Bucking the trends
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.