The Italy connection

Italians in California, and the wine they brought

Phil LaRocca pours his LaRocca Vineyards zinfandel rose.

Phil LaRocca pours his LaRocca Vineyards zinfandel rose.

PHOTO courtesy of larocca vineyards

When Phil LaRocca was 12 years old and entering the Saints Peter and Paul Salesian Catholic school in San Francisco, he and his classmates received notices of rules and expectations for all enrolling students. Among them was a stodgy line requiring that no student drink any alcohol before the age of 21. But the notice made an exception, allowing any students of Italian descent to drink as much wine as they pleased.

“I remember my dad reading that and saying, ‘Well, yeah, of course my son will be drinking wine,’” said LaRocca, owner and winemaker at LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch. “‘We’re Italian.’”

Italians have been consuming fermented grape juice since the Roman era and were among the first immigrants to bring advanced winemaking culture to America. Philip Mazzei, a wine merchant born in Florence, sailed to colonial America in the 1770s and is today widely credited as having introduced European grapevines to the United States. A recently released wine, Philip, from the Marchesi Mazzei winery in Tuscany, honors Mazzei’s role in American wine culture.

Meanwhile, vines and wine arrived on the West Coast, before California was a state, with Spanish priests of the coastal missions. It was Italians, though, who drove the widespread planting of grapes throughout California, beginning about a decade before the Gold Rush.

Today, names like Sebastiani, Delicato, Rossi, Gallo, Mondavi, Trione, Barra, Foppiano, and Viansa speak to the Italian influence on California’s wine culture.

In Mendocino’s Russian River Valley, John Parducci played a major role, beginning in the 1960s, in helping boost the quality and reputation of the region’s, and of California’s, wines. Parducci was the first winemaker to begin labeling wines by grape variety, and he became known for excellence in cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and petite sirah.

It was Parducci who purchased LaRocca’s very first load of estate-grown grapes in 1984.

“I had heard stories about winemakers tasting the fruit and rejecting it, and I was terrified he wouldn’t buy mine,” LaRocca recalled. “I had two little kids, and every penny to my name was in that bin of fruit in the back of my truck.”

But Parducci, who knew a good grape when he tasted one, bought that vintage and many more to come, and LaRocca would become one of his regular suppliers of cabernet sauvignon grapes.

Most Italian winemakers in California, in fact, do not use Italian grape varieties. Rather, they mostly use the mainstream contributions from France, like cab, pinot noir, merlot and chardonnay.

But winemaker Berton Bertagna, of Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards in Chico, has chosen to honor his family’s roots by focusing almost entirely on three of Italy’s most important grapes—sangiovese, barbera, and pinot grigio.

“The whole reason we started making wine is our Italian ancestry,” said Bertagna, whose great-grandfather moved from the northern region of Quartesana, Italy, to Butte County 95 years ago.

Bertagna believes that Italian varieties may be too light and subdued for the American palate, which has come to favor heavier wines like cab, merlot and oaked chardonnay.

Even within Italy, winemakers have shown a fondness for French grapes. The prominent Frescobaldi family introduced the first merlot vines to the Tuscan region of Montalcino in the 1990s, and today their Luce della Vite estate showcases wines made with both sangiovese and merlot grapes in a very untraditional blend, and the aforementioned Philip wine is a Tuscan rendition of cabernet sauvignon. In fact, “super Tuscan” wines are now a recognized style made by locally unconventional techniques—usually with additions of Italian-grown Bordeaux grapes.

The LaRocca household drank four gallons of zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon each week in the 1960s, and these varieties would become two of LaRocca Vineyards’ flagships.

But Phil LaRocca has more recently placed emphasis on growing the grapes of his heritage, especially barbera and sangiovese. Bertagna is delving deeper into his roots, too, and is now growing experimental plots of dolcetto and montepulciano, both red-wine grapes.

“These grapes got forgotten in California because they don’t make such a big, loud statement as a cab,” Bertagna said. “They’re just easy-drinking table wines, and that’s why I like them.”