Beginning shortly after the unification of their country in 1861, millions of Italians immigrated to this country and to Canada and countries in South America. Many brought grapevine cuttings with them.
Never be surprised to see an Italian surname among the descendants of those immigrants making wine in the Americas today (for just two examples, Zuccardi in Argentina or Pisano of Uruguay). In the United States, Italian-born winery and winemaker names are nearly as ubiquitous as vines.
These successive generations of Italian-Americans, however, concentrated on winemaking from French grapes and the all-American zinfandel. When, in the early 1990s, sangiovese took to the stage of California winemaking in efforts to make it a world-class wine from Napa Valley, it nearly killed the idea that Italian varieties had any legitimate home in the Americas.
"That early Cal-Ital thing got ruined at the start," says Greg Graziano, scion and winemaker at Graziano Family of Wines in Mendocino, Calif. "They charged too much for it, and those wines weren't really any good."
But the Grazianos hung on (as did other families such as the Seghesios of Sonoma, Calif.) and have been joined by winemakers with nary a strand of Italian DNA in their blood who raise Italian grapevines and make wines from them.
Three main reasons explain the spread of Italian grapevines in California. The first is an obvious nostalgia for the old country: Italians brought vine cuttings in order to reproduce the wine they had had in Piedmont, say, or Abruzzo.
Second, Italian grapevines were suited for the New World and its terrain and climate. "We can't replicate the wines exactly," says Joe Benziger, owner and winemaker at Imagery Winery, a grower of predominantly Italian grapevines, "but we can plant them at higher altitude, let the UV rays darken the skins and let the grapes ripen in the cool temperatures for a longer hang time, just like they'd get in their home country."
The third reason for the success of Italian varieties in California is a more modern one and, while important to the older generation of immigrants, it's better articulated by their progeny. These wines are more suitable than many with food.
"What Italian wines are about to me," Graziano says, "is acidity, especially that balance of acidity and tannins. One of the things that Americans often don't like about Italian wines is that intense acidity. But that's what makes them best with food."
That acidity is why we will begin to see the ascendancy of the grape barbera in this newest wave of the Cal-Ital project. "It's definitely the variety for the future," says Joe Shebl, winemaker and general manager at Renwood Winery in the Sierra Foothills of Amador County. "Barbera is all fruit and acidity in balance."
I and a couple of tasting groups that I assembled tasted more than three dozen wines made in California from Italian grape varieties, both white and red. Here are recommendations of the standouts, listed by price. Many of these are best found for sale via the winery's website.
2012 Monte Volpe White Blend "Sesso," Mendocino County: A third each tocai friulano, pinot bianco and pinot grigio for smoothly rendered pearlike fruit aromas and flavors, zesty acidity and a persistent finish; a perfect "aperitivo." $18
2012 Seghesio Pinot Grigio, Russian River Valley, Sonoma: You'll pay the same (or more) for a lot less from the same grape in many Italian-made examples; here's the right stuff, from juicy texture to snappy finish; what pinot grigio's supposed to be. $18
2010 Enotria Barbera, Mendocino: From the Graziano family; spot-on barbera, with waves of red fruit aromas and flavors and a super-tingly, mouth-cleansing finish; great price. $18
2011 Palmina Arneis Honea Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley: This Piedmontese white grape shines here, with a richer, more complex aspect than many from Italy itself; the California sun has enriched its body and peachy flavor. $18
2007 Seghesio Aglianico, Alexander Valley, Sonoma: Give this beastly, burly, tannic, opaque and long-flavored red some very hearty fare to play with; rare bear would not faze it. $38
2010 Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese Rodeno Vineyards, Napa: Gorgeous sangiovese, lithe, aromatic, silken, lip-smacking; fine play between acidity and tannin, and the best American sangiovese you might encounter. $38
2009 Bonny Doon Vineyard Nebbiolo Ca' del Solo Estate, Monterey: Perhaps the most difficult Italian red grape to grow in California, and this shows the struggle, with its super-lean body, abundant chalky tannin and linear fruit focus; all that also makes it quintessential nebbiolo. $45
2010 Imagery Winery Lagrein, Paso Robles: A most happy surprise, a true slap-on-the-back red and, just like its great Italian forbear, all ebullient dark red fruit, delicate tannin and chin-dripping juicy finish; terrific and filled with promise for both you as taster and the grape in its new home. $45
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.