Rusty Folena is big on spice racks, the encyclopedic version, everything from A to Z. More is more, and Folena would kick the pantry open to purloin more … if he were a chef.

But this winemaker’s spice rack isn’t filled with cracked black pepper, anise and sage; his bottled spice is exotic wine.

Folena, 52, is behind the feisty, six-varietal blend that edged out the other contenders in our Press Democrat tasting. His non-vintage Noceto Rosso from Amador County is $19 and it’s weighted to sangiovese, showcasing its tangy cherry fruit. Zesty and layered, with an undercurrent of spice, this disruptor red works. It’s a full-bodied blend that has generous fruit –– red and black –– with a lingering note of blackberry in the finish. The other varietals in the mix are barbera, petite sirah, syrah, aglianico and alicante bouschet.

“We tried 20 different blends before we came up with this one,” Folena said. “Tastings can last a week or two to find the right blend. Then we let it sit for a few days and taste it again because our palates might get blinded. We step away for a few days and hit it with a fresh palate.”

The winemaker said what the uninitiated don’t know about Tuscan reds is that many are not made with Italian varietals but rather with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Naturally that’s not the case at Noceto because the winery specializes in Italian varietals with its staple sangiovese.

“The owners – Jim & Suzy Gullett. – thought if they planted zinfandel and barbera, it would just be another zinfandel vineyard,” Folena said. “They liked the idea of a food friendly wine like sangiovese.”

The winery produces 10,000 cases a year with the lion’s share – 7,000 cases – sangiovese.

The winemaker said he learned the craft hands on rather than with formal training at a university. But Folena said he has something invaluable, a mentor. Scott Harvey of Scott Harvey Wines was his first boss when he worked at Santino Wines in Amador County, and he continues to give him sound advice.

Folena was 16 when he made his foray into the world of wine.

“I discovered I liked what I was doing,” he said. “Somewhere along the line a job became a career. I like growing grapes. I like making wine, and I like it when people enjoy it at the end of the day.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or