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Up on the ridgeline of Green Valley, not far from the town of Occidental, sits Ottimino, an 8-acre zinfandel vineyard named in honor of the Italian blacksmith who once lived there.

Brad Alper, the vineyard's owner, moved up to the area in 1987. A pilot for American Airlines and budding vintner, he and neighbor Ottimino became fast friends.

"He was an Italian guy who came over in 1913 via Ellis Island," Alper said. "His was the quintessential American story."

In the early days Ottimino's property was planted to apples mostly, with a few vines of zinfandel grapes.

"He would prune all the old-vine zin. He had made his own loppers, which I actually still have," Alper recalled. "He'd get up every day and for years and years up until he was 94, with his dog Jack who was 17, who'd limp behind. They'd prune every day until they were done."

Neighbor Al Bello, a former mechanic and good friend who is now 88, was inspired by what he saw and decided to put in some grapes himself.

"I didn't know anything about it. I just wanted to put something in the ground here and a friend in Healdsburg who had grown up in grapes knew some place with 100-year-old zinfandel," Bello said.

Bello spent several years trying to get the vines to grow, finally getting them to take in 1988. Head-trained and dry-farmed, from one single clone with no rootstock, the grapes in Bello's Rancho Bello vineyard now go entirely to Alper's Ottimino project, a perfect circle their mutual friend would have loved.

"He was thrilled I put the vines in contrary to local people's recommendations," Bello said. "They would have said not to plant because the ground's wet, but it's not that wet."

Ottimino's given name was Ottimo (meaning "eight" in Italian, as he was the eighth child in his family) Cristiani, but he went by the more Americanized name Barney because he resembled a popular cartoon character at the time named Barney Google. Alper ended up buying Ottimino's property in 1999, when at age 95 the elderly gent decided to move back to the town of his youth outside of Lucca, Italy.

"Sonoma County was generating a lot of interest in pinot noir," Alper said, "and there were a lot of people scouting for these ridge-top properties in the Russian River. So I figured if I didn't do something I was never going to get to."

Alper knew it would be a struggle to farm zinfandel but wanted to do it anyway. So in 2000, on Ottimino's former land, he put in 2,000 zinfandel vines with two clones, Bradford Mountain and Mendocino.

"At the time, everybody was planting pinot and there wasn't a lot of zinfandel," he explained. "But I knew it could be something special, I wanted to do zin from this area."

His partner in Ottimino is winemaker William Knuttel, the executive winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyard, who had worked at Chalk Hill Winery and Saintsbury before.

"Initially it was tough because people would say .<TH>.<TH>. &amp;&lsquo;zinfandel?!'<TH>" Alper added. "This is arguably some of the best ground around for pinot. We're going to try something different."

Alper wanted to honor Ottimino's legacy and he also had Bello to commiserate with about how hard their farming environment could be. Though they get slightly warmer weather and more sun at their 800-foot-elevation than the valley floor, they get twice as much rain. Alper and Bello spend a lot of time pulling leaves and managing canopies for light and to prevent rot.

"It's a struggle," he notes, "but when you get it right there's nothing that compares with it."

Zinfandel has long been one of America's favorite varieties, prized for its fruity berry flavors and spicy notes of pepper, Asian spices, licorice and vanilla. It is thought to pair particularly well with barbecue, making it the rare red wine to savor in summer.

Alper agrees that zinfandel is a very food-friendly wine, full of character, depth, spice and complexity.

"It can be made in a fine, claret-style or a more American, fruit-forward style. There are a lot of variations of zin," he said. "I like the boldness of a zin for a barbecue in the afternoon or in front of a fire on a winter's evening."

His Ottimino vineyard is the youngest of the many he sources grapes from, planted with budwood from some "well-known vineyards off of Lytton Springs" then grafted onto St. George rootstock, a rootstock known for its vigor. He knew he was going to dry-farm and he needed the vines to reach down deep into the moisture.

"It's almost like people. You've got a young vineyard and initially you've got a lot of exuberance and energy and there's not a whole lot of depth and character," he said. "But you can tell it's really going to be something. There's a lot of fruit, but it doesn't hit you all at once."

Rancho Bello, a more mature vineyard, has grapes that come out black when they're pressed, and it makes a gorgeous, brambly, licorice and baked-fruit-flavored zinfandel that's well-balanced, smooth and elegant with plenty of acidity.

Another Ottimino zin is from the Von Weidlich vineyard, where the vines date back to 1937, grafted from vines originally planted by the Morelli family in 1884 and situated about a half-mile from the Ottimino and Rancho Bello vineyards. Ottimino also makes a zin from Dry Creek Valley's Biglieri Vineyard, as well as Zinfinity, an unusual blend of zinfandel and pinot noir.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at