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Making Italian Wine – In California!

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By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

Finding your way to Chicago Park in the Sierra Foothills of California will not be a walk in the park  – and it is unlikely you’ll have any real reason to go there. The only two things to see are a general store and a post office, hardly the fare of a California tourist. No tasting rooms, cheese shops, or olive oil stores around to sample local culinary delights. Not even a train to transport drunk imbibers from winery to winery.

Mark Henry

But you will find Mark Henry, toiling in vineyards where few others have dared to go — those who did are long gone. Henry is a determined farmer whose background in importing beer gave him little foundation for growing grapes, not to mention making wine. Why anyone who is Scottish-Irish would wake up one day and declare an allegiance to Italian grapes planted in a forsaken region is beyond the reach of sanity. But Henry is very sane – and incredibly stubborn.

His search for vineyards is hardly rooted in sound research.  He rented a car and drove straight to the Sierra Foothills, ignoring more popular regions such as Napa Valley, Sonoma and Paso Robles.

Faith Based Events

“The only other place I had been in California was Disneyland,” he said.

The same unconventional thinking went into choosing grapes: forget chardonnay and zinfandel; how about some good old nero d’avola and falanghia? Everyone is dying for that, right? (Don’t worry, there is a happy ending here).

The first consultant Henry hired advised him not to grow any grapes at his chosen location, so like any stubborn farmer he went shopping for another consultant who would agree with him. The second consultant gave him the same advice as the first. So, he planted his vines, confident nonetheless, and launched Montoliva Vineyards & Winery.

Henry said he knew the climate was too cold for grapes, but that was around the year 2000 when there already was evidence of a warming trend. He knew his first crop in about four years had a better chance of survival. And, he was right.

But he knew nothing about growing southern Italian grapes and neither did anyone else he asked. Henry was on his own. He threw out the first three vintages of his falanghia wine before he got it right.

Remember the Cal-Ital craze that swept the country in the 1980s? Consumers were hot for anything Italian — adventurous California winemakers were eager to help with buckets of sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo grown in all the wrong areas: Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino. That fad ultimately fizzed because those wines never reached the quality of Italian wines.

Henry understood why these faddish wines fizzled out like hula-hoops and he was not about to go down that road.

“Most were made in a New World style,” he said. “Fruit forward, de-accentuated tannins and acidity, soft and fruity. It was the complete anthesis to, say, sangiovese and aglianico. They want to be acidic and dry.”

He said he also liked the earthiness of southern Italian wines.

While California winemakers were giving the same treatment to Italian grape varieties as they did to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, Henry blazed a new trail that mimicked the old-world style as much as possible and learned by trial and error.  He chose this spot in Sierra Foothills – named for Italian-Americans who moved here from Chicago – because he liked the volcanic soil and he wanted elevation for his vineyards to give him the quality of grapes like those grown in Italy.  His vineyards are planted more than 2,000 feet high.

“I really had an infinity for the dry wines of southern Italy and I could be laser-focused on these varietals. I can be somewhat OCD,” he said. “But this was the fifth – and last – business I started and I knew I needed to find a niche.”

He also admitted vineyard property was a whole lot cheaper in the Sierra Foothills.

His most important lesson learned was row orientation.  Grapes ripen differently depending on the exposure to the sun. Henry said he was doing a lot of replanting in the early years to find the most suitable exposure for each variety. He learned that the red grape aglianico is susceptible to mildew with “just a whisper of humidity” and that negroamaro needs special handling.

“I’m on my third retro-fitting of trellis,” Henry said of his negroamaro.

Grapes here are still subject to frost, but Henry said the last time frost ruined a crop was in 201 when he got only 30 percent of a normal yield.

He makes only 1,800 cases of wine a year, most of which is sold through Montoliva’s website.

He loves the wine from Brunello di Montalcinos but has given in to the challenges of making a wine of equal quality.

“Brunello was a goal, but you just can’t do in California,” he said. “If anyone was going to succeed, it was going to be me. I can get that earthiness, dry finish and fruit forwardness, but I can’t get that depth in mid-palate as you get from Brunello.”

Maybe he’s not always stubborn.

With the mistakes in the past, now is a good time to discover these unique wines.

Montoliva Nero d’Avola Chicago Park 2019 ($35). Popular in Sicily, nero d’Avola hits the earthy notes Henry wants in his old-world-style wines. Dark in color, rich, and packed with ripe blueberry and blackberry flavors.

Montoliva Chicago Park Teroldego 2018 ($35).  A relatively obscure grape in Italy and rare grape in California, this wine has a unique and very rustic style with jammy cherry and strawberry notes and a good dose of licorice. Forward in style and light on tannins, it is bested suited to pastas and burgers.

Montoliva Chicago Park Falanghia 2022 ($28). The falanghia we loved from Italy is acidic and lighter in palate weight than this version.  But we like its abundant fruit, fresh acidity, apple and citrus aromas and round, thirst-quenching finish.

Wine picks

Radio Boka Castilla Tempranillo 2021 (Vivino)

Radio Boka Castilla Tempranillo 2021 ($12). This producer of inexpensive wines from Spain offers a simple but delicious quaffer with red fruit notes and a hint of cinnamon. Dry and balanced, it’s a good companion to appetizers, pasta and burgers.

Chateau Dru Beaucaillou Madame de Beaucaillou 2019 ($25). The grapes for this great value come from this outstanding producer’s new property in the Haut-Medoc. It is a blend of 68 percent merlot, 17 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent petit verdot and 2 percent cabernet franc.  Aged in oak for 12 months, it has good concentration for the price with ripe plum and blueberry notes and a dash of clove and pepper.  This is an outstanding value for those who want to buy Bordeaux but can’t afford the high prices of first-growths.  We stocked up.

[vc_message message_box_color=”blue”]Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr, MoreAboutWine, posted on SouthFloridaReporter.com

Republished with permission

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have been writing a weekly wine column for more than 30 years. Additional Wine reviews on MoreAboutWine

All photos are randomly selected and do not indicate any preferred wine. Listed prices are subject to change and do not include tax or shipping.

You can send questions to Tom Marquardt marq1948@gmail.com

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Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They have traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the United States. Tom currently resides in Naples with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. His web site is MoreAboutWine.com. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, MD.