Bucking the trends

  • Chef and winemaker Fabiano Ramaci makes amarone, a red wine native to the Verona region of Italy that is a blend of several traditional grapes. Ramaci leases a block of land in the Alexander Valley where he has been growing the necessary grape varieties.

It wasn't that long ago that wine-drinking in America came down to two options, red or white. Not anymore. As harvest gets under way in Sonoma County, there are many pioneering winemakers working to expand the choices even more. Here are glimpses of two of them.

Fabiano Ramaci was born in Sicily, raised in his father's Italian restaurant, La Traviata, in San Francisco and grew up to become a respected chef and maitre d' himself, most recently working the front of the house at the once-revered Odyssey Restaurant in Windsor.

But around 2009 he decided to follow his dreams and make wine.

Of course there's a long legacy of Californians of Italian heritage dedicating themselves to making wines of the old country. He may be the only one, however, devoting himself almost entirely to making amarone, the lofty red wine of Verona.

"Amarone is a wine that overflows with aromas and taste sensations," writes Patricia Guy in "Amarone," an English-language book devoted to the subject that Ramaci happened upon while in Italy a few years ago, a benevolent omen in his quest to make the wine here in Sonoma County.

Ramaci was there to learn from his mentor, Guiseppe Quintarelli, the famed producer of Valpolicellas and amarones, who died earlier this year at the age of 84. His amarones were known to be concentrated and powerful, yet fresh and elegant, made in a traditionalist style, not over-extracted nor high in alcohol, exactly what Ramaci seeks to make.

This is not to say it's been easy.

Ramaci not only picked a wine that requires a different process than most to be made — the grapes spend 60 to 100 days drying in wooden or plastic stackable crates in single layers to further concentrate their sugar content before fermentation — he also picked a wine that requires a blending of varieties almost unheard of in California.

"It's all destiny," he said. "You'd think somebody would have pioneered this whole thing, but it was an open door for me and I'm grateful. This is exactly what I want to be doing."

Following the recipe relied upon in Verona to make an amarone, the winemaker must include 40 to 70 percent corvina Veronese, 20 to 40 percent rondinella and 5 to 25 percent molinara — varieties that are not exactly ubiquitous in these parts.

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