Article By: Donald Breed
Greg Graziano, who makes wine in the Redwood Valley, one of the state's most northern appellations, is doing something about that imbalance. He has both the name and the grapes.
Greg is the proprietor and winemaker of a 2O,OOO-case winery called Graziano Family of Wines, which produces four different labels, two of them devoted to Italian varietals. Some of them are sold in Massachusetts.
What differentiates Graziano from other "Cal-Ital" vintners is that he doesn't just use familiar varieties like Barbera and Sangiovese, but more obscure grapes like Tocai, Arneis, Dolcetto, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo, and Negroamaro.
"I'm a normal guy in a rich man's business," Graziano says, "and if I'm going to make it, I have to be the leader. I can't just make Chardonnay and Cabernet. Everyone is doing that like a bunch of sheep. I happen to think there are many wines of greater quality and interest than those varieties.
"I can make great Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Pinot Grigio. I can make a better Pinot Grigio than Livio or Marco Felugga, a better Tocai than (Silvio) Jermann. My wines are a bargain compared with those."
The Graziano family has been in the California wine business since the early 2Oth Century, when Greg's grandfather, Vincenzo, came to America and eventually to Mendocino County. Greg's father, Joseph, continued the family's vineyard operation. Greg, who is 51, began working in the family's vineyards in Redwood Valley in the 197Os. He studied viticulture and enology at UC-Davis and was a cellar rat at Cresta Blanc Winery, of which his family owned part.
In 1976, he was founding partner and winemaker for Milano Winery in Hopland, which is still operating but under different owners. Graziano sold his share in Milano to his partner's family in 1982.
In 1986, he became winemaker for La Crema Winery in Sonoma, where his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir got critical acclaim but could not keep the winery from bankruptcy. Greg says the owner tried to "grow the brand too quickly".
It was in 1988, that Greg and his wife Trudi started their own winery, but that was not his only gig. He was winemaker for nearby Hidden Cellars and, in 199O, as consulting winemaker for the Codera Wine Group helped reestablish the famous Martin Ray Winery. In 1994, he left Hidden Cellars but continued consulting and making his own wines which initially were two labels: Saint Gregory, for Burgundian-styled wines, notably Pinot Noir; and Monte Volpe for Italian varietals from central and southern Italy.
Monte Volpe means Fox Mountain in Italian, and there hangs a tale. The label is named for Fox Hill Vineyard in the Ukiah Valley, run by Lowell and Barbara Stone. Their surname may end in a vowel, but it doesn't sound Italian, and it isn't. However, Barbara's grandfather was Italian, and he had brought Nebbiolo vines back from the Piedmont years ago. Her family had been growing grapes since 1918, and in 195O bought 5O acres, which became the Fox Hill Vineyard.
Lowell's family was not into viticulture, but even as a boy he was fascinated by it. He and Barbara met at Humboldt State College/University, and in 196O, after college and the Army, he went to work for her parents. In the early '8Os, Lowell bought a 1OO acre parcel from his neighbor and planted Chardonnay. But he'd traveled in Italy and was fascinated with Italian grapes and how well the wines went with food.
In the mid-'8Os, Greg Graziano was driving down Eastside Road and spotted grapes growing near the road. Having been in Italy himself, he recognized them as Nebbiolo. He drove in and introduced himself to Lowell, whose property had an empty buildingthat became the first Graziano winery. They also discovered they both had an interest in Italian grapes.
"The time was right to redirect the vineyard on a new course, and Italian varietals were something I always wanted to do," Lowell later recalled. "Now, several years later, I feel both Greg and I have proved that we can successfully grow and make superior wine from these grapes in Mendocino County. It was certainly a road less traveled, but both of us feel it is making a difference."
While it's the multiple Italian varietals that make Graziano Family of Wines unusual, they constitute only about one-third of the output. In fact, it was with Burgundian-styled wines, under the Saint Gregory label, that the winery started out.
It happens to be how this writer first became acquainted with the Graziano. I bought a bottle of Saint Gregory Mendocino Pinot Noir at a store in Gloucester last June and opened it soon after. I was impressed with the excellent varietal character and good balance - all in a bottle priced in the mid-teens.
So when, in early July, I found myself in California's Redwood Valley on another mission and discovered I was just a block from the Graziano office, so I stopped in. It was there I learned about the Italian varietals.
Subsequently, I acquired a bottle of Greg's Pinot Noir at another level: Saint Gregory Pinot Noir, 2OO2, Reserve, Romani Vineyard, Anderson Valley. It had a lovely fragrance of fruit, and while oak aging undoubtedly added to the bouquet, it wasn't evident. There was a silky quality that I associate with fine Burgundy, but expensive Burgundy is, unfortunately, seldom this good.
