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"CAL-ITAL” – What is the Hype?

Bonnie Kakos - CWAS In the 1980’s the term “Cal-Ital” was created to describe the growing trend of California vintners who planted Italian grapes. Beginning as early as the 1880s, these vintners brought their wine-making know-how and cuttings of trusted and loved grapevines such as Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, and Vermentino to the USA when they immigrated – some even filling up suitcases (and possibly other spots) with their beloved vines!


The New World wines are richer and more full-bodied while the Old-World Wines are more subtle and earthy; Although, they still share other fundamental characteristics, such as flavors. Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles are three of the best places to grow Italian Varieties. Back in the day (maybe the 1950s-70s) people didn’t really like the style of the “California Wine” which had started gaining popularity outside the US. The “Judgement of Paris” was a huge turning point for California made French varieties, but other Old-World wines were not highlighted as much. Especially Italian grapes such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, which seemed to thrive in slightly cooler climes back in Italy. American versions were often said to be clunky and overripe, lacking character and finesse. However, a recent spate of tastings has definitely changed people’s minds, proving site, microclimate, and deft handling of fruit make all the difference in the world. Robert Mondavi got into the act with his La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi offshoot, but perhaps the most dramatic moment was when the famous Italian producer, Piero Antinori, installed vast Sangiovese plantings on Atlas Peak (NE of Napa proper). Today, Pianetta Winery joins a handful of California vintners continue to explore the possibilities. Among reds, fewer than 150 acres of Nebbiolo—the great grape of Barolo—exist in California.


Its most successful expression is Clendenen Family Vineyards’ bottling from the Santa Maria Valley. Other varieties such as Sangiovese have about 1550 acres planted in California. In contrast, there are 94,800 acres planted of Cabernet Sauvignon and 92,000 acres of Chardonnay. The more Italian varietals that are being planted and experimented with, the more we are realizing that the original ’49-ers may have been right in the long run, as many of these varietals are in fact better suited to California’s climate. We will let you decide for yourself, but don’t count out these treasured gems of Italian descent! Most popular varietals in California, Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Primitivo