The Return of Cal-Ital
By the early 2000s, Cal-Ital was dead. It was almost impossible to sell California wine made from Italian cultivars. During the following decade consumer interest in the phenomenon remained minimal and few sommeliers would consider such wines. Recently, however, there has been a renaissance of the category. But the return of Cal-Ital hasn’t been easy. It’s proven a study in resilience. It’s also meant a shift in philosophy. While much of the original Cal-Ital movement arose from producers making wines such as Sangiovese as a side project to their more central Cabernet focus, today’s Cal-Ital has meant a more complete shift in thinking. In the last several years, a handful of newer Italian-focused California labels have been launched, bringing breadth to a conversation that for a decade was maintained by only two or three producers.
Digging out of the Cal-Ital problem
California’s wine industry was historically rooted in Italian immigrants bringing cuttings from their home country but after phylloxera and Prohibition, plantings shifted predominantly to French cultivars. Before 1980 varieties such as Sangiovese existed only in the historic Italian-Swiss Colony of the North Coast. Barbera had a presence throughout the state but did not enjoy the prestige of other Italian varieties. It was seen as an able blender rather than as a varietal wine in its own right.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, a rush of interest brought Sangiovese to Northern California, made most famously by producers such as Robert Pepi; Atlas Peak in Napa Valley, co-owned by Tuscan winemaker Piero Antinori; and Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma. By 1997, 2,500 acres (1,012 ha) of the grape were spread across the state but the variety was primarily being made by vintners treating it as a side project while they focused on French varieties. Quality suffered. The unique needs of Italian wines were inimical to the techniques familiar to most California producers of Bordeaux varieties. By the start of this century, the almost two decades given to North Coast Sangiovese seemed inadequate to stabilise quality and critics were severe. Although producers in Southern California, such as Santa Barbara County’s Palmina, were also making Italian-inspired wines, critics looked to North Coast examples and declared Cal-Ital an experiment that had failed. Led by negative reviews, consumer interest all but disappeared.
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1993 – I had a slew of Cal-Ital producers – Martin Brothers, Seghesio, anyone who made a Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, along with other grapes at the time. It was rough going, the wines were bright and cheery, but even Italian wines were lagging. It was hard to pinpoint a style – and there wasnt enough of a value to entice people to drink California Pinot Grigio over Italian.
It has all changed since then, but being a pioneer, back then, was painful.
Here’s a piece I wrote in 2009 on Italian varietals in California. Might be interesting as a point of comparison. I still really enjoy Uvaggio’s whites, and they’re pretty hard to beat for the price. Apologies for the link to a PDF, but the Gourmet website doesn’t seem to have the piece up.