Also in the Burgundian mode, Graziano makes Pinotage (the South African cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault), Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir Rose. Those I haven't tasted.
Another third of Graziano's business is Zinfandel, bottled under the Graziano label. Unlike the massive Zins from other regions that you might eat with a spoon, Greg's Zinfandel is lighter and very fragrant, as if the same winemaking skills used for the Pinot Noir were employed here. (When I drank it, I was reminded that the late Joseph Swan once told me that Pinot Noir and Zinfandel were much alike.)
Coro Mendocino is a very elegant (and elegantly packaged) wine that's over half Zinfandel, as well as nearly equal amounts of Petite Sirah, Dolcetto and Barbera. You might call it the California version of a Super Tuscan.
Graziano also makes a dynamite rose from Carignane, that grape that so many of us drank without knowing its name, because it was a key ingredient in jug wines. He also makes a Petite Sirah, which I haven't tried. Those two wines, together with the Burgundian varietals constitute another one-third of sales.
The wines under the Graziano label, notably Zinfandel, have the place they have in the winery because Greg took the opportunity to buy from growers who'd had contracts canceled in 2OO1 by Parducci and other larger wineries.
The wines now in the market are all from purchased grapes, but the Graziano family has 2O acres in the Potter Valley and five acres in Ukiah Valley. (Both those areas are in Mendocino County, and of the 25 acres, 2O are plantible.) That vineyard will be devoted to Italian varietals, including Sagrantino de Montefalco, the obscure but esteemed grape of central Italy.
Greg said all his white wines are barrel-fermented, but he uses little or no new oak. He uses slow-growing yeasts, and the aging process takes six to eight months. There's no malolactic fermentation (in the white wines), to keep acidity firm.
With his red wines, he is also sparing with woody flavors; he uses 2O to 3O percent new oak casks for his reds. For Pinot Noir, the cooperage is all French. With the other varietals, he uses French, American and Eastern European oak.
While Greg's Pinot Noir struck me as one that could be mistaken for Burgundy, I didn't find any of the Italian varietals similar to Italian wines. They were delicious, but clearly New World.
"We're not trying to make Italian wine," Greg said. "We want our wines to be the best we can make and to have their own character. They're California wines, so they're going to be fruitier, rounder and richer. A lot of Americans actually don't like Italian wines. They find them too earthy, too lean. Ours bring the good things about the varieties and about California weather."
There are two labels for the Italian varietals.
Monte Volpe is for varieties from Friuli and Central and Southern Italy. These include Tocai, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Pinot Bianco.
Enotria (which is Greek for "land of wine") features grapes from the Piedmont: Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Arneis, and Moscato. (There's a little Cortese but not enough to bottle as a varietal.)
Asked why a 2O,OOO-case winery needs two Italian labels, Graziano replied: "The wines of Piemonte deserve their own label because of their quality and diversity and because throughout my life I intend to produce many more different Italian varieties. So I need separate vehicles to market them.
"Also I have two lovely daughters who may not wish to be in business together, so each can have an Italianate label of her own." (Can you say Mondavi, or Sebastiani?)
Graziano said sales of his Zinfandel and other traditional varietals are doing fine. Pinot Noir, he said, was boosted by the film Sideways, but "it was more of a problem" than an asset because other vintners "are stealing my grapes" - not meaning that they're carting them away in the dead of night but rather bidding up prices with growers he's relied upon.
What's not doing as well are the Italian varietals, where he produced more than he's been able to sell. "We make more than some producers in Italy make," he remarked.
Because he had inventories to work off, he didn't buy grapes from Lowell Stone after the 2OO2 vintage. Stone, meanwhile, found other buyers.
Greg said the Monte Volpe name continues. "I fully intend to buy in the next vintage," he said. "He's leaving the door open to me." He added: "Those grapes wouldn't be there, except for me. I basically told him what to plant, helped him get stock."
In any case, Greg said he is definitely isn't giving up on Italian grapes, and indeed plans to make more kinds. There are five other growers in the area now planting Italian varietals, most of them in the early '9Os, after Stone had planted his.
"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "It was 1988 when I got him to plant vineyards. It's taken me that long do what we've done. A lot of people gave up. Robert Mondavi gave up."
Greg had just been to Japan, and has hopes for interesting the Japanese, traditionally red wine drinkers, in Italian-style whites. Making wine, in a sense, is the easy part. Now he has to sell it. "I'm going to be doing that the rest of my life," he said, "beating the pavement, meeting restaurateurs."
It's his niche, and he's staying there. "I'm Italian, and if you're going to do it, you can't put a label on it and call it Smith."