Sonoma County winemakers take a chance on uncommon varietals
When a ton of aglianico grapes became unexpectedly available in 2007, winemakers Megan and Ryan Glaab jumped at the chance to work with the uncommon Italian variety.
“We had no idea what we were doing at the time,” said Megan Glaab, who runs Ryme Cellars in Healdsburg with Ryan, her husband. “But we’ve always been drawn to southern Italian varieties like aglianico. It has such a compelling structure, with spice, dark fruit and acid that holds its integrity in the heat. It’s what we like to drink.”
That aglianico would become the catalyst for the launch of Ryme Cellars, which focuses on Italian varieties uncommon in California, like vermentino, fiano and ribolla gialla.
“There are at least 600 Italian grape varieties, and I find it very exciting to learn and explore a new flavor profile,” Megan said. “In the tasting room, we commonly host guests who want to try something new. I think people get sick of tasting the same wines all the time.”
Megan said she’s witnessed a big push among winemakers who want to work with less-common wine grapes. She hopes to see plantings continue to diversify.
And developing further diversification in grape varieties could be a useful response to climate change, many growers believe.
“The variety of grapes makes Sonoma County even more interesting,” Megan said. “As the planet warms up, it would be really nice to have new grapes to explore.”
A crowded shelf
In Sonoma County, where chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon amount to three-quarters of the wine produced each year, a growing number of winemakers are looking to uncommon varietals to catch the consumer’s eye on the crowded shelf.
For winemakers like Scott Schultz of Jolie-Laide Wines in Healdsburg, the drive to diversify is strong.
Originally from Chicago, where he worked at high-end restaurants with diverse wine lists, Schultz said he was blown away when he discovered most wine drinkers limit themselves to just a handful of varietals.
“You wouldn’t listen to the exact same music every single day or eat the same food or drink the same drink,” he said. “Why limit yourself to just a few grapes? It’s a big wine world out there.”
At Jolie-Laide, Schultz and his wife and business partner, Jenny Schultz, focus on what they like to drink: fresh, minimally manipulated wines with grapes uncommon in the New World, like trousseau gris, bianchetta trevigiana, cabernet pfeffer and melon de Bourgogne.
Sourcing uncommon varieties can be like a game of hide-and-seek, and the Schultzes often travel to small, faraway vineyards to get fruit.
“When we first started making these wines, many people looked at us sideways,” Scott said. “But we work hard to keep our wines tasting fresh and clean, so that often appeals to people. For those who keep an open mind, they’re often pleasantly surprised.”
Keeping up with climate change
For winemaker Sam Bilbro, producing rare varietal wines isn’t just about satisfying his passion for Piedmontese grape varieties. It’s also about responding to climate change.
At Idlewild Wines in Healdsburg, Bilbro specializes in wines inspired by Italy’s Piedmont region and was happy to discover many of the varieties grow exceptionally well in Northern California. Grapes like aglianico and sagrantino can withstand drought pressures, while other grapes such as barbera, arneis and fiano can maintain acid during a hot growing season.
“Fiano can hold acid better than any chardonnay can,” Bilbro said. “If it comes in with acidity, you don’t have to manipulate it as much in the cellar.”
He also finds some Italian varieties have a lower risk of disease, pests and mildew versus other varieties, which means there is less need for spraying in the vineyard.
Given that most wine sales are driven by consumer demand, Bilbro believes many winemakers are simply unwilling to take a chance on uncommon varietals. That needs to change, he said.
“The weather isn’t just getting warmer — there is more variability,” Bilbro said. “Someday, we might get more rain in the summer or colder winters. Planting more diverse vineyards will allow us to work with nature rather than against it.”
Finding answers through our grape ancestors
At North American Press in Dry Creek Valley, winemaker Matthew Niess’ journey into rare varietals was sparked when he stumbled on an abandoned acre of baco noir grapes on the Sonoma Coast.
While all major European grape varieties — from albariño to zinfandel — are Vitis vinifera, the most commonly cultivated grape species in the world, baco noir is a hybrid of Vitis vinifera and Vitis riparia, an indigenous North American species.
The property’s owner let Niess manage the vineyard. Today Niess uses the fruit to produce a single-varietal bottling called The Rebel.
“When people talk about disease-resistant fruit, this is what they’re talking about,” Niess said. “These vines evolved to grow well here, so they’re naturally disease-resistant. I don’t have to spray them at all. Ever.”
Not only that, Niess discovered the naturally high acid content of baco noir meant he didn’t have to worry as much about balancing the high sugar levels that can come in a hot growing season.
“There is so much diversity on the grape spectrum to play with,” Niess said. “We have at least 20 to 30 native species in the United States alone. Why aren’t we making wine with these?”
Today, Niess owns an experimental vineyard in Dry Creek Valley planted to 40 grape varieties — all hybrids of traditional European Vitis vinifera and native North American species.
“I think grape breeding is going to become much more important moving forward,” Niess said. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, these hybrids are more robust and many are drought-tolerant. Overall, they’re going to be a more sustainable option.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wine & Lifestyle Reporter
Wine is the indelible heartbeat of Sonoma County. As the wine industry continues to evolve, my job is to share the triumphs, challenges and trends that affect our local wine region, while highlighting the people — past and present — who have contributed to its success. In addition, I cover spirits, beer and on occasion, other lifestyle topics.
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