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.
The remainder of the blend, depending on how the other percentages shake out, can be made up of barbera, negrara trentina, rossignola and/or sangiovese. Then if there's still room, 5 percent may be comprised of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, teroldego and a few others nearly non-existent in the New World.
"The varietals need each other to make it work," Ramaci explained. "The wine has the richness and the structure of a zinfandel in a lot of ways, but when you take all these varieties it actually reminds me more of a nebbiolo because the fruit can be on the pale pink side. The flavor and color component comes in when you dry the grapes."
Working with UC Davis, Ramaci about five years ago began planting corvina Veronese, rondinella, molinara and the other varieties he needed in a trio of Sonoma County vineyards.
Launching his brand, Mora Estate Wines, in 2009, he currently gets the majority of the grapes for his amarone-style wine, called Valpo, from a hush-hush spot in Alexander Valley, drying the grapes for 90 days from the atrium at his home in Penngrove.
"The Romans would harvest their fruit then dry everything because they didn't have tanks like we have now," he noted. "When they needed wine they would rehydrate the grapes and make the wines."
Ramaci picks at 22 brix to retain the grapes' high natural acidity, picks all the types of grapes together and co-ferments them together.
"It's a full-bodied wine that has a lot of structure and a lot of complexity. It's layered," he said. "After you open it up an hour or two, it starts to reveal itself like a genie in a bottle. When they're 20 or 30 years old, they start drinking like a Burgundy."
The Mora Estate 2009 Valpo, along with Ramaci's barbera and barbera rosato, can be found at the Healdsburg Wine Shop or through netnewsdesk.com/PerLeStelleFabiano.
High-tech marketer and wine blogger William Allen had been happily making Rhone-inspired wines in his garage for years before he stumbled upon his "epiphany" wine and decided to commercially release the style of wine he'd been espousing for a long time.
That this meant making a bright, refreshing citrus and apple-nuanced grenache blanc — his epiphany — just added to the challenge.
"I jumped on grenache blanc because one, you can't find it in France by itself at all," he said, "and because it's a wonderful varietal that, made right, can showcase a lot of wonderful things. I'm not trying to make consumer grade wines. I'm trying to make stuff that's interesting."
First he had to find it. Having only been introduced to California about 10 years ago, thanks to the pioneering Paso Robles-based producer Tablas Creek, even today there's a scant 266 acres planted to grenache blanc in the entire state, according to the 2011 U.S.D.A. Grape Acreage Report. Compare that with the almost 93,000 acres planted to chardonnay.
So in 2010 he set about finding some grapes and got turned on to the Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, thanks to his winemaking mentor (and fellow Rhone aficionado) Randall Grahm.
Saralee Kunde of Saralee's Vineyard in the Russian River Valley has recently budded over some of her vines to grenache blanc as well, which Allen will source both for his stand-alone grenache blanc and his Pastoral Blanc, a blend of several Rhone whites.
"It's a variety that needs a little bit of work to bring out its nuances," Allen said. "If you just slam it into stainless and throw it into a bottle in January you get this high-acid, bright, sterile wine. We have enough of that in the world."
Instead Allen, who tries to pick the grapes at about 23 brix, believes in native-yeast fermentation and individual barrel fermentation, letting the wine sit in neutral oak for about eight months before bottling.
"I think white wine needs a lot less stainless and a lot more neutral barrel," he added. "The minerality really comes out over time and it helps flesh out the texture. People don't (always) like white wine and it's generally texture-based in my experience. I wanted people to get over the three varieties they drink all the time. Now I have a chance."
Allen's Two Shepherds 2011 Grenache Blanc, his second vintage and a steal at $24, is available at the Girl and The Fig in Sonoma or via twoshepherdswine.com.
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at email@example.com.