next NEBB meeting.

    Jerzy

    p.s.
    You did not mentioned John Berardo Nebbiolo from Paso Robles. Brain H. is sourcing the Nebbiolo grapes from John. I agrre with foodnutclick…Giornata’s Nebbiolo very interesting.

  2. Nice article!

    A small point of erratum – the second source for the Harrington Nebbiolo is the AJB Vineyard, not AJP. The vineyard is now going by the name Berardo.

    February in the Santa Cruz Mountains? If that rumor comes to pass I’ll be there.

  3. Thanks for sharing your impressions on the California Nebbioli. I’ve enjoyed the Giornata, and also had a Wind Gap Nebbiolo. Looks like there are many more to give a try!

  4. Marcie,
    Thanks for taking the time to come down to Paso and taste the Nebbiolos with us. I’m glad you found some that you liked…so many folks reject US Nebbiolo out-of-hand because it doesn’t taste like Barolo/Barbaresco. But Nebbiolo (can) speak in many voices and that, I think, is one of the reasons it can be such a glorious grape.
    The next NEB5 will probably in Jan/Feb 2015 and we’re hoping it will be in your area.
    Tom

    1. Tom, Thank you! I hope the next one IS in my area and I hope it is in 2014 not 2015! Maybe I can get ahold of some nice Roero wines to share. It’s an important area and Nebbiolo people should really know it.

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